The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire
by Cecil Bothwell
Brave Ulysses Books, 2007
For an independent review of the book, click here.
“It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable.”
I first became curious about Billy Graham in March, 2002. Like anyone else in our culture, I had been aware of his fame, his frequent appearances with presidents and his well-attended crusades, but an Associated Press story caught my eye. It said that recently released transcripts of taped conversations in the Nixon White House included an exchange between the preacher and the President, in 1972, about the malevolent influence of Jews in the United States. As reported in newspapers across the country, the conversation appeared to have been brief, a few sentences on either side which included the suggestion from Graham that something might be done about the problem after Nixon’s reelection.
Graham’s public relations firm issued an apology in which the preacher disavowed his anti-Semitic comments and a rapprochement was reached with a national association of rabbis. Graham was forgiven.
Considering Nixon’s reputation for meanness and paranoia, the public impression was that Graham, a polite and agreeable sort, had been pulled into a bit of unpleasantness with a close friend—something that can happen to anyone. Do we automatically knock down a buddy who tells a dumb blonde joke, a Polish joke, an immigrant tale? We should, but do we? Not always. Graham is human too. And, after all, this wasn’t just any old friend. He was the President of the United States of America.
But I was curious. As an investigative reporter with, then, fifteen years of experience under my belt, I was well aware that news stories rarely contain all the facts, if for no other reason than the limitations of space. I wondered about the context of the conversation, where it began and where it ended. So I obtained the transcript.
I learned that the conversation had lasted an hour and a half, had rarely strayed from denunciation of Jews and had been led by Graham. That astonished me. Moreover, twenty minutes of conversation had been redacted before release. What, I wondered, had been suppressed?
Beyond that, I mulled Graham’s career more broadly. I knew he had been more or less close to every president since Eisenhower. Later I would learn about his relationship with Truman. I knew he led prayer breakfasts and attended other official functions that splashed through the media from time to time. But what of his conversations behind closed doors? Was the Jew conversation typical or an aberration?
That was the beginning of the present volume.
The past several decades may well rank as the most fearful time in human history—given that tangible threats to human life grew far beyond ancient phantasms of myth or the unfathomable mysteries posited by ignorance. What’s more, electronic media have spread bad news everywhere, live and in color, while modern print techniques erupted in the form of glossy news magazines employing photographers who fanned out across the globe.
It is no surprise that a ministry that preached fear and promised salvation could prosper in such times and Billy Graham proved expert at brandishing both stick and carrot in tents and stadia around the planet.
Graham understood early and well that a successful ministry would require professional salesmanship and he carefully cultivated contacts in the major media with an eye to presenting his work in the best possible light. At the same time, he founded his own media conglomerate of magazine, radio, television and film production which was the precursor of Focus on the Family, the 700 Club, PTL and the widely influential Left Behind series.
Graham’s enthusiastic supporters in big media have consistently portrayed him as apolitical. As recently as February 2005, Time magazine reported, “He has had the ear of Presidents for five decades, but except for his public disavowal of racial segregation, Billy Graham, 86, has stuck to soul saving and left the political proselytizing to others. He explained his self-imposed separation of church and state in the language of a Gospel preacher: ‘It’s not what I was called to do.’”
However, notwithstanding his professed calling, it is apparent that Graham worked the corridors of Congress as well as the private rooms of the White House, sometimes overtly, sometimes quietly, in secret letters and private phone calls. And, quite contrary to Time’s assertion, it seems that Graham did more to abet segregation than to end it, actively opposing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of civil disobedience while endorsing aggressive police tactics and punitive laws.
Like many another political figure, Graham has sealed most of the personal documents connected to his life and work until after—in some cases many years after—his death. Nor did he consent to be interviewed for this work. But the published and unpublished documentary record speaks volumes. It reveals a Billy Graham who has been an unabashed nationalist, capitalist, militarist and advocate for American empire. The picture that emerges is decidedly not that of a disinterested man of the cloth. Rather, Graham often appears as a well connected covert political operative. To the extent that this seems surprising, it stems from the public’s willful naiveté concerning a self-professed holy man coupled with intentionally biased reporting from the major media at the behest of ideologues including, most prominently, William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce.
Perhaps we should pay heed to what Graham has actually said instead of accepting his own and others’ later versions of the facts. This tale is told in Graham’s words and those of the biographers, historians, public figures and Presidents who knew him well.
You may be as surprised as I was at the picture that emerges in these pages. It is not the story of a man of peace.
— Coming soon from Brave Ulysses Books