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Graham Lies at Center of Politics He Both Embraced and Eschewed

Biographer: Nixon ‘used’ reverend, making him leery of most politicians

President Donald Trump touches the casket of the Rev. Billy Graham as he lies in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump touches the casket of the Rev. Billy Graham as he lies in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Capitol Rotunda went mostly silent late Wednesday morning, with just the precise footsteps of eight military pallbearers echoing and camera shutters fluttering. The servicemembers moved slowly but with purpose as they placed Billy Graham’s brown casket on a stand covered by a black cloth.

The towering and sometimes polarizing American religious figure — hailed for his sermons and criticized for anti-Semitic remarks once caught on tape — had arrived to lie in honor in a building that symbolizes the politics he both embraced and eschewed.

As Graham’s casket sat under the natural light of the ornate Rotunda, its four doorways featuring somber black bunting, some parts of the scene seemed fitting. But other aspects of the religion-meets-politics spectacle seemed not to align neatly, including some of Graham’s most controversial remarks, like ones made in private to President Richard Nixon as well as subsequent comments about AIDS that still offend many in the LGBTQ community.

On the fitting side: The government honor was not the first one given to Graham, noted Grant Wacker, a professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, who said the late preacher amassed a “long record of civic and federal recognitions, which are not sectarian.” What’s more, Graham “has long enjoyed bipartisan support,” he added. On Wednesday, members of both parties filled the round room beneath the Capitol Dome — though only Republicans delivered remarks.

Watch: GOP Leaders Honor Rev. Billy Graham

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell estimated that the North Carolinian likely “shared the Gospel” with more people around the world than anyone else in history. “The Senate and the nation are so grateful for your service,” the Kentucky Republican said. Speaker Paul D. Ryan noted that Graham “did not profess to have all the answers — look to the Bible, he would say.”

Trump’s visit

It also seemed fitting that, just as he did for decades, the Southern Baptist minister known as the “pastor to the presidents” drew an audience with one more chief executive: President Donald Trump made the short trip from the White House to pay his respects.

Near the ceremony’s end, Trump and first lady Melania Trump watched as a Capitol Police honor guardsman placed a wreath by Graham’s casket that represented the federal government’s executive branch. The first couple then approached the casket, and the president stood with his eyes closed for around 30 seconds, saying something softly as they returned to their seats.

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Trump spoke briefly after McConnell and Ryan, saying Graham “changed the entire world.” The president offered a personal anecdote, mentioning that his father took him to see a Graham revival at Yankee Stadium when he was a boy growing up in New York. “Fred Trump was a fan,” the president said. “Fred Trump was my father.”

He also posthumously connected the famous reverend to his own “America first” governing philosophy, saying no matter where Graham preached around the globe, “his heart was always in America.”

The presence of Trump — a man with no clear religious convictions and who has boasted about his riches and groping of women — provided a striking dissonance with the spiritual overtones of the event.

Graham had personally met with or given counsel to every sitting U.S. president since Harry S. Truman. But he met the incumbent only once, at his 95th birthday party in 2013. 

“Graham’s ‘friendship’ with Trump is very recent and appeared to be very thin,” Wacker said. “I strongly doubt [there was] any personal contact since.”

Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, is a Trump supporter — but much about the former reality television star is at odds with the elder Graham’s religious message.

“I have to wonder if Billy Graham ever looked at his son and said, ‘Franklin, are you sure about supporting this man?’” said William Martin, a senior fellow in religion at Rice University’s Baker Institute and author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”

Complicated history

But there were other aspects of Graham lying in the Capitol that were odd. The honor is rare, largely reserved for former presidents and former members of Congress. Then there is Graham’s complicated relationship with the politics and politicians the building symbolizes.

The Capitol Rotunda: Inside the Heart of American Democracy

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“Billy Graham didn’t eschew politics. In fact, he enjoyed politics very much,” Martin said. “Oh, he professed neutrality, but he once told reporters they could probably figure out how he voted and they all laughed,” he added, alluding to Graham’s conservative views.

Graham once embraced politics. In a 1971 Charlotte Observer photograph, he is pictured with Nixon on “Billy Graham Day” in North Carolina’s Queen City. The duo are smiling and waving to the crowd out of the sunroof of Nixon’s presidential limousine.

But it was that relationship that drove Graham to become less — publicly, at least — politically active.

“Graham got burned by Nixon,” Martin said. “Nixon used him, just like he used everyone else. Some of Nixon’s aides have admitted as much to me. … On some of Nixon’s tapes, you can hear him say essentially, ‘Here’s how we have used Billy Graham.’”

“That really affected and upset Graham. After that, he would warn preachers against getting too close to politicians. He learned that it was just too easy to be misled and used as a pawn by people who have more information than pastors do — and different motivations,” Martin added.

Part of the reason for that were anti-Semitic comments Graham made to Nixon, including telling the then-president that the U.S. news media was run by liberal Jews, a perceived threat he said could propel the country “down the drain.” Graham for nearly a decade denied he had made the remarks after allegations first surfaced in a 1994 book by longtime Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman. But then came the release of some of Nixon’s audio tapes eight years later.

“They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” Graham can be heard telling Nixon on the recordings. “The Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”

“I mean, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel,” Graham told Nixon. “But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances.”

(Speaking to Newsweek later about the anti-Semitic remarks, Graham said, “I guess I was trying to please,” adding he went to Jewish leaders and told them he would “crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”)

During his Wednesday benediction, Senate Chaplain Barry Black said another entity “used” Graham: God, to spread religious and moral messages around the world.

[Roll Call’s Wealth of Congress]

Regret and gratitude

But Graham did not completely withdraw himself from politics. In fact, in his final years he expressed regret for some of his more political moves.

He was asked about political issues, sometimes revealing his views before distancing himself from them soon after. One such incident came when Graham in the early 1990s said he thought AIDS was a punishment from God. He quickly backtracked, telling The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer he was unsure why he had said that.

“I … would have steered clear of politics,” he told Christianity Today in 2011 when asked whether he had any regrets about his career.

“I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places,” he said then. “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.”

Religious scholars trumpeted Graham’s efforts to be perceived as nonpartisan. And there was a strong cross-party presence in the Rotunda.

Still, Republican leaders seemed more in feting mode than their Democratic counterparts. To that end, House Republicans fired off a tweet touting nearly a dozen memorable Graham quotes topped by a photo of the pastor with President Ronald Reagan. House Democrats offered no such messaging Wednesday morning.

Another oddity surrounding Graham becoming only the 34th American to lie in the Rotunda: House Republican leaders canceled votes both Wednesday and Thursday, which meant Graham’s death and honoring shuttered the arm of a political system of which he had grown weary.