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Praying with the presidents

07 March 2014

Dr Billy Graham, now 95, has been close to world leaders - sometimes too close for comfort, writes Hanspeter Nüesch in this extract from a new authorised joint biography of Dr Graham and his wife, Ruth Graham


Reflections: Sir Roy Strong with a faux-Elizabethan portrait of himself

Reflections: Sir Roy Strong with a faux-Elizabethan portrait of himself

IN HIS evangelistic sermons, Billy Graham wanted to stick to conveying basic biblical truths and pointing to the consequences for the individual. Graham was often criticised, mainly during the first part of his ministry, by people who believed that he one-sidedly emphasised individual ethics at the cost of social ethics. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the most strident proponents of this opinion.

Niebuhr was a widely respected professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and throughout his life voiced his opinion not only about theological questions, but also about social concerns. As founder of the magazine Christianity and Crises, Niebuhr was often referred to as the "crisis theologian."

He battled against both religious liberals, with their idealism of the social gospel, and religious conservatives, with their separation of personal faith and social responsibility. Niebuhr, himself influenced by Karl Barth, influenced many generations of students, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Niebuhr felt that Graham madeit too easy for himself when hede-emphasised social sins and focused almost exclusively on personal sins in his messages. In Niebuhr's opinion, Jesus had been not only the Redeemer but also a social revolutionary. One could not persist in an individualistic pietism, and block out the cultural sins of America, especially in view of the many who had been exploited by them.

Niebuhr later reproached Graham for what he considered to be anindiscriminate familiarity with the American presidents. In his essay "The King's Chapel and the King's Court," he described Graham as "domesticated" and "tailored" because he lacked the critical radicalism that had distinguished Jesus.

Niebuhr put his finger on a delicate issue here. In fact, Graham himself later regretted that, despite all his efforts to stay out of party politics, he had occasionally let himself be used politically, and had sometimes tended to equate the American culture with God's Kingdom.


THE most complex relationship Graham had was with Richard Nixon, whose family Graham had known since the 1949 mission in Los Angeles. Nixon had warned Graham early on not to let himself be abused for political purposes, as if foreseeing later events, reminding Graham that his evangelistic ministry was more important than his own political career.

The tapes of Nixon, which were released during the Watergate scandal, opened Graham's eyes to the truth of Nixon's statement. He was sorely disappointed in his friend: "Those tapes revealed a man I never knew. I never saw that side of him."

But Graham himself also had to apologise for some negative remarks he had made about Jewish Americans. In a conversation with Nixon, he had shared, or at least not ob-jected to the latter's judgement, that the Jews in the United States eventually wanted to gain control of everything.

Yet Graham had always sup-ported the Jewish cause in public. According to his wife, Ruth, the time of Nixon's impeachment and the disclosure of Graham's remarks about Jews was the most difficult time her husband had experienced in his whole life, especially as his remarks did not reflect his generally positive feelings toward the Jews, and the country of Israel.

He felt that he was a failure who, at least in this case, had tried to please man more than God. He was also very disappointed in Nixon, and especially his use of vulgar language, revealed on the Watergate tapes. Nevertheless, even after Watergate, Graham stood up for his long-time friend and preached at Nixon's funeral.

NIXON and Graham felt close to each other because they both had a truly global perspective. When I visited Graham, he mentioned that Nixon was one of the first to point out China as an upcoming world power.

Graham always took Nixon's advice very seriously, as he saw in him a statesman of exceptional quality. He also saw in him a man who held up his Christian convictions. Yet this very closeness to Nixon caused Graham the greatest problems of his life.

Graham should none the less be credited for almost always getting around to speaking about key points of the gospel when meeting political leaders - a fact that is unanimously verified by his closest staff members, who accompanied him on visits to various heads of state. He saw himself always as God's ambassador, and considered it a holy mission to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ not only to simple people, but also to the power-brokers of this world.

When doing so, he repeatedly emphasised the need for a basic change of heart, which was possible only if people prayed for forgiveness of their sins, and trusted their lives to Jesus Christ.

Throughout the years, Graham prayed with many world leaders, among them Queen Elizabeth, to whom the Grahams had a very special connection. Over the years, Graham met the Queen at least ten times. She often sent him greetings on his birthdays.

