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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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.