Crossposted at The Crusty Polemicist
Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, by Cecil Bothwell, Asheville: Brave Ulysses Books, 2007, 213 pp. softcover
“Billy Graham represents a basic kind of patriotism in this country – an unquestioning, obeying patriotism, a loyalty to the authority of the President. Billy was always uncritical, unchallenging, unquestioning.” — Bill Moyers
“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B and C. Just who do they think they are? — Barry Goldwater
A power-hungry moral coward. A vicious racist and Jew-baiter. A man with an almost uncanny ability to always be on the wrong side of history. A craven climber and groveller at the feet of power. An “unabashed nationalist and advocate for American empire.” If Cecil Bothwell is right – and he marshals a lot of evidence in support of his thesis – then “America’s most beloved pastor” is all these things, and more. Bothwell gives us the opportunity to see the other side of Billy Graham, the man who was seventh on a recent Gallup poll’s list of the most admired people of the 20th century. Graham is a man with a history, a man who must be called to account. Bothwell lays out his bill of particulars with subtlety and skill.
The first leitmotif in Graham’s life story is his obsessive scrounging after power. From the very beginning, he has sought access to the corridors of power with an almost touching desperation. Graham was the first evangelist to conduct a religious service on the steps of the Capitol building, and the first to conduct a full-blown crusade inside the walls of the Pentagon. But Graham has always known that the real center of power in America was the White House, and has proven to be a “constant suppliant seeking presidential attention.” The more intelligent and responsible presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Carter) kept Graham at arm’s length, while other, lesser men utilized Graham for whatever they could gain from the association.
Truman apparently despised Graham from the get-go, describing him to a close friend as “one of those counterfeits I was telling you about,” the sort of man who is only interested in “getting his name in the paper.” But in a bit of pure luck, Graham suddenly found himself being groomed as the darling of the Hearst media empire, which built up the persona of the “simple preacher” and turned him loose to rage against godless Communism to crowds of up to 350,000 rapt believers. Graham was becoming an influential player in the toxic politics of 1950s America – and he was learning to love it.
Graham’s increasingly high profile brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, eventually “becoming one of his most loyal and enduring allies.” Documents reveal that Graham was eager to out-do McCarthy in his rabid commitment to exposing “the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge between the wings of the American eagle.” As McCarthy ratcheted up the rhetoric with his demand that suspected Communists be stripped of their Fifth Amendment protections, Graham was right there with him, proclaiming, “Let’s do it!” Never one to hitch his wagon to a single star, Graham was simultaneously voicing his strident support for “the red-scare tactics of Senator Lyndon Johnson and a young congressman named Richard Milhouse Nixon.” Give the man credit: he had a knack for spotting talent early on and currying favor with the people who would run the country for the rest of the century, and beyond.
While Graham’s most infamous association was of course with Nixon, he nevertheless racked up a pretty good track record with subsequent tenants at the White House. It is a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s canny instincts that he wanted nothing to do with the man and kept him out of the White House during his term, but most of Carter’s successors warmly embraced Graham and his values. He wooed Reagan and George H.W. Bush with great success. He had somewhat less success with Bill Clinton, but he was there to give solace to Hillary Clinton (whose religious associations in Washington were uniformly “conservative and fundamentalist”) during the Lewinsky scandal.
I was continually amazed at Graham’s ability to insinuate himself into the centers of power, given some of his more unsavory views. For if Bothwell is to be believed, Graham is a life-long racist and the worst sort of bigot. It is tempting to fall back on the old, old alibi and say that Graham was a “product of his environment.” As a very young many, Graham fell under the influence of “holy roller Mordecai Ham,” a man notorious as “one of his era’s most gaudy and livid anti-Semites,” a man who fulminated against “apostate Jewry and the wicked Jews who killed Jesus.” While it was not unusual for a youngster coming of age in the Jim Crow south to be bombarded with this sort of vicious rhetoric, it is notable that Graham never shook off these baleful influences. We would hear echoes of Mordecai Ham’s rants in Graham’s infamous “off the record” conversation in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon.
