Billy Graham, the famous American evangelical preacher, undoubtedly had a lasting impact on American religion and its relationship with politics. Graham, who passed away on February 21, 2018, served as a spiritual advisor for every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, and earned his title as “America’s pastor” by crossing racial and partisan lines throughout much of his career. Regarded as one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century, Graham broadcasted hundreds of radio and television sermons, including his famous “Billy Graham Crusades,” over the span of a sixty year career. By preaching the evangelical version of the Christian message to over 200 million people, he “did more than anyone else to make evangelicism a mainstream movement in America.” His 1957 New York crusade spanned three months, averaging 18,000 attendees each night, and included a rally at Yankee Stadium. Graham endeared himself to both sides of the political spectrum by preaching racial tolerance—holding integrated crusades during the civil rights era, and posting bail for Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s—while simultaneously agreeing to let “social norms in a given place” regarding segregation take precedence and making statements opposing the civil rights movement. But, Graham was not the non-partisan sweetheart that has been portrayed in the media following his passing; in fact, Graham was the first prominent figure to link evangelical Christianity with conservative politics, ultimately contributing to the hyper-partisan evangelical right that exists today.
Billy Graham, born in 1918, was raised to a reformed presbyterian family in North Carolina during the Jim Crow American south. In 1937, Graham attended the Florida Bible Institute, where he preached his first sermon as a student. Following his graduation, Graham served as a pastor before becoming president of Northwestern Bible College. In 1947, Billy Graham held his first “crusade” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Early into his career, Graham made no attempt to hide his political affiliations. A biographer of Graham’s early career noted that “when Graham speaks of ‘the American way of life,’ he has in mind the same combination of economic and political freedom that the National Association of Manufacturers, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal do when they use the phrase.” In addition, Graham, in a 1952 rally, claimed that the Garden of Eden had been a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” A Christian worker “would not stoop to take unfair advantage” of his employer by joining a union. On top of all of that, if there were still any doubts about his commitment to the conservative ideology, Graham denounced government involvement in the economy and labelled it as “socialism”; he warned that government restrictions on free enterprise would lead to the loss of “freedom of opportunity,” and called upon conservatives to revolt against the New Deal. Graham blatantly equated the values of Christianity with the key tenets of American conservatism such as individualism and an unwavering commitment to free market capitalism.
In the 1950s, Graham declared that Eisenhower was a “strong spiritual leader” who would lead the nation back to God. He later claimed he never took sides in the 1952 presidential election, but, he periodically offered spiritual advice at the Eisenhower campaign headquarters, suggested scripture for the stump speeches, and publicly chastised Truman by calling him a coward and claiming that he “blundered on foreign policy in the Far East.” In the lead up to the election, Graham also warned his following that “communists and left-wingers” posed a danger to the nation. Eisenhower won the election, and for the following eight years, Graham continued to work with the administration, constantly blending Christian morality and patriotism.
After Eisenhower’s two terms, Graham extended his support to his former vice president, Richard Nixon. In the 1960 election, when Nixon ran against the Catholic John F. Kennedy, Graham attempted to mobilize a Protestant coalition vote to counteract the Catholic vote. In the 1968 election, Graham went as far as to allow his endorsement of Nixon in campaign ads. Graham supported Nixon, not because of specific policy positions, but because Nixon portrayed himself as a national moral leader — Christianity Today had labeled him as the only man capable of leading the “nation out of its ethical morass.” There is a slight distinction to be made between Graham’s policy-driven support for Eisenhower and his morality-driven support for Nixon; Graham’s support for Eisenhower equated the evangelical cause with policies of anti-communism, military preparedness, and Christian nationalism, while his support for Nixon rested solely upon linking evangelical Christian morals with the Republican party, rather than the candidate’s policy.
Admittedly, later in his career, Graham made an attempt to distance himself from the Republican party; in 1981, he warned evangelicals about their alliance with political conservatism, stating that “the hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” When asked about his regrets in 2011, Graham said that he “would have steered clear of politics.” As Graham became increasingly non-partisan later on in his career, his partisan career beginnings were forgotten. The origins of the Christian right are often traced back to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Falwell’s Moral Majority, in particular, which successfully mobilized conservative Christians as a political force, is often viewed as the basis for the modern Christian right. Graham, however, who preceded Falwell, helped lay much of the foundation himself.
Falwell and Robertson may have been more overt about their intentions to create a unified conservative Christian voting bloc in American politics, but Graham was the first to use his broad religious influence to sway the American electorate. Graham unified and influenced American Christians in a way that had never been seen before and, as a result, demonstrated the power of a Christian political coalition. By fusing religion and politics, he created a dangerous precedent, although he did not exploit it himself. Graham did not just blur the lines between religion and politics, he created a clear connection between Christianity and American conservatism, a connection that has only become more pronounced since its introduction in the 1950s.
It is easy to understand why Graham has been remembered as an American folk hero: he impacted millions of lives, emphasized the importance of Christianity, repudiated racial segregation at his convenience, was never caught up in any sort of public scandal, and every president since Harry Truman sought him out for spiritual advice. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Billy Graham will lie in honor at the capital, making him only the fourth private citizen to do so, following Rosa Parks and two slain Capitol Police officers. However, Billy Graham’s legacy has been largely romanticized. For a country that claims to pride itself on the separation between church and state it seems curious to memorialize someone who dedicated his early career to obscuring the line between the two. Billy Graham’s true impact on American society, whether people accept it or not, was a legacy that inspired the religious right and the creation of an inseparable link between Christianity and Republican morality and policy. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with the reality that religion has significant impacts on the electorate’s political views, but rather that Billy Graham has been misattributed as America’s non-partisan pastor.