Will Trump-Supporting Evangelicals Learn Anything from the Graham-Nixon Relationship?

Graham and Nixon

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,  I wrote:

[Billy] Graham’s relationship with Richard Nixon brought him closer to the world of presidential politics than he had ever been before.  The two stayed in close contact during the years following Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in the election of 1960 and the evangelist continued to speak positively about the politician in public venues.  In a 1964 interview in McCall’s magazine, Graham expressed his bafflement that he often heard people say  “I just don’t like Nixon.”  According to Graham, the former vice president was “one of the warmest and most likeable men I have ever known.”  Nixon claimed that Graham encouraged him  him to run for president again in 1968, and Graham, in turn, suggested that Nixon’s second change at the nation’s highest political office was part of God’s providential plan.  During Nixon’s years in the White House (1969-1974) , Graham made regular visits to the president, served as an unofficial surrogage (without formally endorsing him), advised Nixon on policy decision, and publicly thanked God for his presidency.  [Historian Steven] Miller goes as far to suggest that there were times when “Graham’s [religious] services or appearances seemed to double as Nixon rallies.”  Nixon used Graham to win evangelical votes, especially in the South. where Nixon needed the votes of white southern Christians–his so-called “Southern strategy”–and Graham believed that Nixon was a moral statesman, God’s man to lead a Christian nation.

But Graham would quickly learn that Richard Nixon was one man in Graham’s presence and quite another when operating in the cutthroat world of presidential politics.  During the Watergate scandal, Graham stood by the president.  During the 1972 election campaign, he chided Nixon’s opponent, South Dakota senator George McGovern, for saying that the Nixon administration was up to something sinister.  In one letter to President Nixon, Graham quoted Psalm 35:11-12, where the psalmist writes: “They accuse me of things I have never heard about.  I do them good, but they return me harm.”  [Historian Grant] Wacker says that Graham “continued to defend Nixon long after most Americans smelled a rate.”  In December 1973 , the evangelist told Nixon that he had “complete confidence” in his “personal integrity.”  When transcripts of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations (which included Nixon’s strongly anti-Semitic language) proved that the president was ultimately responsible for the Watergate break-in, Graham seemed more concerned about Nixon’s profanity on the tapes than the fact that the president was using his power to cover up his crimes.  When Graham read excerpts of the tapes in The New York Times, he claimed to feel “physically sick.”  Years later, Graham admitted that his relationship with the disgraced former president had “muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics” and, as Wacker notes, “he urged young evangelists to avoid his mistake.”

There are a lot of similarities between Graham’s relationship with Nixon and the court evangelicals‘ relationship with Donald Trump.  Have the court evangelicals learned anything from Billy Graham?  Over at The Washington Post, Anja Maria-Bassimir and Elesha Coffman offer a revealing look into the way evangelical magazines responded to Graham’s relationship with Nixon during the Watergate scandal.  Here is a taste:

While Graham enjoyed private chats in the Nixon White House and urged his fellow citizens to rally around the flag at Honor America Day, another prominent evangelical, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), warned that a bad graft between religion and politics was turning gangrenous. “We would always rather hide our wounds than heal them,” he said at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Chicago in May 1973. “It is always more comfortable to believe in the symbols of righteousness than to acknowledge the reality of evil. This is especially true in our national political life. And we have become adroit at manipulating religious impulses in our land to sanctify this political life.”

People in power, such as Hatfield, had to work even harder to resist such craven impulses. He noted: “When we are given a position of leadership, it becomes almost second nature to avoid admitting that we may be wrong. Confession becomes equated with weakness. The urge toward self-vindication becomes enormous, almost overpowering. A politician faces this temptation in a very special way, for somehow it has become a political maxim never to admit that one is wrong. Now, that may be wise politics. But it’s terrible Christianity.” These sentiments earned Hatfield a place on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” and a concerned letter from Graham, according to the book “Lonely Walk.”

As revelations about the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup accumulated in 1973 and 1974, many evangelicals vacillated between Hatfield’s warnings and Graham’s reassurances. At first, only Hatfield’s allies in the small but vocal evangelical left sounded the alarm. Hatfield’s speech echoed the rhetoric of his friend Jim Wallis, who regularly hit these ominous notes in his radical magazine, the Post-American (later renamed Sojourners). Then, the far-from-radical magazine Eternity chimed in, as columnist Joseph Bayly wrote: “Whether we like it or not, a major problem we face as evangelical Christians today is the identification in the popular mind of the religious position we represent with the Nixon administration and its actions. We are ‘middle America,’ the group sector that gave President Nixon his ‘mandate.’ We are the war party, the white backlash (if not racist) party, the Watergate scandal party.”

Finally, the more staid Christianity Today — the magazine founded by Billy Graham — came around. It had printed Hatfield’s speech in June 1973, but also Graham’s “mistakes and blunders” comments several months later. Appearing reluctant, in June 1974, an editorial argued for Nixon’s impeachment. Authors acknowledged that “evangelicals can point to some in their ranks whose private or public conduct is disgraceful, perhaps even worse than that displayed by the Watergate participants.” Ten years later, Graham told the magazine: “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God.” He said he had learned his lesson. And near the end of his life, he said: “I also would have steered clear of politics.”

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “Will Trump-Supporting Evangelicals Learn Anything from the Graham-Nixon Relationship?

  1. Will Trump-Supporting Evangelicals Learn Anything from the Graham-Nixon Relationship?

    NO.
    Because GOD is on their side.

    “Nine out of ten fresh new ideas are really old mistakes. But to a generation who was not there when those old mistakes were last made, they seem like Fresh New Ideas.”
    — G.K.Chesterton (from memory)
    Though I would attach “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” to the end of that quote.

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