How Billy Graham Helped Merge Patriotism and Christianity
The Rev. Billy Graham met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a personal chat that lasted 45 minutes in Gettysburg on Sept. 8, 1961. (AP Photo/Ziegler)
The Rev. Billy Graham, one of the most influential American religious leaders of the 20th century and a towering figure in American Christianity, politics and culture, has died at age 99.
Graham, a spiritual leader for millions around the world over more than six decades in public life, was a pioneering evangelist whose ministry stretched from developing nations to the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
Among Graham’s most enduring legacies was his role in merging patriotism and Christianity in the public sphere — an arc that began during the Cold War and was explored as part of the 2010 FRONTLINE series with American Experience, God in America.
“He framed the Cold War as a moral conflict. It is evil versus good. It is godless communism versus a God-fearing America,” historian Frank Lambert says in the below excerpt from God In America exploring Graham’s early rise.
In the Soviet threat, Graham found a religious message. “I believe today that the battle is between communism and Christianity,” he said in a speech that was excerpted in the documentary. “And I believe the only way that we’re going to win that battle is for America to turn back to God and back to Christ and back to the Bible at this hour! We need a revival!”
As the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb and Americans grew fearful of nuclear annihilation, Graham’s message resonated, amplified by coverage from media baron and staunch anti-communist William Randolph Hearst. Graham would become a global celebrity and a primary driver of America’s Cold War religious revival, spreading the Gospel message through wildly popular “crusades” at venues including Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium in New York City.
As God in America explores, Graham would extend that revival into the world of American politics — in part by allying himself with President Dwight Eisenhower. It was Graham who helped advise Eisenhower on becoming a Presbyterian after it emerged in the 1952 campaign that Eisenhower had never been baptized.
“Graham thought that if he could convert certain well-known individuals, that that would have a greater effect in terms of bringing others into the Kingdom,” the Rev. Randall Balmer, a scholar of American religious history, said in God in America. “That would make the Gospel more palatable to others.”
In time, Eisenhower would evoke faith as a weapon against communism, just as Graham had done.
“You see it in the language of Dwight D. Eisenhower and in the language of Billy Graham, this sense that religion is a sign of democracy. And they marry the two,” Philip Goff of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture says in the film.
It was a marriage that would endure — with Congress going on to establish “In God We Trust” as the country’s national motto in 1956.
Graham would go on to share his pulpit with President Richard Nixon, and would advise presidents from both parties over the ensuing decades — including George W. Bush, whose relationship with Graham was explored in the 2004 FRONTLINE documentary The Jesus Factor.
“You have preachers who draw on politics and politicians who are using religion for their own public policy reasons,” Stephen Prothero of Boston University says in God in America of Graham’s emergence as a political force. “And so the sort of wall of separation of church and state that has been around as an option is going to be gradually, gradually whittled away in this period.”
Watch an excerpt from God in America about Graham’s early rise below: