Billy Graham’s Jewish problem

synagogue_of_satan_cover“In Nixon tapes, Billy Graham refers to ‘synagogue of Satan’”

That headline, which appeared yesterday in USA Today, is the latest damaging revelation about the great evangelical leader to come out of his conversations with President Richard Nixon.

In the Bible, the term “synagogue of Satan,” which appears in Revelation 3:9, referred to those “who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie.” But in contemporary times the phrase has been grifted by conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites to refer to a Jewish cabal hell-bent on, and only moments away from, world domination; a Google search for “synagogue of Satan” will yield little in terms of exegesis but plenty of sites, like the one dedicated to the book pictured, warning that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real.

But what did Graham, the most influential evangelical of the 20th century, mean when in 1973 he talked with Nixon about the pornographers and promoters of obscenity who belong to the synagogue of Satan?

It’s difficult to know. And the mainstream media doesn’t really seem to care.

Though this snippet from the Nixon tapes was picked up by Jewish media outlets (no, I’m not talking about The New York Times) and was latched onto by Anti-Defamation League major domo Abe Foxman — “While never expressing these views in public, Rev. Graham unabashedly held forth with the president with age-old classical anti-Semitic canard” — it has received almost no mainstream attention.

The only exception I could find was from Cathy Lynn Grossman, the religion reporter for USA Today, who wrote the story mentioned above:

The 1973 transcript is a wide-ranging conversation between Graham and Nixon in which Graham heaps praise on the president, telling him “Congratulations on everything,” and “I believe the Lord is with you.”

Nixon raises the news that Israel had mistakenly shot down a Libyan civilian airliner, killing all on board. Nixon says, “What I really think is, deep down in this country, there is a lot of anti-Semitism, and all this is going to do is stir it up.”

Graham agrees that it will push anti-Semitism “right to the top.” Then he turns the conversation to a report he read somewhere that Israel supposedly wants to “expel all the Christians.” Graham mentions Jewish opposition to a Christian evangelical unified campaign, saying Jews are “going right after the church.”

He also mentions an upcoming meeting with the interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, the late Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum. In 1977, the organization honored Graham, saying, according to Graham biographer William Martin, that “most of the progress of Protestant-Jewish relations over the past quarter century was due to Billy Graham.”

In 1973, Graham calls Tanenbaum the “cleverest and most brilliant” of the rabbis.

Nixon mentions an upcoming dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Graham, who said in earlier taped conversations that Israelis were the best kind of Jews, now brings up a biblical reference to the dense and difficult final book of the Bible, Revelation, which says in verse 3:9 that there are those who claim to be Jews who are liars, and that they belong to a “synagogue of Satan.”

This is a prophetic book by John the apostle who, like Christ, was Jewish.

Grossman then concluded her article with the quote from Foxman that I mentioned above — in part, “Rev. Graham unabashedly held forth with the president with age-old classical anti-Semitic canards” — and with a defense from Graham’s longtime spokesman, A. Larry Ross:

But Ross says the “synagogue of Satan” phrase in the Book of Revelation actually refers to anyone whose “lives and work are not in keeping with traditional Jewish values.”

Likely in the interest of space, Grossman opted against quoting the third chapter of Revelation. But on her religion blog, she wrote a post that would have served as a nice sidebar to the story that appeared in print. In it she gives Ross a bit more of a forum and seems to defend Graham’s comments as something that are now being taken out of context. Grossman wrote:

The phrase appears twice in Scripture, Revelation 2:9-10 and, more elaborately, 3:9, which says:

I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my works and make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars — I will make them come and fall down at your feed and acknowledge that I have loved you.

As I read it, in context, it’s a scourging attack on hypocrites, one that divides faithful Jews like Christ and John (author of Revelation) from unbelievers.

Rev. Louis Farrakahn used it to rail about “people in opposition to the will of God,” including President George Bush, in a 2004 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Ross, said in a press release Wednesday, that Revelation is referring to anyone

… whose lives and work are not in keeping with traditional Jewish values. Throughout his ministry, Mr. Graham has consistently stood for purity of life and the sacredness of home and marriage, according to biblical precepts found in both the Old and New Testaments.

I can’t argue with Ross on those points, but I’m also not willing to give Graham a pass on his conversations with Nixon.

Nixon’s troubled relationship with Jews — paranoid about their influence at best and anti-Semitic at worst — was no secret. But what about his spiritual counselor?

PreacherAndPrezziesThe most informative answer I’ve seen to that question, and to the content of this Nixon-Graham conversation, was published this morning on the Religion in American History blog by Steven Miller, author of the well-reviewed book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South. Miller wrote:

Both believed that Israeli and American Jewish leaders underestimated, at their peril, the latent anti-Semitism among Americans, even among good Christian folk. Unsurprisingly, Nixon put the matter more crudely: “It may be they have a death wish.” But Graham also suggested that Israel was in danger of alienating its Christian allies, especially if American Jews continued “overreacting” to the emerging “Jews for Jesus” movement, which was “just scaring them to death.” In a line that makes for an easy headline, Graham quoted the Book of Revelation (2:9, 3:9) in describing the kind of Jews who belong to the “synagogue of Satan.” As with the 1972 conversation, Graham certainly had in mind publishers of pornographic material; but, in the context of echoing Nixon’s distaste for the Fourth Estate, Graham also seemed to be thinking of high-profile Jewish liberals in the mainstream media. Graham, as I have written elsewhere concerning the 1972 exchange, “was willing to indulge Nixon’s prejudices and . . . voice a few of his own.”

I was struck by the way in which Graham casually cited dispensationalist eschatology in discussing matters Jewish with Nixon. Jews are “God’s time piece,” Graham declared to an agreeable, grunting Nixon, “and he has judged them from generation to generation, and yet used them, and they’ve kept their identity.” I was struck because Graham-Nixon communications often were rather devoid of theological content. At the same time, as I have argued, Nixon was more comfortable with Graham’s evangelicalism than has been assumed (to the extent Nixon was comfortable with anything or anyone). Either way, Nixon and Graham undoubtedly shared a strong criticism of liberal media outlets, such as Newsweek and the New York Times. “And Henry Luce would turn over in his grave,” Graham declared to Nixon, if Luce knew what the formerly friendly Time was now publishing. Many members of the liberal media happened to be Jewish. That is, Nixon and Graham chose to notice the presence of Jews therein.

The Graham who comes through in this conversation suggests the fine line between emerging Israel-philia and lingering anti-Semitism among early 1970s evangelicals.

When a previous batch of 500 hours of Nixon tapes were released in 2002, Graham was forced to apologize for having told the president that he believed Jews had a “stranglehold” on American media that “has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain.” Worse yet, he had told Nixon in that 1972 conversation that some of his best friends were Jewish:

“A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me, because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth, 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.”

This from a fervent supporter of Israel who had been honored by the American Jewish Committee for being responsible for major advancements in Protestant-Jewish relations.

Painful as it is for me to consider the possibility that a hero of my faith harbored sentiments that would endear him to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Graham’s words seem to speak louder than his actions. And though Graham refused to join in calls for Jews to convert, I have to wonder if his “synagogue of Satan” comment was really directed at those Jews who called themselves Jews but had both missed the Messiah and had stopped living like Jews. In short, those same Hollywood Jews who he thought had “stranglehold” on American media.

But really we don’t know. Graham is 90 now and not doing interviews. And what we know about Graham’s true feelings toward Jews is obscured by previous soft interviews, public exhortations and, now, another round of Nixon tapes.

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  • Perpetua

    Hi Brad,

    I am wondering what Steve Miller means by this:

    Many members of the liberal media happened to be Jewish. That is, Nixon and Graham chose to notice the presence of Jews therein.

    How many is “many” as a percent of the whole? Do you know how many of the leaders of the mainstream media at the time were Jewish?

  • Kevin J Jones

    I’m wondering what you make of Joel Stein’s iconoclastic Dec. 19 LA Times piece “How Jewish is Hollywood?”

    After listing his co-religionists in Hollywood, he concludes: “But I don’t care if Americans think we’re running the news media, Hollywood, Wall Street or the government. I just care that we get to keep running them.”

    This is one of those ten-foot-pole issues. I hope I’m not judged harshly for bringing it up.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I’m not sure exactly what proportion of mainstream media would have been Jewish in the ’70s. I think it’s probably higher today — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Journalism has long been a welcome profession for Jews, primarily because it is a skillset not reliant on ownership and allowed for a more mobile life, which was a commodity for Jews constantly living under the sword.

    But it should be understood that there is a big difference between Jewish representation in the media and Jewish media influence. As JJ Goldberg writes in his eye-opening book “Jewish Power”:

    No single element of American Jewish power is more tangled in myth and mystery than the relationship between Jews and the media. Nowhere is the gulf wider between the way Jews see themselves and the way their neighbors see them.

    Yes, Jews are prominent in the upper echelons and lower reporting rungs of the most important American media outlets, but there is no uniform Jewish agenda running through these organizations — only values shaped by a common bond; the same could be said for Mormon over-representation in Congress.

    As for the question, “How Jewish is Hollywood?”, watch William Morris COO Irv Weintraub squirm when asked “Why do people think Jews control Hollywood?”

    “I’m not sure I want to answer that question,” was his response.

    My take has been thus:

    Today’s Hollywood Jews are familial and cultural heirs to the town their ancestors built. Neal Gabler recognized that with his definitive 1988 book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.“ This was not an anti-Semitic text, but a keenly observant cultural history. The big difference between Gabler’s book and, say, those of Kevin MacDonald, is that one offers telling portraits of a peculiar phenomenon while the other blames the protagonists for a conspiracy to corrupt American attitudes.

