The power and the glory of Billy Graham

The US evangelist who has just died was close to many American presidents of both political persuasions. Admirably bipartisan or apolitical? Perhaps. It looks more like opportunism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 2:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 5:47am

In the 1940s, two young preachers and close friends were seen as the rising stars of North American evangelism. One was the late Billy Graham, who became the first American religious leader to lie in state, his funeral on Friday attended by US President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence.

The other was Canadian Charles Templeton, who died in relative obscurity in 2001, though he was widely respected as a newsman and media executive. At the height of his evangelical influence in the early 1950s, Templeton hosted a weekly religious show on CBS television in the US and was as well-known, if not more so, as Graham. But he lost his faith. His journey to unbelief was chronicled in his poignant memoirs Farewell to God.

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The book is worth reading in its own right, but its opening pages offer a window, if you like, into Graham’s then young soul and help explain the latter’s phenomenally successful career.

In a conversation, Templeton said he couldn’t believe the biblical account of creation in light of modern science. But Graham said he had no such doubt.

“I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible,” he was quoted as saying. “I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power.”

The operative word here is “power”. His flocks would no doubt take it to mean “the power and the glory”. But there was also power of the earthlier variety. Why question blind faith when it was your ticket to power?

Graham was a lackey of William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, only more powerful. Eisenhower asked him for biblical passages to quote for his presidential campaign. Johnson wanted to make him a cabinet secretary. He was so close to Nixon he once drafted a classified memo urging the president to bomb and destroy the economy of North Vietnam. Both men were anti-Semitic. Clinton tried to use him to deflate attention on the growing Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

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Admirably bipartisan or apolitical? Perhaps. It looks more like opportunism. Not all presidents fell for Graham, though. Truman called him “counterfeit”, and the Catholic Kennedy White House was unwelcome.

In another era or culture, men like Graham would still be close to power, though it could well be with a different religion.