For a few weeks this winter, Billy Graham's critics and friends alike saw a radically unfamiliar face of the famous evangelist. The National Archives released a secretly taped White House conversation with Richard Nixon in which the two men deplored Jewish domination of the media.
Nixon's own comments were far more offensive than Graham's, but they called forth very little public reaction. Graham's words, on the other hand, surprised everyone because the evangelist's comments were completely out of character.
At one extreme of the opinion spectrum, pundits failed utterly to take Billy Graham's character and record into account. Writing for the Common Dreams News Center, Bill Davis speculated that if Graham expressed such thoughts to Richard Nixon in 1972, he was probably pulling the strings on George W. Bush's foreign policy today. "If Billy was telling Nixon that something had to be done about the Jews in the media, what must he be saying to his born again acolyte about Muslims in the Middle East and beyond?"
Such paranoia—absurd on its face—is doubly ridiculous in light of Billy Graham's own post-Watergate resolve to stay away from the corridors of power. Whereas he once sought contact with the nation's political élite, Graham vowed never to "make the mistake again of getting that close to someone in office" (as Charles Colson reported to Graham biographer William Martin). In 1991, Graham told an interviewer that he regretted "the politics part" of his relationship with Nixon, and Graham insiders report that ever since the deep disappointments of Watergate, the evangelist has made a point of limiting his discussion and counsel to spiritual topics and prayer. Indeed, in 1989, Graham said he no longer frequented the halls of Congress and the White House because he believed God had "called [him] to a much higher calling."
For the Record
Most commentators struggled to reconcile Graham's comments with his record. What could the man whom Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum called "one of the greatest friends of the Jewish people … in the entire Christian world in the 20th century" possibly mean by what he said? How could these comments come from a man who had tirelessly pressed the leaders of the Soviet Union to let oppressed Jews operate their own religious schools and even emigrate? What could these words mean in the mouth of someone who fought racial discrimination by refusing to allow segregated seating at his evangelistic rallies and who showcased Christians of all creeds and colors sitting side-by-side on his platform?
Some interpreters said that Graham had been enthralled by power and awed into agreeing with the disagreeable. Several brasher columnists used the word sycophancy. Cal Thomas, one of the friendlier commentators, said that the lesson of this incident is that "political power can be corrupting and can seduce even the clergy." William Martin wrote that Graham had played the part of the court chaplain rather than the prophet. And The Boston Globe said that Graham had missed a powerful teaching moment, an opportunity to witness to the truth in the presence of a delusional leader.
Not the good old days
Other interpreters pointed to the time factor: the secret tape was made 30 years ago, when even the best in our midst said things privately that seem unthinkable today. It is hard for some of us to remember a time when we thoughtlessly tossed off the N-word when chanting Eeny-meeny-miney-mo. It is hard for us to remember a time when we casually spoke of "jewing" someone down. But revelations such as this Nixon-Graham conversation with its "just us guys" tone of voice remind us that those were not the good old days. Many of us, once blind to our biases and ignorant of the destructive effects of even casual racist remarks, have by God's grace had our eyes opened.