By Marcelo Fernandez de la Mora
William Franklin Graham, known as “America’s Pastor,” passed away on February 21 at the age of 99 years old, leaving five children.
During his life, Graham rejected fundamentalist Christianity after considering it “intolerable,” which gained notoriety after the infamous 1925 trial of John Scopes, a teacher who illegally taught the theory of evolution to his students. Perceiving this group as out of touch, Graham abandoned his Presbyterian faith and became a Southern Baptist. Working with other similar-minded pastors, Graham spearheaded growing secularist trends, preaching to up to 215 million people, and spreading Evangelicalism throughout the American South and to the world.
His legacy includes the rapid growth of Evangelicalism in South and Central America; almost half of Central Americans now identify as evangelical while the growth of his faith continues to grow in highly populous Latin American countries such as Brazil.
Between 1947 and 2005, he traveled the world, being responsible for hundreds of “crusades.” He even traveled to communist countries, which heavily restricted religious practice. A defiant Graham preached in Hungary in 1977, and even traveled to North Korea, one of the world’s most oppressive nations, including in terms of religious liberty.
Even though he was a lifelong registered Democrat, Graham and his movement attempted to avoid politics. In an interview with NBC’s “Today,” Graham claimed that “[he] stay[ed] as far as he c[ould]” from politics. He considered that his main objective was to deal with religious matters instead of worldly issues.
Despite his distrust and wariness with the American political system, he was unable to avoid being involved with it. In the 1950s, he met with Sam Rayburn, the conservative-Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives and, after holding prayer sessions with prominent American politicians, lobbied for a uncompromising approach against communism.
Due to his popularity and a growing size of the demographic he represented, politicians on both parties sought his guidance. His anti-communist belief arose from its apparent godlessness, and described the left-wing ideology as satanic. Despite different views on religion and policy, Graham and President Eisenhower were ardent opponents of communism. Although Eisenhower was more liberal, both believed in a necessity to educate the American public about the evils of the Soviet bloc. Believing in the association between secularism and communism, the Eisenhower administration and Graham worked together to strengthen the nation’s religious profile.
Despite opposing John F Kennedy’s presidential candidacy in 1960 due to Kennedy’s Catholic faith, and endorsing Nixon, he had a positive relationship with both and met with Kennedy at various times.
Furthermore, unlike more hardline Protestant figures, he warmed up to the Catholic faith. He eventually met Pope John Paul II, another conservative figure, and worked with the Catholic Church on many common projects.
After Kennedy’s death, he served under Lyndon B. Johnson, encouraging him to escalate the Vietnam War. The two had an exceptional relationship. “His first White House visit with Lyndon Johnson, scheduled to last only minutes, stretched to several hours,” the Washington Post reported. Graham was close to the Nixon Administration during the president’s tenure.
During this time, Graham revealed a darker side by failing to stop the President from saying anti-Semitic slurs. In fact, Graham made some of these remarks as well in Nixon’s presence, but it is a debate on whether he really meant what he said or whether he wanted to be more liked by Nixon. After Watergate, and his lukewarm reaction to the scandal, he became less political, “refusing to endorse candidates and avoiding the volatile issues dear to religious conservatives,” Laurie Goodstein wrote.
Graham continued to meet and cooperate with the Carter, Regan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama administrations, but became less relevant in policymaking as he grew older. Notable moments in recent history included Graham’s refusal to politicize the Monica Lewinsky scandal and for supporting Hillary’s decision to remain married to him. Furthermore, he gave a 10-minute speech in the National Cathedral after 9/11.
The reverend is buried in the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.