It was the only whiff of scandal in the remarkable ministry of Billy Graham.
The year was 1972, and the evangelist was talking candidly with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. Unbeknownst to Graham, the now-infamous White House taping system was recording every word.
After an innocuous comment from Billy, the President launched into an anti-Semitic tirade. Such racist rants were not altogether unusual for Nixon.
But this one gained notoriety for the way Billy Graham joined in.
“They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,”
Graham said of Jews.
“Their stranglehold [on the media] has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
While saying such things, Graham also acknowledged that the Jewish community didn’t know his true feelings about them:
A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.
After denying the rumored remarks about “satanic Jews” in the diary of H.L. Haldeman (Nixon’s aid), Graham issued a heartfelt apology when the audio came out in 2002.
It was a great embarrassment.
In the aftermath, both friends and biographers tried to make sense of statements that seemed so out of character.
After all, Graham had been a longtime foe of anti-Semitism and racism of all stripes. During the civil rights movement, he had invited Martin Luther King Jr. to share the stage with him. And he had even gone publicly to bail the civil rights icon out of jail as a show of solidarity.
“There is not an anti-Semitic bone in his body,”
said Graham’s longtime friend Lewis Drummond.
Perhaps, some said, he was just speaking of a few unscrupulous Jews in the media.
Yet another view came forth from Charles Colson. As he suggested, such lapses in character were not uncommon in Nixon’s Oval Office. The President was a commanding personality–especially in that room–and it didn’t take long for his “advisors” to be conformed to his conspiratorial image.
Colson knew this all too well.
He was imprisoned for his own involvement in Watergate; he became a Christian in incarceration; and he would remain close to Graham for the rest of his life.
Colson knew how the audio haunted him.
WHY TALK ABOUT THIS?
But why dredge up this story?
Contrary to what some might think, the reason is NOT to tarnish the reputation of Billy Graham. While the comments were ugly, Nixon’s were worse, and we might ask how many of us would want our most confidential conversations broadcast for the world to hear?
Not I said the cow. Not I said this blogger.
On the whole, Graham’s marathon ministry remains a paragon of humility, integrity, and grace. He’s not Jesus, but along with names like J.I. Packer and John Stott, he gave credibility to the label “evangelical.”
We could only wish to have him as the custodian of that label today.
So, again, why bring this up? The reason is that it provides a much-needed lesson for all Christian leaders, and now more than ever.
All of us have a tendency to become chameleons in the presence of the powerful—not just overlooking their vices (which may sometimes be required) but sanctifying them in the name of “access” and “the greater good.”
In such cases, we play the flattering court chaplain rather than the truth-telling prophet. And in so doing, we become agents of propaganda rather than ambassadors of the gospel.
For his own part, Graham came to recognize this danger.
In 1991, he told an interviewer that he regretted “the politics part” of his relationship with Nixon—and this was long before the infamous audio came out. After Watergate especially, he vowed never again to be a pawn for partisanship.
In these days—and regardless of who occupies the Oval Office—many would do well to remember this advice.
GRACE BATS LAST
This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians must always adopt the posture of indignant prophets. Somehow, there must be a middle ground between the sycophantic sellout and the “clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13).
And most cases, Graham found it.
Imperfect leaders need spiritual support as well. And even after the embarrassment of Watergate, Graham showed grace to Nixon.
When Nixon died, in 1994, I remember watching Graham deliver the funeral sermon.
He began with a gentle reference to another gifted though unscrupulous leader: (ironically) a Jew, named Saul.
The great king of ancient Israel, David, said on the death of Saul, who had been a bitter enemy: “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel.”
Somehow this managed (simultaneously) to pay respect and to acknowledge that there were things that needed forgiving.
As with Saul, there were faults that ought not be glossed over in the name of “access,” much less be baptized through emulation.
Thankfully, however, within the landscape of the gospel, such faults don’t get the final say. As Anne Lamott remarked recently, “Grace bats last,” and “Love is sovereign here.”
So Graham’s funeral sermon ended as it always did, with grace.
Nevertheless, as we now near the centennial of Graham’s birth, and the inauguration of yet another (by all accounts, conspiratorial) President, such cautionary tales seem worth remembering.
For a biography that situates Graham’s ministry in its socio-political context, see here.
For Graham’s own–more spiritually enriching–autobiography, see here.
My favorite bio of the Nixon presidency is that of Reeves, see here.