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October 12, 2007

If you took a poll and asked people around the world to name the most famous living American Christian, I have no doubt that Billy Graham would be the runaway winner. He has been the face of American evangelicalism since William Randolph Hearst famously told his newspaper editors in 1949 to “Puff Graham”. From that point forward the North Carolina evangelist and graduate of Wheaton College would lose his anonymity. Over the next six decades he would speak to an estimated 210 million people in 417 crusades in 185 countries. That doesn’t include the many millions who have heard him on radio or watched him on television. No man in history has ever preached the gospel to more people.

But what is even more astounding is the wide impact his life and message have had on this country’s corridors of political power, especially the White House. In their new book, The Preacher and the Presidents, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy give us an amazing look at the unparalleled access that Mr. Graham had to the presidential office. From presidents Truman to Bush 2, Billy Graham has offered spiritual, and in many cases political, counsel to the men in the oval office. And he didn’t just play the part of court chaplain – someone who showed up to offer prayers at inaugurations and national prayer breakfasts. He developed deep personal relationships with several of the presidents that would last a lifetime. And at critical moments in their tenure when they needed political advice they would turn to him for counsel and would often find that he was willing to give it.

While Truman disliked him, Kennedy was cool and Carter kept him at arms length, the others seemed to regard Graham with the deepest affection. Eisenhower asked him twice (once on his deathbed) to remind him again how he could be sure that he would go to heaven. The course and often crude Johnson looked to his friendship often during the dark days of his presidency. He would visit the White House 20 times during Johnson’s time in office. Both the Clinton’s and Bush’s turned to him for guidance. Bill Clinton first heard him in Little Rock in 1958 when he was a teenager and Graham’s demand that the crusade be fully integrated made a lasting impact on him. In fact, years later when Clinton was courting the woman who would be his wife (Hillary was in Oakland working at a law office), Bill took her to a Graham crusade as a date. George W. Bush would credit Graham with turning his life around during two important meetings in the 1980’s. His closest relationship was with Reagan. He found in the president a kindred spirit, a man who was very much like himself: powerful, but without ego; consumed with a sense of divine calling – Reagan believed that he had been spared from death after John Hinkley’s assasination attempt to bring an end to the communist reign of eastern Europe. And Reagan was someone who could speak to the evangelist openly and clearly about his faith in Christ.

But the most fascinating section of the book covers his friendship with Richard Nixon. It would be that relationship that would come the closest to destroying Graham’s ministry, and in the end, help clarify the role he should play with future presidents. I’ll explore that relationship in the next blog and try to probe some very important questions: how should Christian leaders view opportunities to speak to power? What role does the church have in partisan politics? How can a minister remain faithful to Christ and serve his nation at the same time? Do minsters who have the opportunity to influence national leaders occupy a similar office as Old Tesatament prophets with responsibilities to preach publicly against a leader’s sins? Where do the dangers lie when you have such intimate access to the world’s greatest leaders? And why would these powerful men want an intimate friendship with a preacher?

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