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Billy Graham’s Circus Left Him Behind

Graham transformed American evangelicalism—until it became almost unrecognizable.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Billy Graham, who died on Wednesday morning at the age of 99, was one of the most famous preachers who ever lived. For generations of American evangelicals, his name was nearly synonymous with the gospel—and with power. He filled stadiums, toured countries, and counseled politicians; he loomed over evangelicalism, a towering presence in a tradition that reveres patriarchs. After his death, tributes poured in from Christian leaders and from presidents current and former. Billy Graham was a lion, a hero, almost a saint, they say. And he was also a cautionary tale.

Watch an old video of Graham in his prime, and you can understand the adulation. When Graham preached, a strange fire lit him. It seemed he could not contain it. He would shout and wave his arms as if scolding the devil back into hell. Graham’s Crusades—elaborate tent revival services—were theater, and he made himself the star. But unlike many of the televangelists who would later audition for the role of God’s showman, Graham seemed to believe everything he said. Sincerity, simplicity, a certain charm: Graham deployed each trait with expert skill, perhaps because they were authentic reflections of himself.

That sincerity existed in tension with the trajectory of his life. If we know Graham as “America’s pastor,” it’s because he sought the title. Graham wanted to influence presidents; he wanted to be known. His public persona boosted his evangelism, sometimes with detrimental consequences. It’s not clear, even now, if he sought fame for its own sake, or because it helped him reach as many souls as possible. Either way, Graham’s politicking altered the germ line of American Christianity.

Graham, to his credit, consistently reached out to members of both major parties, but his ideological heirs typically do not. And despite Graham’s professed bipartisanship, today’s thriving alliance between the Republican Party and conservative Christianity doesn’t deviate much from his model. As Princeton historian Kevin Kruse reported in his book, One Nation Under God, Graham first found fame in the heady early days after World War II, when conservatives fixated on the ideological threat of communism. The businessmen who sought to enshrine free enterprise as a corrective both to communist sympathies and to the welfare policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal knew they needed allies. Clergy, already invested with moral authority, represented valuable allies; if they were celebrities, well, even better.

Enter Graham. According to Kruse, one Graham-produced 1954 film, Oiltown U.S.A., pitched itself as “the story of the free enterprise system of America, the story of the development and use of God-given natural resources by men who have built a great new empire.” The same rhetoric frequently appeared in Graham’s sermons: During a Crusade in Greensboro, North Carolina, he railed against the “dangers that face capitalistic America.” He found a willing audience: The crowds swelled along with his reputation, and Mammon marched upward toward Zion. Despite a few early encounters with class prejudice—he dressed and spoke like the Southern preacher he was—he eventually found purchase with the Washington, D.C., set.

Graham wielded his newfound influence seemingly without hesitation. But power corrupts, as his own Bible could’ve warned him. This is the Graham who can be heard on the Nixon tapes warning of a Jewish “stranglehold” on America. “And all—I mean, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country,” he said at the time. In a letter to Nixon, he urged his doomed friend to bomb Vietnam’s dikes; turns out there are bridges even Nixon could not cross. In 1993, Graham called AIDS “God’s judgement” on LGBT people.

“There have been times in the past when I have, I suppose, confused the kingdom of God with the American way of life,” he told the editors of Sojourners magazine in 1979. His apologies, when finally offered, lacked the sincere heft of his sermons. He “immediately” regretted his statement about AIDS, he said, so much so that he  “almost” went back to clarify what he meant. He “did not remember” repeating anti-Semitic tropes to his anti-Semitic friend Nixon, but in any case he was very sorry many years later, in 2002.

For Graham, who sparked right-wing ire for holding integrated services in the 1950s and who claimed friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., these incidents could seem like deviations. But prejudice is part of the legacy Graham bequeathed to American Christianity. It features centrally in contemporary evangelical identity: 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump despite his vocal misogyny and xenophobia, and Graham’s own son helped lead the Trumpian charge.

Franklin Graham is the most dramatic evidence of the mutation Graham helped to engineer. As the father waned, the son waxed: first as a spokesman for his elder, then as an evangelical figure in his own right. Franklin, using the platform he inherited from his father, has defended Trump’s Muslim bans, promoted Russia’s campaign to outlaw “homosexual propaganda,” and once accused gay people of trying to “recruit children.” Franklin, not Billy, represents the evangelical mainstream now.

His earliest detractors could have predicted the result. The terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are used interchangeably now, but they have discrete origins and in the 1950s a discernible ideological gulf separated the two camps. Both rejected modernism in favor of Biblical literalism. They differed, however, on how to best conduct Christian life in a secular society. Fundamentalists preferred a separatist approach: The gospel of Christ crucified is foolishness to the gentiles. Graham, meanwhile, reached his arms out to the world. To fundamentalists, that made him suspect. Who can shape the world without being shaped by it in return?

Nobody, it turns out. In his latter days, Graham rarely left his home in Montreat, North Carolina. It is where he once wanted to be buried. But Graham will not rest there. Graham and his wife, Ruth, changed their will due to pressure from Franklin: Ruth is buried in the Graham Memorial Library, a building she referred to as the “circus,” and Billy will join her after lying in state in the U.S. Capitol for two days. The circus goes on without him.