Long time ago now, but I'm pretty sure it was the impressionist David Frye who introduced me to both the fact of the Reverend Billy Graham's existence and the irony of Graham's fame and success: Graham had made himself rich preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It was a joke about Graham's expensive suits that clued me in that Graham was at best a hypocrite. It was probably Frye's impression that damned him as a fraud and a conman in my eyes.
Frye prepared me to not be surprised when my first encounter with the real Billy Graham was as Richard Nixon's favorite preacher and spiritual advisor.
My reaction was, "Well, of course," and from there on I saw Graham only as one among the cast of clowns, knaves, dupes, crooks, sharpers, and greater and lesser villains who surrounded Nixon, a supporting player in the beginning-to-unfold drama of Watergate.
Life is more complicated than you think when you're twelve. Billy Graham was never the demagogue, racist, and hate-monger his son Franklin Graham is. He was hardly progressive in much of his thinking. He’ll have a lot to answer for when he finally gets to heaven, starting with his helping Nixon sell the expansion of the War in Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos. But he made clear his opposition to segregation and apartheid at crucial times. He was friends with Martin Luther King. Nixon wasn’t the only President who befriended him, sought his counsel and his at least tacit endorsement or, at any rate, negotiated to head off his public disapproval. That included John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and, eventually, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But Frye's devastating caricature defined him for me, and I never took him seriously as a man of the cloth, let alone the national religious leader he was. I didn't pay any attention to anything the news reported about his preaching and tuned it out when it happened that one of his Crusades was on the television at my grandparents' when we visited. This was Pop Mannion's parents, and I never figured that out, why they apparently liked Richard Nixon’s favorite preacher. They were both good New Deal Democrats and Catholics. My other grandparents, Mom Mannion’s parents, both Republicans, preferred Bishop Sheen. Grandpa and Grandma Mannion also liked Lawrence Welk even though Grandma Mannion listened to Top 40 rock and roll on her transistor radio and had an admitted crush on Tom Jones.
Hey, it's not unusual.
Anyway, back to Billy Graham.
Like I said, I pretty much ignored him, taking his fraudulence and his hucksterism for granted, and not really aware of exactly what he was preaching. I assumed it was some version of anodyne and easy Christianity that made the faithful of every faith feel good about not being among the real sinners and all they needed to do to get to heaven was show up in church once a week and look down their noses at anyone they could identify as not among the saved.
I took it as a given that, whatever passages he was quoting from the gospels, he wasn't emphasizing the ones about camels and needles eyes and not storing up treasures on earth and selling everything to follow him. I figured Graham wouldn't be brazen enough to call attention to the words of Jesus he was so clearly not living out in his own life.
This was actually something I was thinking about seriously in a different context. As a Catholic, I was wondering about what the bishops thought they were up to. Why did we have "Princes of the Church" living like princes?f
So either it escaped my attention or I just filed it with my other growing concerns about religion as practiced in the United States, but I can't remember knowing that Graham hadn't gotten rich preaching the words of Jesus Christ. He'd gotten rich preaching that it was ok to ignore the words of Christ.
Graham was one of the stars of Christian Libertarianism, a perversion of Christianity that turned it into a religion for the aggrieved rich. As Kevin Kruse lays out in One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Christian Libertarianism arose and walked in the 1940s and 1950s as a counter to Franklin Roosevelt's effective use of Scripture to justify the New Deal.
Contemporary Right Wingers, including just about every Republican running for President, blather about how we should govern ourselves according to biblical principles. Well, so did FDR, although he had in mind things the bible actually said about what we now call social justice, which naturally infuriated the people Roosevelt cheerfully condemned as the malefactors of great wealth. They resented the implications.
If Jesus was on the side of the New Dealers, whose side did that put them on?
Their reaction was to reinvent a Jesus who was on their side. Their Jesus' first commandment wasn't "Love one another" it was "Every man for himself." Christianity wasn't about the practice of charity and mercy. It was a program for getting rich. One of the earliest preachers of this gospel of how to pray and grow rich, James W. Fifeld, a Congregationalist minister to the wealthy in Los Angeles who had already figured out what Graham would quickly figure out---there was more money in ministering to the rich and powerful than to the poor and humble, but not if you told the vain and greedy suckers things like their having as much chance of getting into heaven as a camel did of squeezing through the eye of a needle---even preached that all those things Jesus supposedly said about camels and needles eyes, not storing up treasures on earth, casting bread upon the waters, and whatever you do for the least of his brothers and sisters were likely mistranslations and so could be ignored or at least treated as conveniently symbolic.
As Kruse told Terry Gross in an interview for NPR’s Fresh Air:
[Conservative business leaders enlisted ministers] to make the case that Christianity and capitalism were soul mates. This case had been made before, but in the context of the New Deal it takes on a sharp new political meaning. Essentially they argue that Christianity and capitalism are both systems in which individuals rise and fall according to their own merits. So in Christianity, if you're good you go to heaven, if you're bad you go to hell. In capitalism if you're good you make a profit and you succeed, if you're bad you fail.
The New Deal, they argue, violates this natural order. In fact, they argue that the New Deal and the regulatory state violate the Ten Commandments. It makes a false idol of the federal government and encourages Americans to worship it rather than the Almighty. It encourages Americans to covet what the wealthy have; it encourages them to steal from the wealthy in the forms of taxation; and, most importantly, it bears false witness against the wealthy by telling lies about them. So they argue that the New Deal is not a manifestation of God's will, but rather, a form of pagan stateism and is inherently sinful.
Graham signed onto the cause early and preached along the same lines. From One Nation Under God:
In 1954, Graham offered his thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and capitalism in Nation’s Business, the magazine of the US Chamber of Commerce. “We have the suggestion from Scripture itself that faith and business, properly blended, can be a happy, wholesome, and even profitable mixture,” he observed. “Wise men are finding out that the words of the Nazarene: ‘Seek ye first of the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you’ were more than the mere rantings of a popular mystic; they embodied a practical, workable philosophy which actually pays off in happiness and peace of mind…Thousands of businessmen have discovered the satisfaction of having God as a working partner.”
He wasn’t just piously pro-business. He was devoutly anti-union. By Graham's lights, it would seem, Jesus, the carpenter's son, who recruited fishermen as his first and favorite apostles, must have been at least as censorious of union workers as he was of the lawyers and Pharisees, we're just missing the relevant passages from the gospel accounts of the Sermon an the Mount.
Graham’s warm embrace of business contrasted sharply with the cold shoulder he gave organized labor. The Garden of Eden, he told a rally in 1952, was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” The minister insisted that a truly Christian worker “would not stoop to take unfair advantage” of his employer by ganging up against him in a union. Strikes, in his mind, were inherently selfish and sinful. In 1950, he worried that a “coal strike may paralyze the nation”; two years later, he warned that a looming steel stoppage would hurt American troops fighting in Korea. If workers wanted salvation, they needed to put aside such thoughts and devote themselves to their employers. “The type of revival I’m calling for,” Graham told a Pittsburgh reporter in 1952, “calls for an employee to put in a full eight hours of work.” On Labor Day that same year, he warned that “certain labor leaders would like to outlaw religion, disregard God, the church, and the Bible,” and he suggested that their rank and file were wholly composed of the unchurched. “I believe that organized labor unions are one of the greatest mission fields in America today,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be great if, as we celebrate Labor Day, our labor leaders would lead the laboring man in America in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ?”
Graham was on the make right from the start. Like Fifeld, he saw where the money was and he set to work right away courting the rich and powerful. One of his intended marks was the President of the United States, Harry Truman. Truman was not any more popular among Christian Libertarians than Roosevelt had been, but Graham was always a smooth operator and recognized the value of having friends on all sides. Graham finagled a White House meeting with Truman.
It didn't go well.
Although Graham was delighted to make new friends in [Congress], he had a bigger target. During the Boston crusade, he told a reporter that his real ambition was “to get President Truman’s ear for thirty minutes, to get a little help.” He peppered the President with letters and telegrams for months but had no luck winning an invitation until House majority leader John McCormack intervened. To Graham’s lasting embarrassment, their July 1950 meeting was an utter disaster. He and his three associates arrived at the Oval Office wearing brightly colored suits, hand-painted silk ties, and new white suede shoes. They looked, Graham remembered with a grimace, like a “traveling vaudeville team.” The president received them politely. A devout but reserved Baptist who was wary of public displays of piety, he held the foursome at a distance. When Graham asked if he could offer a prayer, Truman shrugged and said, “I don’t suppose it could do any harm.” The preacher wrapped his arm around the president, clutching him uncomfortably close. As he called down God’s blessing, an associate punctuated the prayer with cries of “Amen!” and “Tell it!”
After the visit, reporters pressed Graham’s group to divulge details while a row of photographers shouted at them to kneel down for a photo on the White House lawn. To their later regret, they agreed to both requests. In sharing details with the press and posing for the picture, Graham had made a significant, if innocent, mistake. The president now viewed the preacher with suspicion, dismissing him as “one of those counterfeits only interested in “getting his name in the paper.” Feeling used and furious as a result, Truman instructed his staff that Graham would never be welcome again at the White House as long as he was president…
Truman has a lot to answer for himself, but there’s a reason we’re still wild about Harry.
One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse is available in hardback and for kindle at Amazon.
You can read the highlights and listen to Gross’ whole Fresh Air interview with Kruse at NPR by clicking on the link: How 'One Nation' Didn't Become 'Under God' Until The '50s Religious Revival.
One of the things Graham will have to answer for is a meeting he had with Nixon in which Graham talked about Jews in a very Nixonian way. Graham often broke with other conservative Christian leaders and his outreach to Jews and his many friendships with Jewish leaders was truly ecumenical and not just opportunistically based on the role Israel will supposedly play in bringing about the apocalypse. But there he is on tape sounding very much like Nixon, spiteful, conspiratorial, paranoid, and outright anti-Semitic. The best that can be said in his defense is that as a practiced grifter and sycophant he was reflexively telling his mark what he wanted to hear. Graham doesn’t defend himself and has apologized. Here’s a New York Times story from March of 2002, Billy Graham Responds to Lingering Anger Over 1972 Remarks on Jews.
Photo of middle-aged Billy Graham clutching a bible (top) and photo of younger Graham preaching to a crowd in Trafalgar Square in 1954 (midway down) courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.