2016-06-30
What is your response to reading the transcript of what Billy Graham said to Richard Nixon?

It's very sad and I know that he deeply regrets it. But it demonstrates again that no matter who you are, but especially if you are a clergy person, conservative or liberal, any president can seduce one into supporting his policies or even himself, by this offer of access to his presence. And we've seen this on the left with Lyndon Johnson, when he clergy would not question the war in Vietnam.

Can you give us an example of such clergy?

Let's just take Nixon for example. I used to go to these Sunday so-called church services which were held in the White House by Nixon, and he or his people would screen the clergy. He had a Catholic Cardinal there once, and Graham was there on several occasions and a number of others, and not a single one of them opposed his policies in Vietnam or much else, so these were the safe clergy. And you didn't get in there unless you were a Nixon supporter of course, which I always thought was rather amusing to say nothing of the detriment it brought to the presidency by not offering the opportunity of hearing contrary viewpoints.

The same thing happened with Bill Clinton. His collection of supposed spiritual advisors following the Monica Lewinsky affair was all used as religious cover. All political people want to have the covering, the protection of religious authority on their side.

Did what Graham said on the tape surprise you?

Yes. Very much so. Because that's not the Billy Graham I know. You know, it's funny, because when the Nixon tapes came out originally, the first ones, with all the profanities on it, as I recall, Graham said HE was shocked because that was not the Richard Nixon HE knew!

So this is an interesting turnabout here, because now here, now Graham's voice comes out on the tape and, well, that is not the Billy Graham I know. If all of our comments were taped, I suppose, and played before God, as it is indicated they will be, all of us will be embarrassed by one conversation or another that we've had.

So what do you think happened? Why would he have said these things?

Well, you know, nobody knows another person's heart. I don't think Graham is such a bigot. He desegregated when he didn't have to, and it cost him a lot support in the South especially, and he was denounced by people like Bob Jones and a bunch of other people.

It was in the early stages of King's civil right activism, and Graham told me once that he had this conversation with King and said, "I can't do what you do, but I support what you do." And he recorded that King said to him, "That's okay, you take the stadiums and I'll take the streets." But I know for a fact in cities that practiced segregation, with blacks and whites in separate parts of stadiums, he wouldn't have it. His people tore down the barriers and invited black folks to sit wherever they wanted. And it was very rare, very brave at that time, especially in the South. He got death threats all the time.

Usually with bigotry, you don't like Catholics, you don't like Jews, you don't like whatever, but there's certainly no example of that with Graham, and I can only chalk it up to this ingratiating spirit that overcomes a lot of people who always want to say something complimentary to the President--and that's very, very dangerous. Jim Bakker came to my house and I asked him, "Jim, what started to go wrong? And he said, `I surrounded myself with people who only told me what I wanted to hear.'"

The whole idea of ingratiating yourself to the boss, whether it's the boss or the President, or somebody who works in the company, that's just human nature.

What was going on in 1972 that made this conversation even possible?

Nixon harbored the old canard that Jews were responsible for the a lot of the problems in the world-- this was the leftover Hitler philosophy, and others who have gone before blame it on the Jews. They're easy scapegoats because of their minority status. And, first of all, Nixon was paranoid.

In 1972, McGovern was the Democratic candidate. Nixon wasn't taking any chances, and it was a hot election year. Vietnam was raging. Nixon claimed he had a plan to end the war, but he wasn't specific about it. He wanted to bury the liberals, and he harbored this hostility toward the media. I can only conclude that this is an extension of that, and of Nixon hating the media as he did.

Graham had no reason to hate the media. They treated him with kid gloves. His whole career was made when William Randolph Hearst in 1949 in Los Angeles gave the order, "Hype Graham. I like this guy." And out of that the public came to notice a very gifted young preacher from North Carolina. So I don't think Graham ever had a bad working relationship with the media. Far from it.

But there is that need in some people. I could have understood a younger person perhaps being overwhelmed by the power, but Graham had been around the block a few times.

Certainly there has been a lot of change in the relationship between evangelicals and Jews since 1972. But what was going on in that relationship at the time?

