Given the latest release of secretly-recorded conversations involving then-president Richard Nixon and a variety of participants primarily in January 1973, this commentary is being republished by request. It was originally published Tuesday, March 5, 2002.
When the news broke that Billy Graham, the Protestant preacher of America’s last half century, made what can only be fairly described as anti-Semitic remarks to President Nixon 30 years ago in conversations captured on Nixon’s now infamous, then secret, Oval Office recording system, I was stunned. Like tens of millions of my fellow Americans, I could scarcely comprehend that Billy Graham would say or think such things at any period of his life.
What did Billy Graham say to Nixon? The tapes reveal that Rev. Graham complained about Jewish domination of the media, an assessment with which, disturbingly, Nixon concurred. Graham then said, “If you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something.” Later in the conversation, when Nixon brought up the subject again, Graham replied that he had many Jewish friends. “They swarm around me and are friendly to me,” Graham said, “because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth, But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country…”
If Billy Graham’s words weren’t captured on tape saying those things, I simply wouldn’t have believed he had said them. Why? Since my earliest memories as a small child in the early 1950s, I have looked upon Billy Graham as a beloved and greatly admired figure-one of the greatest Christian leaders of this or any other century. Very early in his ministry, Billy Graham confronted the demons of racial prejudice and segregation, refusing to allow segregated seating at his evangelistic crusades from the late 1940s onward.
In the middle decades of this century, the only integrated worship experiences many black and white Southerners ever experienced were attending Billy Graham crusades together. This courageous early stand by Billy Graham earned him the undying devotion of those seeking to rid our society of the plague of racial prejudice, as well as the unrelenting hostility of the staunch segregationists.
What do you do when you find out something about an admired and heroic figure that is so jarringly out of character with everything you have believed him to stand for and to be? Rev. Graham has apologized for his comments of 30 years ago, stating that they do not reflect his views and that he will continue to try “to build bridges between Jews and Christians.” Still, he said what he said, even if it was 30 years ago.
As I have grappled with this personally, I have come to several conclusions. First, I still love and respect Billy Graham as one of the greatest preachers and leaders in all of Christian history. He is a devout Christian and a remarkable man who has been mightily used by God for more than one-half century. He has remained, despite his worldwide fame and adulation, a humble man who often has said that the first question he is going to ask God when he gets to heaven is why God chose him to be the famous preacher, Billy Graham.
Second, this tragic episode does remind us that however admirable Billy Graham may be, he is not perfect. Like every other human being, as he would be the first to remind us, he has faults and blind spots. Our faith is not in any man but in the sinless Son of God, our Savior.
Third, that this extraordinary conversation could take place in the Oval Office between the nation’s most admired preacher and a then very popular president should help us all better understand the continuing sensitivity of the Jewish community to hints of anti-Semitism. These conversations not only reveal anti-Semetic sentiments, but also some intent to act on them, as well as hypocritical behavior in concealing these feelings from Jewish “friends” and acquaintances.
As a Christian and as an American, I am deeply disturbed by the words on these tapes. I cannot imagine how much more disturbing they would be to Jewish listeners.
Fourth, we need to reiterate to the Jewish community that there is no group in American life more supportive of the Jewish people in general and the state of Israel in particular than the eEvangelical Christian community. After all, the most irrational of prejudices for a Christian would be anti-Semitism, since Jesus, the one who we follow as Savior and Lord, was Jewish. Evangelical Christians across the denominational spectrum support the state of Israel by overwhelming margins and love and respect the Jewish people. The reasons for this are doctrinal and theological. As Christians, we are not only called to love all people, but we also believe the Jews are still God’s chosen people and that He still blesses those that bless the Jews and curses those who curse them.
Some in the Jewish community will object. If we are so positive in our views of the Jewish people, why do we try to evangelize and convert them to Christianity? For Christians, witnessing and evangelism are an act of love, not hate. In what is known as the Great Commission, He commanded us to go and share the Gospel message with all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). As a Christian, I would say to the Jewish community, we love you, we respect you, and we will oppose those who don’t. But we do ask that you respect our faith as well, and our faith commands that we share the Gospel of Christ with you as we do with everyone else.
Finally, all of us as evangelical Christians need to recommit ourselves to the task of banishing racial and ethnic prejudice of any kind from our hearts and minds and to speak out against such prejudice whenever and wherever it manifests itself, lest our silence be taken as agreement or assent.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.