Main Street Journal

On the Shelf: The Preacher and the Presidents


Billy Graham
The following is an excerpt from our December issue. Subscribe now.

By: Jonathan Lindberg

In 1950, a young preacher named Billy Graham made his first trip to the White House to meet with President Harry Truman. Graham was already a rising star, having gained much notierity during his long-running and highly-successful Los Angeles Crusade the previous year. Now the young preacher was turning his attention to Washington. Graham had written Truman several times seeking an audience with the President.

After meeting with Truman for almost an hour, Graham and his team stopped on the White House lawn for a picture with the press, four men bowed in prayer. When the image of the young flashy preacher appeared in the newspapers the next day, Truman was furious. He figured Graham had used his visit to the White House to gain media attention. It was the last time Graham would ever visit with Truman while in office.

Though the incident ended his relationship with Truman, it also marked the beginning of the unmatched and at times limitless access Graham has enjoyed with every president since. No preacher has spent more time with more presidents than Graham. Long before the Religious Right or the Moral Majority came along, Graham became and remains the single most influential religious figure in American history.

But as Graham learned with Truman, high access comes with high costs.

In their new book, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (Center Street Books, 348 pages), Time magazine reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy document the remarkable path to power that brought Billy Graham into the company of eleven sitting presidents, countless Senators, Governors, and an untold number of national leaders across the world. They also tell of the costly mistakes, the high price that Graham and his ministry paid for these relationships along the way.

What is clear is that Billy Graham, from the outset of his ministry, exhibited an intense fascination with politics, writing constant letters to lawmakers, seeking their company and influence, giving advice, and even weaving national and foreign policy statements into his sermons which have been broadcast around the world.

In 1952, Graham returned to Washington for a long-running crusade, attended by countless policymakers, Senators and Congressmen who were only beginning to understand the power that Graham wielded across the country.

It was during this time that Graham became a frequent guest of President Eisenhower, both in the White House and at the Presidents’ home at Gettysburg. Gibbs and Duffy tell of a personal Bible with notes and comments that Graham gave to Eisenhower, which the President kept at his bedside. It was Eisenhower who asked Graham, “How can I be sure I am saved?”

Graham has always viewed his role with Presidents and politicians as a ministry, guiding the language and hearts of world leaders. However, it was this role that nearly cost Graham his ministry.

And it was Richard Nixon that changed everything.

Of the eleven presidents Graham has known, Richard Nixon was the one with whom Graham became most involved. What is clear, in hindsight, is that Graham was in many ways used by his friend for political gain.

In 1960, Graham diverged from his nonpartisan stance by consulting Nixon on the handling of his campaign. That summer, Graham went as far as to pen an article for Life magazine endorsing Nixon, both his faith and character. It was only at the last moment that Graham had reservations and asked that the article not run.

Eight years later and Graham was at the height of his political power, having spent several years as counselor to Lyndon Johnson. In fact, Graham stayed as a guest of the President during Johnson’s last night in the White House, along with the following night as a guest of Nixon during his first.

It was only when the dark clouds of the Nixon presidency began to form that Graham realized what was happening. Graham had spent the past two decades defending a man and his faith. However, when Graham heard the Watergate tapes, everything changed. “I did misjudge him. It was a side to him that I never knew. He was just like a whole new person. I mean it was so ugly and so terrible, especially the cover-up and the language and all that. It was just something I never knew.”

After Watergate, Graham, his ministry damaged by his link to Nixon, pulled back, remerging years later with Reagan, Bush and Clinton in a much different role, one of spiritual advisor.

Though Preacher and the Presidents offers a truly fascinating look at Graham and his role in shaping American politics during the latter half of the twentieth century, one must keep in mind the tremendous impact Graham made at the same time with his preaching, his evangelism, and his writing. In perspective, Preacher and the Presidents is a major study on a minor part of Graham. However, the lessons found within are ones that our new breed of religious crusaders would do well to heed.

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