Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, may have been the last high-profile bipartisan evangelical leader.
He was one of the few clergy to have ministered to presidents and first ladies on both sides of the aisle. He is perhaps known as much for his loyalty to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal and visiting George H.W. Bush the night the United States and its allies launched an air attack on Iraq, as he is for helping Lyndon B. Johnson pick his running mate and providing marriage counsel to Hillary Clinton in the midst of her husband’s infidelity scandal.
But Graham’s visibility waned as he entered his 90s and his health declined. His prominence gave way to that of his own son, Franklin, and other evangelical leaders, including James Dobson and Robert Jeffrees, to regularly meet with politicians to discuss the policies of the day.
The political approach of many of these later leaders, however, has been quite different from Graham’s, leading to criticism of evangelicalism, particularly the strands affiliated with conservative white Americans, for being divisive and partisan. Despite his relationships with presidents, Graham was known for saying: “I don’t think politics is part of my work.”
Today’s evangelical leaders have praised President Donald Trump for granting them more access than any president in history. But Trump, who overwhelmingly won the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election, is often criticized by more progressive Christian leaders of promising to unite a very divided country – even on faith issues – while dividing it even more.
In contrast, Graham – known as the “pastor of the presidents” – is being praised for actually being a unifier.
“He is on the plus-side of history. I remember when he opened his doors . . . to integrate and at that time, it was a tough call,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. told CBSN, CBS’s streaming news channel, on Wednesday.
Current white evangelical leaders have attracted quite a bit of criticism for their relative silence on how Trump has dealt with race issues. But half a century ago when white evangelicals were often critical of the civil rights movement for its association with Democrats, Graham attracted scorn from those within his faith for calling on them to listen to people with opposing views.
In July 1957, Graham, after noticing his audiences were overwhelmingly white, invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then the most prominent black pastor in America, to give a public prayer at a large evangelical gathering at Madison Square Garden.
“A great social revolution is going on in the United States today. Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight,” Graham said.
This is not to suggest Graham was never divisive. In 2002, the Nixon Library released tapes containing remarks from Graham that many found anti-Semitic. They included his criticism of Jewish Americans’ influence in the mainstream media: “A lot of Jews are great friends of mine,” he said. “But 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.”
After the tapes went public, Graham apologized, saying: “They do not reflect my views.”
“Throughout my ministry, I have sought to build bridges between Jews and Christians,” he added. “I will continue to strongly support all future efforts to advance understanding and mutual respect between our communities.”
Many Americans struggle to name as high a profile evangelical leader as Graham that they’d say desires to “advance understanding and mutual respect” between varying political communities.
One major shift between Graham and the evangelical leaders of today has been tone. The way evangelical leaders publicly talk about their political opponents – and excuse the current president from criticism – has shifted since Graham dominated the political discourse.
More than 300 antiwar protesters attended a Graham “crusade” at the University of Tennessee in May 1970 to speak out against the ongoing war in Vietnam. Graham was a vocal critic of antiwar protests, but following the event spoke about his political opponents lovingly.
“I love all these young people at the university, even protesters,” he said. “I am praying some of them will find Christ.”
That’s a stark contrast to what Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said about why he supports Trump; it’s the president’s willingness to fight people who do not support socially conservative policies, he told Politico.
Evangelicals, he said, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
Conservative Christians’ belief that Trump is their culture warrior has reshaped many Americans’ views of evangelicalism. Once viewed as a community focused on sharing the teachings of Jesus Christ with those unfamiliar, evangelicalism in many circles now means supporting conservative policies and lawmakers by any means necessary.
In recent elections, that has meant supporting candidates like Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls, and even the president, a man known more for boasting publicly about his sex life than his deeply held religious convictions.
This post-Graham approach, championed by his son Franklin Graham, who has defended Trump, could have long-term implications on something much bigger than presidential politics: the enduring reputation of the Christian faith.
Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm previously wrote in The Washington Post:
“The word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of ‘evangelical,’ seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities.”
In the Trump era, evangelicals in politics are increasingly faced with whether they will be known for the community that backed a president whose comments have arguably incited and enabled violence against those whose views are not his own – or realign with the unifying force that was Billy Graham.