Billy Graham’s anti-Semitic conversation in the White House with President Richard Nixon in 1972 is another stain in the often soiled relationship between evangelicals and Jews.
According to tapes released by the National Archives, Graham said Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media and that it “has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
Graham expressed encouragement that Nixon could address this problem if Nixon was re-elected. “We might be able to do something,” Graham said.
During the 90-minute conversation with Nixon and H. R. Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, Graham accused the Jews of “putting out the pornographic stuff,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Claiming to have great friendships with Jews who “swarm around me,” Graham said, “They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”
“You must not let them know,” Nixon replied.
The Tribune reported that after Graham left the Oval Office, Nixon said, “The Jews are irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards.”
Through a public relations firm, the aged evangelist quickly apologized for his remarks. “Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made in an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon … some 30 years ago,” Graham said. “They do not reflect my views and I sincerely apologize for any offense caused by the remarks.”
Reaction to Graham’s conversation within most of the Christian community was negative.
From the mainline Protestant perspective, Martin Marty, a church historian at the University of Chicago, said, “What Graham said that day is inexcusable. Did it ever occur to him that he should have countered the president?”
From the conservative evangelical camp, Cal Thomas said, “It’s very sad.” In an interview with Beliefnet.com, Thomas warned about the seductiveness of presidential power. He also said the Graham he heard was not the Graham he knew.
Graham became a close friend of Nixon when Nixon was vice-president in the Eisenhower administration.
In a column on Beliefnet.com, William Martin, a Graham biographer, wrote that Graham “regularly extolled his old friend’s spiritual depth and ethical integrity, qualities many others failed to perceive in Nixon.”
Graham’s swift apology was helpful, and his overall record has positive markers.
But in the current context in which relationships between the fundamentalist-controlled Southern Baptist Convention and Jews are at an all-time low, Graham’s private thoughts will rightly deepen the Jewish community’s concern about anti-Semitism among evangelicals.
Baptists of goodwill simply must engage constructively in interfaith dialogue.
Thoughtful Baptist clergy will learn again about the dangers of serving both God and Caesar, speaking for God and currying favor with politicians. The Hebrew prophets spoke forcefully about the betrayal of the court prophets who told the kings what they wanted to hear.
Had Graham spoken a different word to Nixon, perhaps Graham would have challenged Nixon to turn from his paranoia and prejudice.
Graham’s stumble could afford an opportunity for more of us to rise from our moral slumber on issues of racism and ethnocentrism.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.