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What Billy Graham taught us about a healthy relationship between religion and politics
Billy Graham, who prayed with presidents and met world leaders, died on Feb. 21, 2018. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Famed evangelist Billy Graham drew evangelical Christians into the public square, helping these believers become the political force they are today.

But by the end of his life, he'd come to reject faith communities that cared more about influencing politics than worshipping Jesus Christ.

"I'm just going to preach the gospel and am not going to get off on all these hot-button issues," he said in 2005. "If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I'm promoting. I'm just promoting the gospel."

Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, spent decades rubbing elbows with U.S. presidents and international leaders. He prayed with Bill Clinton and went on Bush family vacations.

"Graham knew 12 presidents and, in his prime, was a fixture at the White House. He spent the last weekend of the Lyndon Johnson presidency there and was the first overnight guest of Richard Nixon after he was sworn into office," the Los Angeles Times reported.

Graham, however, wanted to be remembered for his deep faith and moral convictions, not his political clout. As leaders like Jerry Falwell shaped evangelical Christians into a powerful voting bloc in the late 1970s and 1980s, Graham refrained from politicking and threw his energy behind humanitarian causes.

"I'm trying to stay out of it and jut keep preaching the gospel, because there's nothing coming out of Washington or any of those places that are going to save the world or transform men and women. It's Christ," he said in 1987.

Graham's long career holds lessons for people of faith today, illustrating the difference between a healthy relationship between religion and politics and a destructive one, religion scholars say.

Political pitfalls

Graham rose to fame through his energetic speaking style. In the wake of World War II, he took it upon himself to remind Americans of the value of the gospel at well-attended revival services.

"That style drew 350,000 people to a tent in downtown Los Angeles over eight weeks in 1949 the first major Billy Graham crusade. When it closed 65 sermons later, the mesmerizing preacher was known across the country and, before long, around the world," the L.A. Times reported.

Graham quickly parlayed his preaching prowess into powerful friendships, meeting with and praying for every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

"When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel like he is praying for you, not the president," said Bill Clinton of Graham in June 2007, according to The New York Times.

Initially, Graham didn't hesitate to mix politics with his spiritual advising. During his Oval Office meetings with Richard Nixon, for example, the two men talked about how to protect conservative values.

"They weren't talking about the mysteries of the universe. They were talking about politics and issues," said John A. Farrell, a Nixon biographer, to the Deseret News last year.

But when Nixon's underhanded tactics were exposed during the Watergate scandal, Graham realized that he needed to focus on his faith, not courting politicians.

"He recognized then that he had probably been used, that he had misunderstood something of the president's character," said Graham biographer William Martin to NPR. "That was a terrible blow to him and caused him to withdraw from the political arena."

In 2005, Graham told Christianity Today that he regretted getting distracted by political bargaining.

"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," he said.

Moral message

Graham's efforts to remove himself from the messy world of politics put him at odds with other prominent evangelicals, including his own son. As leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. strengthened the bond between the Religious Right and the Republican Party, he tried to stay focused on preaching the gospel.

"In his later years, Graham kept his distance from the evangelical political movement he had helped engender, refusing to endorse candidates and avoiding the volatile issues dear to religious conservatives," The New York Times reported.

This shift in his approach allowed him to avoid political scandals, solidifying his legacy as an impressively moral man.

"People who didn't like Billy Graham spent a lot of time trying to find personal violations of his moral and ethical code, and they couldn't," said Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke Divinity School, to NPR. "They didn't exist. He was a man who maintained absolute marital fidelity and moral and financial integrity. He was an evangelist who lived the way he preached."

When he has appeared in political headlines during the Trump era, it's been in reference to his careful avoidance of moral missteps. Last year, an old article on Vice President Mike Pence avoiding one-on-one encounters with women who aren't his wife resurfaced, prompting renewed reflection on the so-called "Billy Graham rule."

Graham "never spent time alone even for lunch or a ride to the airport with a woman other than his wife," the L.A. Times reported. He also set up "a system of checks and balances" to regulate his finances.

Graham will be remembered as one of America's most impactful preachers, someone who became famous almost in spite of himself, said Thom Rainer, the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, in a statement to the Tennessean.

"In a day and time when Graham could have easily commanded the attention of millions for his own gain, he chose to live a private, humble life," Rainer said. "Throughout his life, it was obvious he wanted the focus to be not on himself but on one thing: the cross of Jesus Christ."
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