SEVERAL of the American presidents counted Graham as their personal friend and counsellor, and were glad to have a man of his calibre of faith come alongside them in times of trouble. One of these was President George Bush Sr. In April 2006, he bestowed on Graham the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service - an award previously bestowed on statesmen such as Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was a very emotional moment when the former President of the United States spoke. "If I knew the task fell to me to try to explain why we are honoring Billy tonight, I could not get through it. What he has meant to me and to my family is too personal, and too emotional," he said, his voice cracking.

Recalling Abraham Lincoln, he noted that every president was driven to his knees by the demands of the job. Then he said: "But sometimes even that is not enough. No matter how deep one's faith is, sometimes you need the guidance and comfort of a living, breathing human being. For me, and for so many other Oval Office occupants, that person was Billy Graham. When my soul was troubled, it was Billy I reached out to, for advice, for comfort, for prayer."

WHAT about his son, George W. Bush? George W. Bush had been strongly influenced in his faith by Graham in his youth, but duringhis presidency he had little contact with Graham, owing to the latter'sage. He did personally take Graham on a tour of the White House, however, pushing him in his wheelchair.

After his presidency, in an interview with Fox News, Bush shared what attracted him to Graham: "Billy Graham is such a gentle soul. His humility and obvious love for God and Christ can overcome any cynic. Here is one of the most famous people in the world, a great historical figure, and in his presence you realise how humble he is.

"He is a very humble, very disarming man. His humility overpowers you. I truly was captivated, was amazed. He helped change my life. I was a cynical person at the time. I was a questioning person. I was drinking a lot. He helped me to understand the redemptive power of the risen Lord."

And then Bush gave an interesting explanation for Graham's effectiveness: "He is an unaffected messenger because of his charisma and his heart. He has no political agenda. He has an agenda of the Lord. He is a magnet, but the interesting thing is that he is not a magnet to Billy Graham. He is a magnet to a higher authority."

THE Clintons also admired Graham, because he did not treat them as celebrities, but as normal people. They confided, however, that despite his well-mannered approach, he also addressed sensitive issues.

In April 2010, President Barack Obama visited Graham at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. They had planned the meeting when Obama had called Graham to congratulate him on his birthday the previous November. While meeting in Graham's home, Obama and Graham spoke about their common roots in Chicago, and about golf, but also about very personal matters.

Obama confessed, like other presidents before him, how lonely, demanding, and humbling the presidency could be. Graham encouraged the President always to draw on spiritual resources, and to seek the advice of the Lord. He gave himtwo Bibles: one for himself, andone for his wife. The two concluded by praying for each other. According to his son Franklin, his father prayed for the nation, and that God would give Obama wisdom in his decisions; the President prayed to thank God for Graham.

GRAHAM was often asked if he would do anything differently if he could go back in time. He did his best to answer the question in January 2011: "Yes, of course. I'd spend more time at home with my family, and I'd study more and preach less. I wouldn't have taken so many speaking engagements, including some of the things I did over the years that I probably didn't really need to do - weddings and funerals and building dedications, things like that.

"Whenever I counsel someone who feels called to be an evangelist, I always urge them to guard their time and not feel like they have to do everything. I also would have steered clear of politics. I'm grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places: 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."

UNLIKE many other spiritual leaders, Graham never kept silent about his failures. When asked in the same interview about the most important issues facing Evangelicals today, he answered: "I'm grateful for the Evangelical resurgence we've seen across the world in the last half-century or so. It truly has been God's doing. It wasn't like this when I first started out, and I'm amazed at what has happened - new Evangelical seminaries and organisations, and churches, a new generation of leaders committed to the gospel, and so forth.

"But success is always dangerous, and we need to be alert and avoid becoming the victims of our own success. Will we influence the world for Christ, or will the world influence us? But the most important issue we face today is the samethe Church has faced in every century: Will we reach our world for Christ?

"In other words, will we give priority to Christ's command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies, or simply becoming more and more comfortable with the status quo? Will we become inner-directed, or outer-directed?

"The central issues of our time aren't economic, or political, or social, important as these are. The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ's forgiveness, and hope, and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this."

Graham was able to preach with authority about God's grace and forgiveness because he claimed the gospel of grace for himself daily. Despite all his achievements, and the honours he received, he never became haughty.

This is an edited extract from Ruth and Billy Graham: The legacy of a couple by Hanspeter Nüesch, published by Monarch at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99), and appears by kind permission.

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