(February 22, 2018 / JNS) Perhaps the saddest thing about the death of the Rev. Billy Graham on Feb. 21, at the age of 99, was the fact that virtually every obituary gave prominent mention to what was arguably his worst moment. Graham was a giant of American evangelism, whose worldwide fame as a preacher eclipsed that of any American religious figure of the 20th century. But it was impossible to do an assessment of a life full of achievements without also talking about the fact that he was caught on tape expressing anti-Semitic sentiments while speaking with former President Richard Nixon.
The comments—in which he spoke of his negative feelings about his many Jewish friends and his belief that a Jewish “stranglehold” on the media was destroying the country—were indeed despicable. Graham said those words in 1972, not knowing that Nixon’s taping system would preserve them for eternity. When former Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman first revealed them in 1994, few believed the kindly churchman was capable of speaking in that fashion. Years later, when the Nixon library released the tapes in 2002, there was no denying what he said.
Graham publicly apologized and asked the Jewish community for forgiveness. The real damage here was not so much the hurt feelings that the comments caused as much as the way it confirmed the negative opinions that so many in the community already held about Evangelical Christians.
The profound distrust among liberal American Jews bordering on contempt for evangelicals in general and Christian conservatives in particular is so pervasive as to be unremarkable. That it often crosses over into religious prejudice is something few in the American Jewish community—which tends to think of religious bias as something only done to them, rather than what they can possibly do to others—think actually occurs. Most Jews also rarely consider the vital role these same Christians play in maintaining support for Israel and opposing anti-Semitism.
While his message of faith inspired countless numbers of people who flocked to hear his sermons at his “crusades,” Graham was not a profound religious philosopher. His homespun, God-centered philosophy and strict views about sex was not the sort of things most liberal Jews contemplated with respect.
So in that sense, Jewish opinion about Graham, which was often negative even before the public learned of his conversation with Nixon, illustrates both the difficult nature of the relationship between Jews and Evangelicals, as well as the need to rise above negative attitudes that are rooted in the prejudices of the past, rather than on the needs and realities of the present.
The salient point about Graham is not so much what he was taped telling the president, but that in his public life he was an important friend of the Jewish people, even though most Jews often dismissed him as the epitome of a “holly roller” who hated Jews.
Graham was an early and impassioned supporter of Israel. A much-publicized tour of the country in 1960 helped galvanize support for the Jewish state among evangelicals at a time when sympathy for Zionism in this country was far greater among liberals than among conservatives, who were Graham’s base of supporters. He was willing to stand with Israel when it was both popular and unpopular, publicly urging it not to endanger its security and even producing a film about it that’s still popular among Christian audiences. He was also an early and influential supporter of the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry.
There will be those who will look back on his anti-Semitic remarks as “proof” that evangelicals are not sincere about their love for Israel and their friendship for the Jews. But such reasoning ought to be rejected by thinking people.
As George Will pointed out in a not particularly sympathetic appreciation of Graham in The Washington Post, the famous preacher’s predilection for fawning over world leaders (including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, as viewers of Netflix’s series “The Crown” learned) may have been the real reason for his comments to Nixon. One can, as he put it, “acquit him of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying.”
But there was more to the man than that gaffe or any other foolish statements uttered in several decades in the limelight.
Born in North Carolina in 1918 and the grandson of two Confederate soldiers, Graham was a product of an era in the American South in which anti-Semitism and racial bigotry were commonplace. But Graham was able to transcend those prejudices to become an opponent of segregation, as well as a very public supporter of Jewish causes.
His willingness to embrace Israel is significant because the world in which he made his mark as an international religious celebrity was not one in which Jews were widely accepted. Nor was his advocacy for Zionism rooted in dispensationalist beliefs about Jews being converted and bringing on the end of days. Unlike some evangelicals—and in spite of the fact that conversions were a prominent part of his ministry—Graham opposed proselytizing Jews, reminding Christians that seeking to impose faith on those who resisted such overtures was wrong.
Seen in that context, a Jewish rejection of Graham and the tens of millions of other evangelicals not only makes no sense, but also is deeply self-destructive. Why continue to question the good intentions of people who not only think well of Israel, but also donate generously to charities that help Jews (as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has proved) and who only vote for candidates that support Israel with a single-minded mindset that most Jews reject.
In remembering Billy Graham, Jews can acknowledge his flaws, but they must also understand how much good he did not just for his own flock of believers, but for them as well. At a time when Israel remains beset by hatred and many are urging boycotts rooted in anti-Semitic animosity, friends like Billy Graham—and all the many other evangelicals who followed in his footsteps in support of Israel—should be embraced, rather than disdained. To do otherwise says more about our own prejudices against Christians than it does about the shortcomings of evangelicals.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.