An honest portrayal of a spiritual icon

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By Pat Wellington

In their ground-breaking biography of the world’s best known preacher, Billy Graham, and his relationship with 11 sitting presidents, two highly acclaimed journalists have recorded hundreds of hours of personal recollections. To his credit, Graham demanded no preconditions and asked only for fairness.

The authors pick up the amazing trajectory of Graham’s career as a magnetic evangelist in the year 1949. At this time, Graham was essentially resurrecting something dead for years — tent revivals.

Although he called them “crusades,” the early ones were held under enormous tents and were raucous affairs with magic acts, singing groups, and a kneeling horse who tapped its hoof 12 times when asked how many Apostles there were. Here Graham would establish the emotional and stylistic range of his turf.

Another trend young Graham went against was the recognition of science in some way, however small. His literal interpretation of the Bible in 1949 would be supported only by the most entrenched fundamentalists.

Arguing first that he had neither the time nor the intellect to sort through theological disputes, he would later confess to feeling empowered when he held up his Bible and declared it God’s word. Good friend and evangelist colleague Charles Templeton warned him, “Billy, this is intellectual suicide.”

But whatever Billy was doing, it was working.

With the crusades going well, Graham turned his attention to another important goal — that of being spiritual advisor to sitting presidents. Unfortunately for him, in 1949, the sitting president was Harry S. Truman who had already formed a negative opinion of Graham — that he was “counterfeit” and just another young man wanting his name in the newspaper.

Even so, Truman reluctantly agreed to a brief meeting in the Oval Office. The event would prove disastrous for Graham who, after asking the president about his religious leanings, rejected Truman’s reply that he tried to live by the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule by insisting that that was not nearly enough. Looking back on the event years later, Graham was amazed at his own audacity.

Though it is true that Billy Graham had cordial relationships with most of the presidents, two in addition to Truman would not greet him warmly.

Jimmy Carter was like Graham, a farm boy and a Southern Baptist, but the two failed to form a close friendship. Carter was steeped in Biblical teaching, perhaps even more so than Graham himself, so he had no need for interpretation or spiritual guidance.

John F. Kennedy knew when he took office that Graham had campaigned for his rival Richard Nixon, a close friend to Graham. Besides that, he had little interest in the evangelist.

Had it not been for old Joe Kennedy, who saw value in photo ops, the door might have been closed to Graham during the Kennedy administration. Lyndon Johnson, in contrast, wanted Graham by his side constantly — so fearful was he that he might not be saved.

Graham’s friendship with Nixon would come at a price. Watergate would make the preacher look nave in his belief that Nixon had fine character. And he would allow himself to be drawn into an anti-Semitic rant with Nixon in which he seemed all too eager to chime in. The 1972 tape of that rant would air in 2002 and leave Graham followers shaking their heads in disbelief.

Graham’s close friendship with George Herbert Bush would give Graham the opportunity to see the Bush children in their formative years. In The Preacher and the Presidents, he expresses great sympathy for young George W who was so clearly a disappointment to his peerless father.

And good friend Bill Clinton, alone has the distinction of knowing Graham when he (Clinton) was a mere child of 12.

Pat Wellington is a retired English professor, freelance writer, and faculty member of On Top of the World’s Master the Possibilities, who shares her passion for books with others.