Frank Viola quotes Billy Graham on what he’d do differently with his ministry if he had it to do all over again:
I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.
My hunch is that Graham is thinking of his close association with Nixon and how Watergate tarnished his reputation. Or possibly the Graham-Nixon recordings that make the evangelist sound anti-semitic. As Steven Miller pointed out, Graham clearly had a “kitchen cabinet” position with Nixon, and that ended up hurting him.
To his credit, I’m sure he doesn’t mean his support of civil rights, even though that hurt him with fundamentalists and led to the break with men like Falwell. As Miller points out in his book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, Graham’s stance was carefully finessed, but even that was too much for the rising Christian Right. Graham has since indicated that all he regrets is the finessing.
Like Graham, I grew up in the piedmont of North Carolina. I went to college not far from where Graham lives in Montreat. Down in NC, Graham is known as a good man and a “simple country preacher” who made it big but got used by politicians. His statements play into that reputation.
But the problem is that Graham was always political. His ministry began with heavy elements of anticommunism. In the revival that made his name, the “Canvas Cathedral” revival in Los Angeles, 1949, Graham called communism “a religion that is inspired, directed and motivated by the Devil himself.” It was this forceful message that led to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst telling his editors to “puff Graham,” which launched Graham’s national career.
Graham had more than a distaste for communism. He made it clear that he sought a national revival to make America a proper leader in the fight against the godless threat. Communism became the Assyria to America’s ancient Israel; a threat used by God to punish the wayward nation.
Here’s historian Daniel K. Williams from his book God’s Own Party:
Graham infused America’s anticommunist struggle with an underpinning of evangelical theology. Fighting communism was a religious duty, and the American government was engaged in the work of the Lord when it opposed the Soviet Union. The “American way of life” was therefore the Christian way of life, and a threat to one was a threat to the other. By turning to God, Americans could avert an imminent Soviet attack. “Soviet Russia may well be the instrument in the hands of God to bring America to her knees in judgment,” Graham told an audience in South Carolina in 1950. “God may well do it today unless America repents of her sins of immorality, drunkenness, and rebellion against God.”
Graham was not apolitical. He fused religion and politics together in a way that made him very popular with people like Hearst, Eisenhower and Nixon. If you took away that anticommunist message, then maybe he wouldn’t have been drawn into the realignment of the Republican party, but he also wouldn’t have been the great Billy Graham.