This conversation, which was captured on one of the legendary White House tapes, was not the momentary lapse or attempt to curry favor, as the Graham apologists attempted to claim. On the contrary, the conversation lasted an hour and a half, had rarely strayed from the denunciation of the Jews, and had sometimes been led by Graham. “The Bible says there are Satanic Jews, and that’s where our problem arises,” Graham pontificates at one point, to mumbled agreement by Nixon. Amazingly, twenty additional minutes of this conversation had been redacted before being released to the Watergate committee. What could possibly have been in those redacted twenty minutes that was worse than what wound up being released? Many years later, when the tape was released to public shock and dismay, Graham would do what he has always done when confronted with evidence of his own failings: he would claim that his clear, unambiguous words simply did not reflect his actual views. Inevitably, whenever Graham used this alibi, the big implication remained discreetly unspoken: Graham was either a liar or a moral coward.
Another aspect of Graham’s history is his unequivocal record of racism. Like many from the South (and not a few from the North), Graham inherited a significant bigotry against African-Americans. When a friend suggested to the young Graham that they stop off and get a haircut at a “colored barbershop” where a haircut could be gotten cheap, Graham declared, “Long as there’s a white barbershop in Charlotte, I’ll never have my hair cut at a nigger barbershop! Never!” Many people inherit this sort of vicious thinking, and many people eventually grow up to shed such primitive, mean-spirited attitudes. I kept looking for some point in Graham’s history where he had grown beyond this sort of thinking, but I kept coming up empty handed. The public record demonstrates that Graham was always on the wrong side on the racial issue. Always.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to portray Graham as being on the “progressive” side of the civil rights struggle that began in earnest in the 1950s. In fact, as Bothwell documents at length, this “progressive” history has been manufactured out of whole cloth. This is a man who, as late as the 1960s, was holding “separate but equal” crusades for black audiences. Graham would claim, “It wasn’t his decision but that of the organization.” And whenever segregationists would slam him for showing even an inkling of a progressive idea, he would immediately backpedal, claiming he was only there to preach the Bible, not to “enter into any local issues.” While the whole world was watching the battle for human rights in Selma, Graham was vacationing on the beach in Hawaii. Indeed, Graham was notable by his absence from every decisive moment in the civil rights struggle. When M.L. King was gunned down, Graham pointedly failed to attend the funeral, an event attended by over 200,000 people. On those rare occasions when Graham would even acknowledge that something called “the civil rights struggle” was taking place, he would limit his pronouncements to cautioning others to “put on the brakes a bit,” opining that “only when Christ comes again will all the little white children of Abraham walk hand in hand with little black children.” He seemed genuinely puzzled by the unwillingness of black Americans to wait for the Second Coming to claim their rights as human beings.
One might suggest, in Graham’s defense, “that was then, this is now.” Sadly, he does not appear to have grown over the years. As late as 1991, Graham was a member of the whites-only Biltmore Country Club. When called on this by local activists, Graham’s spokesman trotted out the old standby: Graham “didn’t have time to involve himself in local issues.” And in 1993, Graham publicly asked the rhetorical question, “Is AIDS a judgment of God?” His answer: “I could not say for sure, but I think so.” Needless to say, Graham’s remarks brought down a torrent of outrage, in the face of which Graham promptly did what he always did: “I remember saying it, and I immediately regretted it and almost went back and clarified the statement.” He “almost” went back and clarified the statement. Almost. Graham’s entire life, it would seem, is one long chain of moments of truth in which he “almost” did the right thing.
As an elder statesman whose mental and rhetorical powers are rapidly fading, Graham did not play his usual role as panderer to the powerful in the George W. Bush administration. While one should be grateful for this small mercy, Graham’s son Franklin delivered the inaugural sermon at Bush’s 2000 inauguration, and went on to become a close Bush confidant. And so the torch was passed, and so the disease was propagated. Billy Graham’s uniquely intolerant form of fundamentalist rhetoric, centered on the twin messages of fear and hate, continue to worm their way deep into the fabric of American discourse. It is to Bothwell’s enormous credit that he forces the reader to confront Billy Graham raw, unfiltered, as he really is. To the droves of Graham apologists and “clarifiers,” Bothwell offers a simple challenge: “Perhaps we should pay heed to what Graham has actually said.”