Billy Graham may have been the last high-profile bipartisan evangelical leader.
He was one of the few clergy to have ministered to presidents and first ladies on both sides of the aisle. He is perhaps known as much for his loyalty to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal and visiting George H.W. Bush the night the United States and its allies launched an air attack on Iraq as he is for helping Lyndon B. Johnson pick his running mate and providing marriage counsel to Hillary Clinton in the midst of her husband’s infidelity scandal.
But Graham’s visibility waned as he entered his 90s and his health declined. His prominence gave way to that of his own son, Franklin, and other evangelical leaders, including James Dobson and Robert Jeffress, to regularly meet with politicians to discuss the policies of the day.
The political approach of many of these later leaders, however, has been quite different from Graham’s, leading to criticism of evangelicalism, particularly the strands affiliated with conservative white Americans, for being divisive and partisan. Despite his relationships with presidents, Graham was known for saying: “I don’t think politics is part of my work.”
Today’s evangelical leaders have praised President Donald Trump for granting them more access than any president in history. But Trump, who overwhelmingly won the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election, is often criticized by more progressive Christian leaders of promising to unite a very divided country — even on faith issues — while dividing it even more.
In contrast, Graham — known as the “pastor of the presidents” — is being praised for actually being a unifier.
“He is on the plus-side of history. I remember when he opened his doors … to integrate and at that time, it was a tough call,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. told CBSN, CBS’ streaming news channel, on Wednesday.
Current white evangelical leaders have attracted quite a bit of criticism for their relative silence on how Trump has dealt with race issues. But half a century ago when white evangelicals were often critical of the civil rights movement for its association with Democrats, Graham attracted scorn from those within his faith for calling on them to listen to people with opposing views.
In July 1957, Graham, after noticing his audiences were overwhelmingly white, invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then the most prominent black pastor in America, to give a public prayer at a large evangelical gathering at Madison Square Garden.
“A great social revolution is going on in the United States today. Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight,” Graham said.
This is not to suggest Graham was never divisive. In 2002, the Nixon Library released tapes containing remarks from Graham that many found anti-Semitic. They included his criticism of Jewish Americans’ influence in the mainstream media: “A lot of Jews are great friends of mine,” he said. “But they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.”
After the tapes went public, Graham apologized, saying: “They do not reflect my views.”
“Throughout my ministry, I have sought to build bridges between Jews and Christians,” he added. “I will continue to strongly support all future efforts to advance understanding and mutual respect between our communities.”
Many Americans struggle to name an evangelical leader, with as high a profile as Graham, that they’d say desires to “advance understanding and mutual respect” between varying political communities.
One major shift between Graham and the evangelical leaders of today has been tone. The way evangelical leaders publicly talk about their political opponents has shifted since Graham dominated the political discourse.
More than 300 antiwar protesters attended a Graham “crusade” at the University of Tennessee in May 1970 to speak out against the ongoing war in Vietnam. Graham was a vocal critic of antiwar protests, but following the event he spoke about his political opponents lovingly.
“I love all these young people at the university, even protesters,” he said. “I am praying some of them will find Christ.”