    There is no Jewish plot to control our minds through entertaining, godless propaganda; there is an ancient affinity for telling stories. And, as I’ve mentioned before: If Jews really worked in media to get out a unified message at the expense of their gentile neighbors, they sure do a poor job.

    As for the ADL finding that 22 percent of Americans believe Jews control Hollywood, I, like Joel Stein, thought that meant Jews were slipping.

  • Steven P. Miller

    I realize that the conversation has moved beyond my post, but just to clarify: I was writing about the mindset of Nixon and Graham concerning the presence of Jews in the media. I surely could have been clearer here, but my point was that Nixon and Graham were fixated on criticism from liberal journalists and seemed to think that many of those journalists were Jewish.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    That was how I understood your post, Steven. Did it seem otherwise?

  • Steven P. Miller

    Not at all, Brad. I just wanted to reinforce what I was attempting to say.

  • Bert Attwood

    I’ve never been a fan of Billy Graham, but I wonder if he really meant to refer to Jewish pornographers. Some Jews seem to be quite proud of their involvement in pornography. I read this a while back. I was surprised this was in a Jewish publication…

  • Diane

    I’ve got no problem with what Billy said…he is talking about the atheistic Jews-in-name-only who support communism, godlessness, abortion, etc. Most of the Jews who I know fall into this category. They claim that they are Jews but then they say they don’t believe in God.

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  • dalea

    I do remember that time fairly well. AIR, the New Left which spearheaded opposition to the VietNam war had a large number of Jewish leaders: Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others. The right wing argument ran that these Jews were betraying America by opposing the VietNam adventure. The reason that they were successful was that fellow Jews in the MSM provided them with loads of free publicity to spread treason. And that Jews in Hollywood put loyalty to other Jews above patriotism.

    The whole argument was strange in that it only worked when you looked at the press coverage from the North East and SoCal, which is what the MSM tend to do. If you included the MidWest, NorthWest and Mountain States anti-war movements, you suddenly had a heavily WASP, German and Scandavian movement; ie the grandchildren of AmericaFirst.

    This was never much of a written campaign. Instead it was an argument conservatives would speak of within conservative circles, which is why it is popping up in a transcript of a private conversation. The argument about Jews was directed at the Liberal press, the AntiWar movement, the New Left, the CounterCulture, Feminism. It was discussed but rarely if ever put into print. Interestingly, one other target of the Jew scare were Libertarians within the conservative movement.

  • tmatt

    The issue, of course, is that we are dealing with cultural AND religious definitions of what it means to be a Jew and, in America, people are completely free to claim either or both or whatever.

    So, is it antisemitism to be opposed to secular forms of Judaism and in favor of traditional religious forms?

    That’s the truly provocative question I see lingering here.

  • Dave

    So, is it antisemitism to be opposed to secular forms of Judaism and in favor of traditional religious forms?

    It’s anti-Semitism to treat Jews as second-class citizens and limit their participation arbitrarily. All else is politics.

  • His Prince Michael

    Without going into a long and complex Theological and
    Societal dissertation, I humbly offer the following:

    Once we establish (read: admit) that American Industry has always operated in Ethically-segregated spheres, we can
    work from there.
    I-F, by any stretch, Jew “control” the Media, perhaps,
    this is in large-part due to the fact, they were instrumental in the FORMATION of the Media (Movies, Radio, et cetera). Hence, their early investment and involvement,
    consequently led to a “Family Business”, if you will.
    Think: Korean liquor stores, East India motels,
    on a much more influential level.

    In the issue of Rev. Graham, be sure, throughout
    History, Spiritual Leaders have succumbed to the intoxicating allure of, Power. Undoubtedly, riding a wave of popularity he saw the sheer potential of an alliance
    with the most power person on the planet. Maybe, in a
    unabashed effort to appease Nixon, in his bravado
    he was Anti-Semitic, in speech. ANY true Christian who
    disregards Zion, is essentially, dis-owning their Grandfather. Besides, what a ninety-year-old man said
    in 1973, is beyond irrelevant: In 2009, I’ve got
    a Pharaoh to DEFEAT. ALL, for The Greater Glory of GOD!

  • Cathy Grossman

    Interesting. I may be the only mainstream media person who took the time to call Graham’s spokesman — in fairness — for a response/explanation. And I get knocked, if lightly, here for doing that? I believe readers are the one who should be drawing their own conclusions, not me doing so for them.

  • John Johnson

    I guess what we are all trying to say is: When one catholic priest says he doesn’t like knishes there is massive public outrage. When Billy Graham openly spits anti semitic diatribes, everyone is quite.

  • Jonathan S.

