The East Coast media didn't make that big a deal out of the revelation of Billy Graham's flagrantly anti-Semitic comments to Richard Nixon in 1972. As best I can figure, editors just assumed it wasn't all that surprising for an evangelical preacher to utter anti-Semitic comments. Didn't Pat Robertson already do that?

After all, to many East Coast editors, those evangelicals are all alike. But that, of course, is utterly wrong and misses the significance of Billy Graham himself and the devastating effect of his comments.

Graham is, simply put, the most beloved religious figure in America. When Beliefnet selected its annual Most Inspiring Person of 2000, Graham led the pack in our voting. He has been universally respected and admired, not only for his devotion to his faith, but also for his message of love and respect. While many religious leaders sought to divide, he sought to unite.

Last year on a flight to Texas, I sat next to a young woman in her early 20s. She was reading one of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels and described herself as born again. She'd never heard of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson (the national media darlings)--but considered Billy Graham her hero.

Beginning early in his career, Graham gave voice to a passionate form of rural evangelism embraced by a large number of born-again Christians. His stature--his relationships with presidents, his standing in the world--elevated their Bible-centered beliefs and brought them closer to the mainstream. He pioneered the use of TV and radio to spread the word.

So for him to be revealed--even in a decades-old meeting--as a narrow-minded bigot should be devastating to Billy Graham fans everywhere.

"This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain," Graham said, referring to Jews and the media. He notes that many Jews like him, but adds, "They don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country."

Does this in some way soil his image in the history books? I'm afraid so. After all, Bill Clinton won't be judged solely by his record on the economy; Nixon won't be judged just on his foreign policy.

Graham's comments can and should be viewed as a major stain on his legacy, not blotting out the good he's done but certainly discoloring it. How can we now view his message of love as being sincere? Were his public declarations of tolerance masking "how I really feel"?

But this disillusioning moment also provides a wonderful opportunity for Graham--a time to speak honestly about whether anti-Semitism was pervasive in evangelical circles at the time.

Rather than saying he doesn't remember making such comments, Graham should admit that he did hold such views back then--and explain how and why he outgrew such beliefs. If he were to offer that kind of honest description of his own moral and mental evolution, it would provide a pathway to more tolerant thinking for those still mired in reflexive hatreds, and an implicit forgiveness for others who once held those views and are now ashamed.

The premise of South Africa's reconciliation commission was that before there can be healing there must be an honest accounting.

Billy Graham is old and frail. Unfortunately, he's facing one of the greatest tests of his career right now. As a man who has espoused the loving word of Jesus Christ his whole life--who's preached countless times about honesty and forgiveness--he now has a choice.

He can face honestly who he was, or deny it. If he faces it, he will go down in history as an even greater man than we thought he was prior to the release of the Nixon tapes.

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