No matter where the young Billy Graham went, his evangelistic team always seemed to arrive a few days after Elmer Gantry left town.
Finally, Graham huddled with his inner circle during a 1948 tent revival in California. A key biblical text for the day was St. Paul’s advice to his protegee Timothy: “Flee youthful lusts.” The team quickly agreed on a code to cover money, the media, clashes with other clergy and, of course, sex.
“We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel,” explained Graham, in his autobiography. “We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”
This private pact became known as “The Modesto Manifesto.” There isn’t a copy in the official Graham archives.
“I don’t think they ever had a calligrapher write it up so they could have it laminated. But they never had a lot of trouble remembering what they were supposed to watch out for – with money and sex at the top of the list,” said sociologist William Martin of Rice University, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”
This idealistic code has become part of Graham lore and influenced life in Christian groups of all kinds.
Ask presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a Religious Right superstar who recently felt forced to respond to rumors that he was having an affair with a 27-year-old campaign aide. Former staff members – Christian conservatives, one and all – openly accused him of holding lengthy one-on-one meetings with a woman other than his wife and, thus, creating the appearance of impropriety.
Bauer has, in effect, being accused of failing to ask: “What would Billy do?”
It’s understandable, said Martin, that others have tried to adopt Graham’s lifestyle code. After all, the evangelist has survived a half-century under the gaze of reporters and scholars, emerging with an almost miraculously spotless record.
“People want to be able to get a copy of the Modesto Manifesto, hang it on the wall, and then say, ‘Look, we’re doing what Billy did,’ ” said Martin.
But it isn’t clear that the same code will work for everyone in an era in which women and men share a marketplace bedeviled by changing gender roles and foggy laws about sexual harassment. Priests often hear confessions in private, one-on-one meetings. How about a pastor, facing a suicidal teen? A professor, discussing an ethical issue with a student? And, yes, a politician holding a confidential discussion of strategy?
Graham met the moral challenges that accompanied his work as an itinerant evangelist. Moving from crusade to crusade, surrounded by aides, he has been able to avoid one-on-one meetings with women other than his wife. Graham has, noted Martin, been known to retreat to solitude of his room when faced with a woman trying to give him a hug and kiss of fellowship in a public restaurant.
Bauer’s most outspoken critics also have, like the candidate himself, spent years working with radio counselor James Dobson. The Focus on the Family patriarch of the Focus has deep roots in the ultra-strict Nazarene branch of Protestantism. On top of that, he is a veteran family therapist in an era in which that profession has been rocked by litigation and he-said, she-said scandals. Dobson makes Graham look like an Episcopalian.
Facing the media, Bauer begged to be judged as a politician. “I am not a minister,” he said. “I am not a pastor.”
Bauer is, of course, running as a moral conservative in the wake of the media storms that hit Gary Hart, Clarence Thomas and the current occupant of the White House. This week, Bauer said he was ordering a glass door for his office.
“In the circles that Gary Bauer works in, the mere appearance of trouble is bad news,” said Martin. “It’s safe to say that everybody should consider putting a window in their office door, these days. I imagine that the last few years of American life would be quite a bit different if Bill Clinton had learned to leave his office door open.”