    I didn’t seem to see a knock on your journalism for contacting the spokesperson. (To be honest, I reread the post a couple of times and didn’t get much of a knock on your journalism at all. Maybe I’m missing something.) If there is a criticism, it seemed that what you wrote on your blog would have provided more context in the actual story (as a sidebar, for instance). That seems to be the only criticism I see in the post. I agree with you, that some of your blog post would have been inappropriate for the story as it gave your interpretation of the context. But the actual verse, paired with Ross’ statement, and maybe someone else (a theologian, etc.) giving more context, might have been nice. But, as has been pointed out to us non-journalists repeatedly by Terry et al. and those of you journalists who post here, there may be other factors at play (space, editor’s decision).

  • tmatt


    What I read was a yearning for that Ross material to be available to dead-tree-pulp readers and, as Jonathan says, no one thinks that you want LESS of your reporting in the newspaper. No way. I thought the Ross material was solid and interesting.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I couldn’t have more accurately summarized my post than you did. Well played.

  • MJBubba

    Dave (#12), once again you are not getting religion.
    Diane (#8), you are very much on the trail of an aspect of this story that Professor Mattingly and Brad A. G. are hinting at. Billy Graham’s remarks on the topic of the Jews need to be carefully parsed, because he was speaking by turns about different groups of Jews, and he had very different views regarding Orthodox Jews and the zionists that take their religion very seriously, and, on the other hand, the secularist Jews that have been busy for a hundred years to use their media influence to promote an American civic religion that is universalist in nature and emasculates God.

  • Dave

    MJ, it’s hardly a failure to “get religion” to harbor a secular defintion of anti-Semitism parallel to secular definitions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.

    I find it offensive to Jewish tradition the way Christians cherry-pick “Old Testament” verses that were never intended as prophesy and claim they prophesize Christ. But that’s not anti-Semitism; it’s cultural appropriation.

    I regard the “synagogue of Satan” line in Revelation as anti-Semitic in that it was used by Jews who embraced Christ to literally demonize Jews who did not.

    If you don’t like these interpretations, remember it was you who challenged me about getting religion.

  • FrGregACCA

    RE: “synagogue of Satan”

    The Apocalypse uses this phrase with regard to those “who say they are Jews but are not”. Therefore, the most literal reading, one that is also defensible historically, would indicate that it is speaking of non-Jews who have incorporated aspects of Judaism into some sort of syncretic proto-gnosticism.

    Another thing that is interesting here has to with Zionism, Orthodox Judaism, and the new left. Zionism’s roots are both secular and socialist. To this day, the State of Israel is largely secular, as are its citizens, and small bands of hyper-Orthodox Jews still reject the desirability of its existence. Back in the sixties and seventies, there was in fact a large contingent of secular Jewish folks involved with the new left, and to the extent that it still exists, there probably still is. Ironically, however, these folks are, to say the least, NOT Zionists, while the predominant trend within the mainstream Jewish community, regardless of level of religious observance and overall political ideology, is supportive of the State of Israel. Thus, all those “liberal Jews running the media” that Graham and Nixon were decrying were on the same page with them when it came to Israel.

  • Dave

    Fr Greg, I defend my interpretation as more historically defensible because it does not require the invention of a new character — some band of cultural appropriators who absorb some but not all of Judaism — to come into existence long enough to be denounced by John and then vanish from the record. But this is not the time or place.

    Secular Jews in the New Left surely were compelled, by their general analysis of history, to side with the Palestinians. If there’s a New Left still functioning I’m not aware of it; they don’t emerge where they should, such as among supporters of a single-payer health system or more fundamental regulation of the finance industry, pushing Obama from the left.

  • FrGregACCA

    If there’s a New Left still functioning I’m not aware of it; they don’t emerge where they should, such as among supporters of a single-payer health system or more fundamental regulation of the finance industry, pushing Obama from the left.

    Oh, there is still a New Left; small and divided, but still very much alive: one of them proverbial alphabet soups. Regarding the need to push Obama to the left, especially on health care, I couldn’t agree more; concerning the New Left’s involvement in that, well, the genuine far left, whether old or new, has long had an ambivalent attitude toward electoral politics.

  • Dean


    Millions of little members of the worldwide F.F.A. (Future Followers of the Antichrist) have finally learned how to find a certain part of their lower anatomy and quickly touch it while dancing – thanks to Michael Jackson, the highest paid Lower Anatomy Toucher of all time! Special thanks also go to the Jesus-bashing, Hell-bound Hollywood moguls who were just as quick to see higher profits in lower anatomies! [Just saw this opinion on the web. Other grabby items on MSN, Google, etc. include "Separation of Raunch and State," "David Letterman's Hate, Etc.," "Tribulation Index becomes Rapture Index," and "Bible Verses Obama Avoids." - something for everyone!]

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