Billy Graham has been granted the rare honor of having his body lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The setting is entirely appropriate because, more than any single person, Graham paved the way for the religious right’s prominence in American politics.
It’s hard to believe, but for decades evangelicals actively avoided participating in politics. Even though they technically won the Scopes trial in 1925, banning Darwinism from the classroom, they suffered such a public relations blow that they retreated from the political arena. Instead, they focused on creating a series of separate institutions, a parallel universe that reflected their beliefs but that rarely intersected with the broader landscape.
Then along came Graham.
From the beginning, his ministry was tinged with politics. His first big break came when William Randolph Hearst decided to have his newspapers “puff Graham” because of his anti-Communist preaching. Within a few years, Graham had become the unofficial minister to presidents, starting with Eisenhower. Suddenly, evangelicalism was close to the heart of power.
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If Graham had remained non-partisan, the story might have ended there. But he was smitten with Richard Nixon. He helped Nixon in the 1960 campaign against John Kennedy. In 1968, Graham abandoned any pretext of neutrality by actually endorsing Nixon and allowing the endorsement to be used in television ads.
This was a breakthrough, of the wrong sort. As the most prominent evangelical in the U.S., Graham was signalling that faith had a role to play in politics, and that role was to favor Republicans. Graham defended Nixon almost to the bitter end of his presidency, despite Nixon’s disregard for the law. Graham’s affinity with Nixon extended to mutual anti-Semitism.
Graham later said that he regretted his foray into politics and largely steered clear of the marriage between evangelicals and the Republican party. He was no Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.
But in many ways, it didn’t matter. Graham paved the way for them by mixing faith and partisan politics. He let the genie out of the bottle.
For that reason, it’s fitting that Graham’s son, Franklin, is one of the most partisan and hate-filled voices on the religious right. While his father preached a message of salvation, Franklin likes to assign people to hell. And Franklin sees his ministry as justifying Donald Trump to the world and praising Vladimir Putin.
So as Graham’s body lies in state, it’s worth considering not just the effect he had on religion, but the effect he had on politics. That legacy is one for which we will be paying dearly for years to come.