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Evangelist and Enabler

During his long career, Billy Graham was a great preacher but a less great spiritual adviser to the presidents.

By 12.26.07

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The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
(Center Street Books, 352 pages, $26.99)

The Preacher and the Presidents is what the title advertises, a look into the Reverend Billy Graham's relationships with every U.S. president since Truman. Time reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy show how the most famous English-speaking evangelist of the Twentieth Century helped our chief executives and, more troublingly, how he enabled them.

Graham was a friend and confidant to most of the presidents in the Post World War II Era. He enjoyed with them White House weekends, vacations, and trips to Camp David. At times, he even acted as a back-channel ambassador to break the ice with particularly nettlesome world leaders. President Clinton used Graham to get a message to Kim Il Sung, requesting that the North Korean strongman allow UN nuclear weapons inspectors into his country.

The reverend served as a presidential counselor in times of crisis, such as to Eisenhower during the integration of Southern schools, and to both Johnson and Nixon during the Vietnam War. Through these interactions, readers get some sense of the spiritual curiosity of our presidents. Eisenhower asked Graham, "How do I know if I'm going to heaven?" Johnson wondered whether he would ever see his parents again.

Gibbs and Duffy intend their work as a tribute to Graham, but it also offers inspiration for iconoclasts. The careful reader can't help but feel that Graham's ministry to presidents has been in some ways shallow, even self-serving. The book gives little indication that he had much of a positive impact on these leaders -- as individuals or on their policies.

Truth be told, Graham comes off less as a strong spiritual guide than as someone who was blinded by his friendships with men of great power. He allowed himself to be used to promote the agendas of politicians aspiring to the presidency, as well as by those who had already climbed to the top the greasy pole.

This tendency is particularly evident in the many photo-ops that were arranged to show Graham in the company of candidates and presidents, often staged during his evangelistic crusades. The many photographs reproduced in this book suggest much about how the minister and the politicians used each other.

Graham's emotional involvement with the presidents doesn't seem to have allowed for moral evaluation or given him pause to consider the ethics of their policies. For all appearances, he largely supported them in whatever they wanted to do. This was the case with Johnson's Vietnam policy, with Nixon's Watergate cover-up, and even with Clinton's position on abortion.

Johnson and Nixon especially -- devout parishioners of the church of Realpolitik -- understood the value of religious identification in advancing their careers and policies. Graham was no match for them, to the country's detriment as well as his own.

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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About the Author

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida.