Personal Reflections on the Passing of Billy Graham

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Billy Graham. It’s not simply that my family and church had the same commitment to evangelism. My grandfather played a major role in helping launch Graham’s career. When he died in 1969, the entire team took part in my grandfather’s funeral (Graham himself would have preached, but he was overseas at the time). Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, attended the university my grandparents founded—until he got kicked out for sowing his wild oats. One of my fondest childhood memories was listening to Ethel Waters sing “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” at Graham rallies.

Compared to several other nationally known evangelists, Billy Graham lived a life that was deserving of respect. Regardless of how you feel about his religious beliefs, he always demonstrated personal and financial integrity. But in 2011, during an interview with Christianity Today, the evangelist said that, in addition to wishing he’d spent more time with his family, he had one other regret.

I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes cros­sed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.

Personally, I’d love to hear more about that. It leaves me wondering exactly how Graham would define “crossing the line.”

Long before there was a Moral Majority or religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, Billy Graham became a trusted spiritual advisor to politicians. Most prominently, that included a close relationship with Richard Nixon. It was there, as Nixon made his appeal to the so-called “silent majority,” that the two men initiated an alliance between the Republican Party and white evangelicals.

In the circles I grew up in, Graham’s name was hallowed. That is why it is disturbing to read about the fact that he engaged in this kind of conversation with Nixon:

In 2002, some audio recordings of Nixon and Graham in the White House surfaced. The tapes were made in 1972 without Graham’s knowledge and re­veal him expressing anti-Semitic views.

Graham and Nixon were discus­sing the president’s reelection effort. When Graham mentioned he had a meeting coming up with the editors of Time, Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, who was also in the room, interjected, “You meet with all their editors, you better take your Jewish beanie.”

Graham, laughing, asked, “Is that right? I don’t know any of them now.”

Nixon then launched into an anti-Semitic tirade, saying, “Newsweek is totally, it’s all run by Jews and dominated by them in their editorial pages. The New York Times, The Washington Post, totally Jewish, too.”

To this Graham replied, “The stranglehold has got to be broken, or the country’s going to go down the drain.”

Nixon is heard asking, “You believe that?”

“Yes, sir,” Graham said, to which Nixon replied, “Oh boy, so do I. I can’t ever say that, but I believe it.”

Responded Graham, “No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something.”

That kind of blatant anti-semitism would not have been acceptable in my household. It is shocking to learn that it was embraced by Graham—who eventually apologized for those remarks in 2002. Perhaps that is one of the lines he talked about crossing.

Whatever those lines were, Billy Graham certainly didn’t convince his son Franklin to hold back on involvement in politics. Because he runs the non-profit Samaritan’s Purse, Franklin cannot publicly endorse a political candidate during an election. But that didn’t stop him from spreading vicious lies about Barack Obama and he hasn’t held back in promoting and defending the presidency of Donald Trump. He has even gone so far as to say this:

Evangelist Franklin Graham told thousands in attendance at Donald Trump’s final “thank you” rally on Saturday that he believed president-elect won the election last month as a result of Christians’ prayers for America.

“I don’t have any scientific information. I don’t have a stack of emails to read to you. But I have an opinion: I believe it was God. God showed up. He answered the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people across this land who had been praying for this country,” Graham told the crowd in Mobile, Ala.

It is clear that Franklin didn’t learn anything from his father’s errors. I find these views as abhorrent as Billy’s anti-semitism.

Because of my family’s involvement in all of this, I have a hard time not taking all of this personally. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. So if/when I zero in on my anger at the latest outrage from Franklin Graham, perhaps you’ll understand.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.