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Balmer: Billy Graham And The Perils Of Politics

In 1981, a year after the Religious Right abandoned Jimmy Carter, a born-again evangelical Christian, for Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham remarked, “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” In the course Graham’s remarkable public career, which extended well over half a century, those may have been the most prescient words he ever uttered.

Graham, who died last week just short of his one hundredth birthday, often insisted that he eschewed politics in favor of preaching the gospel.

That was not entirely true. Yes, he preached the gospel, the evangelical understanding that a “decision for Christ” spelled the difference between heaven and hell, but he was also drawn to politicians – like a moth to a flame. Harry Truman didn’t much care for the flashy young evangelist but beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, Graham forged friendships with every president through Barack Obama.

Graham’s most notorious political entanglement was with Richard Nixon, whom he met in the Senate dining room shortly after Nixon’s election to the Senate in 1950. The two men played golf together that same afternoon.

Graham remained loyal to Nixon through Watergate and to the end of Nixon’s life. When I interviewed Graham for a PBS documentary in 1992, he insisted that Nixon was one of the “great men” he had known.

I think it’s possible simultaneously to admire Graham’s loyalty and to question his judgment.

Despite his protestations of political neutrality, Graham understood that a quick pat on the shoulder or an invitation to a religious rally carried enormous political weight with evangelical voters. But Graham remained skeptical that political measures could bring meaningful change. He often said that the only way to change society was to “change men’s hearts,” meaning that only the aggregate of individual regeneration could ensure true social amelioration.

Unlike other evangelicals who populate the Religious Right, Graham understood himself as a preacher first of all. And when he did stray into what might be construed as political endorsement (as he did more than once with Nixon), he repented and resumed his preaching.

The notion that evangelicalism had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party is something that Graham would have found abhorrent.

As he said in 1981, “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Randall Balmer is chair of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is "Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter."
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