It was just beginning to blossom. Jimmy Carter of course was yet to come, so the whole born-again scenario that exploded with Carter running for President in 1976 wasn't yet there in 1972. You already had a couple wars in which Israel won, and the one in 1973 was yet to come. And one of the things I saw then was both Jews and evangelical Christians saw themselves as a persecuted minority. The secular left hated the evangelical Christians in this country, even in 1972. Maybe not with the intensity that came after the formation of the moral majority, but there was always this air of superiority that you saw after the Scopes Trial [in 1925], that if you were religious at all, that was equal to being ignorant, because any intelligent person would have long ago rejected God. So that if you still believed in him by definition you were an idiot. That was generally the view.

The National Religious Broadcasters, the National Association of Evangelicals, and some of these others, were in their formative years at least insofar as their visibility was concerned. You had the Jesus people from California making some noise. Later in the 1970s, you had the fiasco with Larry Flynt, Eldridge Cleaver, Ruth Carter Stapleton and Anita Bryant within a couple years of each other in Washington. So in 1972, things were just getting started in terms of the visibility of the evangelical subculture that had been lying low since the Scopes Trial and exploded in the secular mind in 1980. That was when Bill Moyers did his PBS special from the Republican Convention that basically said, "Hey, where did all these people come from?"

Were evangelicals and Jews even talking to each other then? Yeah I think so. A lot of the evangelical support comes as a result of Israel's place in history and the [evangelicals' apocalyptic] theology, but that's not all of it. For myself, for example, I'm pretty much supportive of the little guy, and the Jews are the little guys and always have been. They're the most persecuted minority in the history of the world.

Obviously, most Jewish people are liberal in their politics, so I think the thing that unites most evangelicals--who are mostly conservative in theirs--and Jews is Israel. Not abortion, not politics, not gay rights, not a lot of other social problems. It's Israel.

Was anti-Semitism an issue among evangelicals then, and is it still?

I don't sense it as much anymore. As a matter of fact, I see the far more outrageous stereotypes showing up in the Arab press lately. That equals or exceeds the most outrageously bigoted stuff I've ever seen in the United States. Most evangelicals are very fond of, even love, the Jewish people.

But there is still a strong feeling among evangelicals-people who are clearly not anti-Semitic-of the need to convert Jews to Christianity. And some Jews consider that in itself anti-Semitic.

Yeah, I know. Well, first of all, this whole idea of converting Jews to Christianity-my approach would be introducing them to the Jewish Messiah. Jesus was not a Christian; Jesus was a Jew. Jesus didn't come to found a religion, but to reestablish a broken relationship. Everything Jesus did was Jewish. Plus, I would say the biblical mandate that most evangelicals accept is to "go into all the world and make disciples"-not converts. And I would add that I don't think a particular group ought to be singled out. I can see where our Jewish friends who are already afflicted with intermarriage and many other assaults on their faith might see this as one more-especially given the history.

But one of the most important aspects of being an evangelical is that desire to "go and make disciples."

I think you have to do it in a friendly and loving way. It needs to be done in humility, and it needs to be done in love, and it needs to be done with a servant sprit and it needs to be done with a sense of history, so you don't just walk in and start in on somebody before you understand what these words may sound like to them. Because they know their history. I mean, we think the Holocaust is all of their history, that that's all there was. No, that's only a part of it--a big one, but not all of it.

And finally, what do you think this episode does toBilly Graham's legacy?

Well, it's sad. He's 83 years old, he's not going to be able to get on television. with his Parkinson's Disease, and adequately explain himself. It's probably not explainable. He said he had no recollection of the incident and I believe that. We all say many things that we don't remember.

But does it become part of his legacy?

It depends on who writes the history. I would hope not. I mean, look, we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and we all commit different things. I think his good works are very well known. This is a sad and unfortunate incident. I don't know if it was repeated anywhere else. I've never heard of it anywhere else. I've never heard a suggestion that Billy Graham was anything other than upright in everything he did. And so I would hope this is one of those little glitches.

more from beliefnet and our partners