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Book Review – The Preacher and the Presidents

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Billy Graham in the White House

I’ll be honest with you–I don’t have the emotional attachment to Billy Graham I sometimes feel I’m supposed to have as a Christian and as a Baptist. I grew up in a tradition that rarely acknowledged him (or much of the outside evangelical world, for that matter) and, to be honest, I knew very little of him until relatively recently. In my younger days I knew him more for his compromises than for his strengths; for his ecumenism, by way of example, more than his evangelism. I saw him preach once at a massive Toronto crusade, but was more interested in the proceedings than in the sermon. So when I received a copy of The Preacher and the Presidents I opened it interested in the history of the book more than in the subject.

Billy Graham must be unique in knowing eleven different Presidents and in sharing genuine friendships with nine (or ten) of them. From the time of Harry Truman all the way until the present day and the presidency of George W. Bush, Graham has been America’s most widely known and widely respected preacher. He has served as pastor to most of the Presidents for almost half a century. This book, authored by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, editors at TIME, tells the story of Billy Graham in the White House–of Billy Graham’s remarkable friendships with these Presidents. I begins with Truman and ends with George W. Bush. Each President receives a chapter or a number of chapters detailing how the life of Billy Graham intersected with his life.

Rather than relay how Graham interacted with each of the Presidents, I thought it might make sense to simply relay a few of the points that I found most interesting.

  • I found it interesting that several of the Presidents seemed to use Graham for their own purposes. They may well have genuinely appreciated him and counted him as a friend, but they certainly also knew the value of a photo arm-in-arm with America’s most recognized evangelical leader. This was particularly true of Richard Nixon. I had never read before of the length and depth of Graham’s support of this President. Obviously with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see how Nixon used Graham and other people, but it was amazing to see Graham’s lack of discernment in seeing Nixon for who he was. There were few Presidents Graham endorsed with more passion, and none who let him down so greatly. Yet Nixon did seem to genuinely count Graham a friend and their relationship continued until Nixon’s death. People speak of there being two Nixons and from his portrayal in this book it is easy to see why.
  • It surprised me to learn that, of all the Presidents he knew, Graham had the least meaningful relationship with Jimmy Carter, but perhaps this is because they were, in many ways, so similar. Carter was outspoken with his faith and did not need to be associated with Graham in order to extend his credibility and so he avoided him.
  • I was interested to see how much Graham struggled with the lust for power. He is known for his care in ensuring that he did not succumb to the many moral temptations that can befall popular preachers and his efforts to avoid even the appearance of moral sin. From reading this book I could see that throughout his career he struggled with the desire for power. This sometimes led him to be meddlesome and to give unwanted (and unneeded and unheeded) advice. His reflections later in life show that he is aware of this tendency and is even embarrassed as he thinks about it now. It seems that it was often his wife who kept him grounded when the desire for power rose up within him. As the authors say, “Fascination with power would forever be his weakness; and against its lure he often had no protection beyond the ever levelheaded Ruth telling him that he needed to stay away from politics and keep his eye on his evangelical mission.”
  • Similar to that, it was interesting to see how Graham struggled with keeping his vocation separate from his political leanings. Time and again he would attempt to remain silent during elections, but time and again he would find himself embroiled in controversy, In the end he would, more often than not, endorse a candidate (sometimes explicitly but just as often merely implicitly).

I found The Preacher and the Presidents a very interesting read. Though I read it as an evangelical, I read it as one who is perhaps unusually ambivalent towards Billy Graham. In some ways the book gave me new appreciation for Graham and his desire to ensure that everyone, even Presidents, had searched their hearts and had understood the gospel. In some ways it changed the way I think of Graham’s ministry. It certainly opens up an aspect of his life that, to this point, has been largely unknown. Though clearly positive towards Graham in their tone, the authors deal sensibly and fairly with some of the more troubling aspects of his career (including his well-publicized anti-Semitic remarks and his tendencies to be meddlesome). Other aspects of his career that concern some conservative Christians (his ecumenism and some of his more recent comments that seem almost universalist) fall outside the narrative of the book so receive no attention.

I enjoyed this book from cover-to-cover and would commend it to those who are interested in the subject matter. Its presents a fascinating and unique little slice of history and does so in an engaging way. I’m glad I read it and I suspect you will be too should you make the time to do so.

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