A Political Pastor’s Penitence: Graham Wishes He Hadn’t Been So Close To Power After All

The mixing of church and state can cut both ways; sometimes religious leaders and the churches they lead are corrupted by political leaders.

There is a myth about the famous evangelist Billy Graham that goes like this: Graham was apolitical, a pastor to all presidents, Republican and Democratic. His main goal was to provide comfort by sharing faith. He was above politics.

The only problem with this is that it’s not true. Sure, Graham did pray with presidents from both parties. But he had a bad habit of interjecting himself into right-wing politics. He often took ultra-conservative stands and during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon became a type of informal White House advisor.

As Nixon prepared to face U.S. Sen. George McGovern in November of 1972, Graham fired off memos that sounded like something you’d get from a seasoned political operative.

“I would seriously question the wisdom of your becoming personally involved in the campaign before early September,” Graham wrote in one memo. “If the polls and the mood of the country continue as is you may be wise to do only a minimum of campaigning. I think Senator McGovern is perfectly capable of making further mistakes.”

Not long after that, McGovern’s running mate, Sargent Shriver, called Graham to request that he give a public invocation prior to Shriver’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention. Graham, in dismay, called the White House. A memo to Nixon reported that Graham wanted to appear bipartisan “at least until about October,” when he would “throw his support to the side of the President more effectively.” Graham, the memo went on to say, had vowed to “do nothing to hurt the President or to help McGovern.”

In 2002, some audio recordings of Nixon and Graham in the White House surfaced. The tapes were made in 1972 without Graham’s knowledge. He doesn’t come off looking too good in them.

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.” Later in the conversation, Graham spoke of knowing Jews working in the media and said they “swarm around me and are friendly to me.” He went on to say, “They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.”

How charming.

Forty years later, Graham seems to have finally realized that his political alliance with Nixon might have been a mistake. The aging evangelist was asked by Christianity Today if he had any regrets about his career. Graham said he wished he had spent more time with his family, then added, “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.”

Advising Nixon on how to get reelected and then joining the megalomaniac in an anti-Semitic rant? Yeah, that might have been crossing the line!

Since 1947, Americans United has steadfastly opposed efforts by religious groups to write their theology into law and force all of us to live under it. But the mixing of church and state can cut both ways. Sometimes religious leaders and the churches they lead are corrupted by political leaders.

Politicians have goals that often have little to do with advancing a spiritual kingdom. Usually, their eye is on the next election. If cozying up to a popular religious leader will help them with that, they’ll do it.

Unfortunately, as Billy Graham has learned, sometimes the religious leader becomes collateral damage.

One more thought on this: Graham’s son Franklin meddles in politics, seeks to get close to centers of power and has insulted other religions, including Islam and Hinduism. It’s a shame Franklin hasn’t learned from his father’s mistakes.

P.S. Americans United is moving, and "The Wall of Separation" blog will be on hiatus until Tuesday. Effective Monday, AU's new address is: 1301 K Street, N.W., Suite 850, East Tower, Washington, D.C. 20005. AU's phone number will remain the same -- (202) 466-3234.