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MLive eulogy for Billy Graham ignores the role the preacher played in supporting US Foreign Policy

February 21, 2018

Today, MLive ran a brief article on the passing of longtime TV evangelist Billy Graham. The article notes that Graham’s first “crusade” took place in 1947, in Grand Rapids.

The MLive reporter cites a previous interview with a Hudsonville couple, which attended to event with Graham in 1947, but beyond that the article provide little information, simply praise of how many souls Billy Graham touched.

What we offer as a counter to this narrative, is a book review previously published on Media Mouse, where this writer used to contribute.

In recent decades when people think of religious right leaders that have garnered public attention, names like Falwell, Robertson, and Haggard. Often the media attention given to these religious leaders is due to scandalous sexual behavior, as in the case of Haggard, or for unacceptable comments, such as when Falwell and Robertson both blamed 9/11 on the country’s tolerance of gays, feminists and abortionists. After reading The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, it is somewhat difficult to comprehend why Billy Graham has received a pass from the same kind of attention in the news media.

Billy Graham came from a racially and economically privileged life near Charlotte, North Carolina. His father owned a substantial amount of land and used his wealth to broker deals that afforded Graham extra privileges as a youth. In the late 1930s, Graham became active in the church and even attended Bob Jones University, but when WWII came he switched schools and went to Florida under the pretenses that his health was bad. The author suggests that Graham may have done this to avoid being drafted by the military–both with his health issues and studying for the ministry–but there is not adequate documentation to make a strong case for this assertion.

In 1940 Graham again transferred schools and went to Wheaton College. There he met his future wife, the daughter of a wealthy businessman and “one of the most powerful men in the Christian missionary world, Dr. L. Nelson Bell.” Bell was also leader of the John Birch Society in the Chicago area. In 1943 Graham began his first ministry at a church just outside of Chicago, with a congregation of about 35 parishioners. Graham also founded a Professional Businessmen’s Club that boasted membership of around 300. Bothwell says that Graham’s nurturing of relations with the business community was a constant throughout his life as a religious leader. In 1944 Graham joined the military and became a Chaplin stateside, and when his orders to go overseas came through he again argued that his health prevented him from doing so. Graham quickly received a discharge and went to Florida where he was hired as a full time employee of Youth for Christ. It was in this capacity that Graham learned his trade and developed his decades long style of preaching that mixed scripture with bits of information of current events. With increasing popularity Graham, in 1950, founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minnesota.

Graham was one of the first religious leaders who not only used media to his advantage; he understood the importance of owning media. Graham had purchased radio stations and formed a film company. Other media owners soon took note of Graham and media baron William Randolph Hearst soon invited Graham for a personal meeting. What impressed Hearst the most was Graham’s rabid anti-communist stance. Soon, with the assistance of Hearst, Graham was preaching to audiences of 350,000. Coupled with his growing popularity and his public stance against communism, Graham found an avenue to the White House that has spanned six decades.

According to Bothwell, the most consistent message that Graham brought to his relationships with US presidents was that the US needed to remain strong and he endorsed every war this country has engaged in since WWII. In 1950, Graham sent Truman a telegram counseling him to go to war in Korea:

“Millions of Christians praying God give you wisdom in this crisis. Strongly urge showdown with Communism now. More Christians in Southern Korea per capita than any part of the world. We cannot let them down.”

After Eisenhower was elected in 1952, Graham took a more active role in his support for the war by visiting troops in Korea. When he preached at his arena evangelistic crusades, Graham became one of the best US assets in its war on communism. In 1953 he said, “Communism is a supernatural power and gets its power from the Devil. Christianity is a supernatural power too, and gets its power from the Lord.” Graham–more than any preacher of his day–popularized the notion that we were living in apocalyptic times. He affirmed this idea as he developed his theological attacks during the Cold War. Graham said, “Communism could well be setting the stage for the anti-Christ that’s spoken of in the Bible. There have been anti-god movements but never one on the scale of communism.”

As Graham’s popularity grew with politicians, it continued to gain the admiration of businessmen. Graham befriended a wealthy oilman named Russell Maguire, an anti-Semite who began to subsidize part of Graham’s ministry. In 1956 he began to publish Christianity Today, one the most influential religious publications of the 20th Century. Graham hired, as it’s first editor, father-in-law and John Bircher, Dr. Bell. By this time Bell had developed a close relationship with the Rockefellers and other oil barons who were increasingly interested in oil discoveries in Latin America. The only problem was that most of the oil was on indigenous land. Graham was on the board of the Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT), an organization that assisted oil companies in gaining access to indigenous lands, often with the help of military dictatorships.

While not a fan of Kennedy, Graham continued is White House connection during the Johnson years, but found his biggest ally in Richard Nixon. More than any other US president, Nixon used Graham as an ambassador abroad. Graham was sent to Israel, China, and all over Latin America, working often in conjunction with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In 1969, Graham sent a 13-page letter to Nixon with his own plan for “ending the war in Vietnam.” In this plan, Graham advocated that Nixon bomb the dikes in the north to ruin the economy. Apparently, Graham didn’t know that this is a violation of International Law and would constitute a war crime. Graham not only was consistently in support of the war in Vietnam, he publicly denounced as anti-war protestors whom he said “gave comfort to the enemy.” This support for war was maintained through the Reagan/Bush/Clinton and current Bush administrations.

The other area of the book that deserves attention is how Bothwell juxtaposed the positions of Graham and another religious leader of his era, Martin Luther King Jr. While King denounced the war in Vietnam, Graham continued to lend his support and even criticized those who engaged in civil disobedience by saying, “I do believe we have the responsibility to obey the law. No matter what the law may be – it may be an unjust law – I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it. Otherwise you have anarchy.” This glaring difference between King and Graham was also evident in their stance on segregation and racial justice. Graham did not de-segregate the seating for his crusades until the later part of the 1970s and even responded to King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech by saying, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand and hand with little black children.” Graham also suggested that the timing of the Civil Rights movement was questionable and Graham suggested that, “blacks and whites alike would benefit from a period of quietness in which moderation prevails.” King took notice of Graham’s denunciations and wrote to him in 1963 while sitting in a Birmingham jail. King wrote, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” Bothwell also notes that after the Watts rioting in 1965, Graham announced that the rioters were “being exploited by a small, hard core of leftists,” and he called on Congress to pass “new tough laws to curb this kind of thing.”

In The Prince of War, the author makes a strong case that Graham has been a priest of the powerful. This book is important not only because it provides a counter position to the imminent accolades that are sure to come once Graham dies, more importantly, it provides amble documentation that shows what role the religious right has played in American politics since WWII.

Cecil Bothwell, The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, (Brave Ulysses Books, 2007).

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