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?
The 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.