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The evangelist paid dearly for his blindness during the Watergate crisis. He was forced to publicly confess that he felt chastened by his ignorance of Nixon’s “dark side.”
THAT DIDN’T STOP GRAHAM from nurturing relationships with Ronald Reagan, Georges H.W and W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, or from practically endorsing Hillary Clinton during his 2005 crusade in Queens, New York.
At the Queens event, Graham greeted the Clintons as his wonderful friends of many years, remarking, “When he [Bill Clinton] left the presidency, he should have become an evangelist, because he had all the gifts. And he could leave his wife to run the country.” Such encouragement of Hillary’s candidacy not only showed indiscretion on the part of a church figure, it underscored Graham’s need to attach himself to a political star.
Not all of the presidents warmed to Graham. Truman was too prickly. There never was much of a Ford-Graham friendship. Graham was wary because he’d just been burned by Watergate, and Ford was a bit standoffish himself, perhaps because he wanted to distance his administration from Nixon’s.
One might expect that Carter, the self-declared “born-again Christian,” would have been closest to Graham, but he kept his distance. The authors attribute Carter’s reticence to a strong sense of separation between Church and state. But it may well have been that Carter did not enjoy all the attention from his fellow Southern Baptist, which he likely saw as self-promotion.
When read with a sense of detachment from Graham’s charisma — which isn’t easy, since that charisma has been a powerful presence on the American religious scene for a long time — this book offers an important lesson: It is dangerous for religious leaders to identify themselves too closely with politics and political figures.
High-profile friendships between pastors and politicians can be enormously beneficial to office seekers and office holders. But they can be woefully compromising to those who minister, and often do great harm to the cause of religion in general. The current political season has already given us an example of that problem in Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, a candidate whose social-policy positions are inimical to Robertson’s agenda.
The role of a religious leader should be to enunciate moral standards that will enable people in positions of power to form proper consciences. Politicians should privately consult their own pastors for spiritual guidance and rely on a variety of religious leaders for advice on complex ethical issues.
Gibbs and Duffy do a fine job showing Billy Graham’s historical significance in American politics. The book reveals how even the best of religious figures, fallible human beings that they are, can be drawn to, and exploited by, worldly power. Pastors are as susceptible as anyone to egoism and the lure of political glamour, and politicians have learned how to use that weakness to their benefit.
Here, the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke are so relevant: “For the children of the world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.”
Billy Graham’s talent and charm and clean living brought him deserved fame, and that fame brought him influence. But for all that, this book shows the limits of his effectiveness in bringing the Gospel to the White House.
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