Has Billy Graham been a political presidential junkie?
Proclaiming Christ in the Oval Office to 11 presidents – from Harry Truman to George W. Bush – has proved one of Billy Graham’s major accomplishments. He likes to emphasize how God has called him for over a half century to bring Christ to the world through mass evangelism. Dabbling in politics strictly has been a sidelight for Graham, like the moon reflecting the sun’s rays. Time magazine, in its Aug. 20 cover story, “The Political Confessions of Billy Graham,” shows how he has made a more significant impact on the presidents he considers friends than he gives himself credit for. Lead writers Nancy Gibbs and her colleague Michael Duffy trace Graham’s hefty impact within political corridors of power in their book “The Preacher and the Presidents.”Because Graham has excellently strove to win the world to Christ, and politics play a crucial role in how our world operates, then his interaction with the past 11 presidents makes sense. If you feel called to evangelize the world, why not include the center of power in the world: the U.S. president?Early on, when Graham skyrocketed to prominence, his late wife, Ruth, warned him not to get entangled in presidential politics. She knew Graham had ambitions to act as more than a spiritual adviser to our nation’s commanders in chief. Graham got an inkling that his divine commander in chief desired him to run for the most powerful job in the world.During some tense days in 1952, Graham gave strong signals of making a bid for the Oval Office. Ruth smashed these dreams of grandeur, telephoning him with a threat indirectly couched. If he hit the campaign trail, she warned, he would be traveling as if he were single.”I don’t think the American people would vote for a divorced president,” Ruth said to Graham over the phone, “and if you leave ministry for politics, you will certainly have a divorce on your hands.”Graham’s constant attention to our presidents, though, shows how he believed Ruth set up false alternatives. It was not a clear choice for him to pursue ministry by getting out of politics. Graham always displayed a keen interest in our presidents. If he could lead a president who followed Christ to the White House, think of the millions who would follow a similar path to faith.Instead of running for the presidency in 1952, Graham handpicked a Presbyterian, like his wife Ruth, to enter the White House. He leaned on Dwight Eisenhower to leave a military post in Europe, reject bids from Democrats to be their candidate and run for president as a Republican. Graham didn’t try to conceal his enthusiasm for Eisenhower’s candidacy. Nobody scratched their heads, wondering who would get the evangelist’s vote. Upon election, Graham assisted Eisenhower’s inauguration planning team. He baptized the new president, a sign of friendship that stretched over the two terms Eisenhower served.Of course, history reveals the downside to this mutual camaraderie. Graham struck up a friendship with Vice President Richard Nixon during the Eisenhower years in office. Nixon genuinely admired Graham. He didn’t intentionally try to use Graham for political advantage. But “tricky Dick” concealed a dark side that Graham’s spiritual radar never pieced. After giving Nixon every chance to claim his innocence when Watergate broke, Graham later confessed that he was duped. He was horrified to hear on the Nixon tapes his friend’s talk laced with fierce profanity. Nixon coaxed Graham, revealed on a tape released in 2002, to exchange anti-Semitic remarks about how Jews allegedly wielded power over a corrupt media.Graham admitted his mistakes, promising he was done with partisan politics. He didn’t want his followers to believe God habitually votes a straight Republican ticket. Graham humbly admitted his sin. He corrected the onetime strategy “to identify the Gospel with any one political program or culture.”Graham sided with a fellow sinful Baptist, Bill Clinton. When he was 11, the president first heard the evangelist at a crusade in Arkansas. Two more times he attended crusades. Baptists like to be saved again and again. Confesses Clinton, “I am grateful for the way his ministry and friendship have touched my life and, even more, for the unparalleled impact his Christian witness has had throughout the world.”When a Clinton aide besmirched Graham while preparing for 1997 inaugural festivities, the president corrected him. On Inauguration Day, playing the part of chaplain that he has for so many chief executives, Graham gave the prayer.Rubbing shoulders with presidents makes some folks bask in their powerful connections. They fawn respect when really the aphrodisiac of self-glory sullies their sense of right and wrong. Not Billy.With the exception of a slip with Nixon, Graham has heeded the Psalmist’s warning, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put trust in princes,” Psalm 118:9. Though his reputation with presidents is not spotless, Graham isn’t tainted by self-seeking or personal scandal. He faithfully has done the work of his savior in a ministry worldwide enough to include presidential politics. The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Minitries, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.