In the new PBS film, politics is the defining element in Graham’s life. Was it?
The narrative arc of the recent documentary Billy Graham: Prayer. Politics. Power. centers on a man the filmmakers see as the central figure in Graham’s life—Richard Nixon, not Jesus Christ. With Nixon, Graham succumbs to the temptations of power, eventually repents, and spends the rest of his life trying to wash away the stains. It is a powerful presentation that is worth seeing, but one that seems more designed to undercut the religious right than to present a properly weighted picture of one of the twentieth century’s most important figures.
As the opening credits flash by, a voice says, “America is a land of salespeople.” Yet, what might have been a cynically told tale of Graham’s rise from the Carolinas’ top Fuller Brush salesman to the planet’s best-known pitchman for the God of the Bible is tempered by the lesson Graham took from his door-to-door days. “What he learned, he said, was sincerity,” intones biographer William Martin, “You have to believe in the product.” The first half of the film is a well-produced and often sympathetic rendering that portrays Graham’s faith as a cultural fact of life rather than an object of mockery.
The film never questions the sincerity of Graham’s beliefs. It also notes his avoidance of the financial and sexual scandals that bedeviled many prominent preachers. Still, its primary depiction of Graham is as the unwitting doorman for the excesses of the Christian right.
Nancy Gibbs, author of The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, observes that after Nixon’s resignation Graham’s international travels made him “more aware of difference and of nuance and of complexity.” “He became,” says Gibbs, “less American and more global.” “It broadened him,” she concludes.
In this telling, Graham even becomes less dogmatic, seemingly moving away from a narrow Christ-centered path and towards the spiritual but not religious mindset that resonates with many a public television devotee. Journalist Ken Woodward recounts for the cameras how Graham told him that he no longer believed the masses of Chinese babies unreached by the Gospel were destined for hell. “It’s an extraordinary change,” exclaims Woodward.
Asked by Tom Brokaw about Jerry Falwell and his political efforts, Graham is shown emphatically saying, “I’m not going to be a part of that.” Graham is also described as getting on the wrong side of Ronald Reagan (which, of course, is the right side to be on for those on the left) through his opposition to nuclear proliferation and by taking a trip to Moscow in 1982. The film additionally highlights the fact that after embarrassing tapes of past anti-Semitic conversations with Nixon emerged in 2002, Graham repented and sought the forgiveness of Jewish leaders. In short, after seeing the real Nixon, Graham turns away and turns out to be not such a bad guy after all—and a lot like the typical PBS viewer.
Historian Kevin Kruse puts it this way near the end of the film: “As we reckon with Billy Graham’s life, I think we have to pay attention not just to the quarter-century in which he was very politically active but the slightly longer period that came after it in which he spent his time atoning for those actions.”
The film’s final word of scholarly commentary is then given to historian Uta Balbier: “What is so interesting in Billy Graham’s ministry is that someone who wanted to be so inclusive paved the ground for one of the most exclusive religious movements in the United States, the Religious Right. ”It is a compelling narrative—the trailblazer who comes to regret the trail he has blazed.
The reality is more complicated. The documentary breezes through the decades after Nixon’s resignation with what seems a willful blindness. While it is true that the post-Nixon Graham was rarely as overt in his boosterism, the idea that a mellower, more tolerant man simply took his thumb off the political scales is belied by the facts.
In the immediate aftermath of Nixon’s resignation, Graham lobbied President Ford for the pardon of Nixon that soon came. In the subsequent race between Ford and the openly “born again” Jimmy Carter—a contest completely ignored on screen—it was not hard to see Graham’s leanings toward Ford. “I would rather have a man in office,” Graham famously said in 1976, “who is highly qualified to be President who didn’t make much of a religious profession than to have a man who had no qualifications but who made a religious profession.”
Filmmakers portray Christian broadcaster James Robison as one of the culture-warring preachers from which the post-Nixon Graham was distancing himself. In 2014, however, Robison delivered the keynote address at the annual CPAC Ronald Reagan Dinner where he described a late 1970s gathering of prominent conservative Christians that Graham, driven by fears of communism and Carter, helped to organize in Dallas. Steven P. Miller, one of the film’s excellent cast of talking heads, also notes the meeting in his book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South. Yet, you would not know about any of this from the film, even though a similar effort involving the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and aimed against John Kennedy is highlighted. Apparently, a supposedly reformed Graham rallying a kind of shadow version of the Moral Majority while sometimes chiding the real thing in the spotlight makes for schizophrenic storytelling, even if it is the truth.
Also ignored is Graham appearing side by side with George W. Bush just two days before the 2000 election. There Graham said, “I don’t endorse candidates. But I’ve come as close to it, I guess, now as any time in my life, because I think it’s extremely important.” Neither is any mention made of his much more bombastic son Franklin Graham, in whose hands Billy Graham left his sizable ministry, or of Franklin reporting that his father voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
American Experience, the long-running PBS series that brings us this portrait, decades ago changed its name from The American Experience. This seemed a nod to the diversity of the lives lived in an often fractured United States, but the producers often still see politics as the lens of history. Despite its many strengths, including clips that concisely encapsulate Graham’s basic lifelong message of reconciliation with God through the cross of Jesus, their latest effort ultimately falls into the politics-as-primary pit.
Recognizing that Billy Graham lived a life difficult to portray negatively, the film presents Graham’s chief mid-life mistake as keeping Martin Luther King, Jr. at arm’s length while embracing Nixon, before the true light of a worldly tolerance shines on him. It says nothing about Graham establishing Christianity Today to counter the progressive Christian Century, or his role in the founding of conservative seminaries like Fuller and Gordon-Conwell and institutions of global evangelicalism such as the Lausanne Movement. Instead, in this story his move away from the fundamentalism of his youth simply foreshadows more steps to come. Graham’s international efforts are presented as a sort of joy ride to dodge the aftermath of Watergate, despite the numerous crusades abroad that predated it.
Nixon is in fact part of Graham’s story but far from the crux of it. If you can’t beat him, rebrand him.
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise. He hosts the Brass Spittoon podcast at frontporchrepublic.com.