Evangelist Unmasked

Richard Hall

The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, by Cecil Bothwell, second edition (Asheville, N.C.: Brave Ulysses Books, 2010, ISBN 9781456325909) 215 pp. Paper, $16.

Billy Graham has had public and private facilities named after him and been called the “preacher to presidents” and “God’s ambassador.” He is an icon of America’s enormous evangelical-fundamentalist community. Even those who are not partisans of his creed unthinkingly credit him with goodness. Yet Christopher Hitchens, to whom we are much indebted for his devastating exposé of the “saintly” Mother Theresa (who was anything but), has pronounced Graham as “disgustingly evil” because of his well-documented anti-Semitism. If you doubt the justice of Hitchens’s animadversion to Graham, you need read no further than Cecil Bothwell’s unauthorized biography, The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, which was originally published in 2007 and fortunately has now come out in a second edition. Bothwell amply supports Hitchens’s judgment of Graham, allowing Graham to condemn himself with his own thoroughly documented words and deeds. Hitchens condemns Graham only for his anti-Semitism; Bothwell, though, furnishes many other reasons for condemnation.

Bothwell’s book is a brief chronological biography that summarizes the main events in Graham’s life and something of his beliefs and outlook on the world. If you want a thoroughly detailed and perhaps “authorized” account of Graham’s life and views, you should consult other sources, to which Bothwell helpfully refers the reader. What principally and most valuably emerges from Bothwell’s study is a clear, vivid, and disturbing portrait of Graham’s character; the more you read, the more the picture—like Dorian Gray’s—becomes hideous. Bothwell, in his own words, “reveals a Billy Graham who has been an unabashed nationalist and capitalist and advocate for American empire. The picture that emerges is decidedly not that of a disinterested man of the cloth. Rather, Graham often appears as a well-connected covert political operative.”


Bothwell chronicles Graham’s activity as an unofficial advisor on American foreign policy through at least five presidential administrations. In this capacity, Graham fomented the Cold War mentality that emerged after the Second World War. Like Joe McCarthy, whom he supported to the end, Graham harbored an almost pathological hatred of communism, principally because of its atheism. He saw the West as being engaged in a holy war again godless communism with Satan directing the communist side and God guiding the Western. In league with Harry S. Truman, Dean Acheson, and Foster Dulles, Graham was only too happy to rattle the saber against North Korea and the Soviet Union. On June 25, 1950, after North Korea invaded South Korea, Graham telegrammed Truman to urge him to declare war in retaliation. (This is the first of several times Graham urged a president to wage war.) He later criticized Truman for not expanding the war into China. Later, Graham told Richard Nixon to get John F. Kennedy’s ear concerning Cuba’s drift toward communism and advise him to take drastic action. The Bay of Pigs invasion quickly followed. At a prayer breakfast in 1966 attended by Lyndon B. Johnson and other government officials, Graham said, “There are those who have tried to reduce Christ to the level of a genial and innocuous appeaser; but Jesus said ‘You are wrong—I have come as a fire-setter and a sword-wielder.’” (This, by the way, is an example of proof-texting, a hermeneutic technique whereby passages from religious texts are wrenched out of context in order to substantiate a particular belief. Proof-texting, though discredited by reputable biblical scholars, is a favorite device of evangelical fundamentalists like Graham—“the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”)

Graham predictably became a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, even though the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, among other Christian organizations, condemned it as an unjust war. His virulent militarism is an expression of his black-and-white, Manichean worldview grounded in his woefully distorted interpretation of Scripture. Graham is an American-style Rasputin without the brilliance, dash, and panache of the Russian, his disingenuous claims of apoliticality notwithstanding.

Graham has had unusual access to those in the highest levels of power. Bothwell reports that in 1985, at the behest of the elder Bush, Graham visited the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, to talk to the younger Bush, who apparently had disgraced himself by drunkenly insulting his mother’s friend. George W. and Graham had long walks on the beach together, and the upshot of this pastoral visit is that the future president suddenly got religion and foreswore his drinking.

However, not all the presidents were taken in by him. Kennedy was cool toward him; Jimmy Carter ignored him; and after their first and only meeting, the no-nonsense Truman said of Graham, “He’s one of those counterfeits I was telling you about. He claims he’s a friend of all the presidents, but he was never a friend of mine when I was president. . . . All he’s interested in is getting his name in the paper.” Graham entered a Faustian bargain with presidents: they cynically used him to help get out the vote in their campaigns, and in exchange he received certain privileges from their hands—for example, he routinely flew on military aircraft. Ronald Reagan opened the way for him to preach behind the Iron Curtain.

Graham’s politics, driven by his hyper anti-communism and his religious authoritarianism, are to the far Right. His early career was boosted by right-wing ideologues like Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce, whose anti-communist message found an enthusiastic advocate in Graham. Luce raised Graham’s standing considerably through many articles in his Time and Life magazines. There was also Russell Maguire, an oil man and submachine gun manufacturer, whom Graham met in 1952. Russell had lost his Wall Street broker’s license because of what the Securities and Exchange Commission described as “flagrant violations.” Maguire purchased The American Mercury (H.L. Mencken’s magazine) and turned it into an anti-Semitic, anti-communist, racist rag. Maguire financed Graham’s various film projects to the tune of $75,000. And then there was Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina governor and senator whose segregationist views and opposition to the Civil Rights Act did not prevent him from having an illegitimate child by his African-American maid—a child, incidentally, that he never publicly acknowledged. Graham was Thurmond’s guest at the governor’s mansion during a 1950 crusade.


Graham was a bigot. I say “was” because when bigotry was no longer in fashion and became a source of embarrassment to those who espoused it, Graham, ever the opportunist, publicly renounced his bigoted views. However to his credit, like the Ku Klux Klansmen whose ranks included one of his grandfathers, Graham was an equal-opportunity bigot, directing his bigotry against Jews, Blacks, and Catholics—here, indeed, he did not discriminate.

Perhaps the most damning of all, because it was so explicit and made public, was the virulent anti-Semitism for which Hitchens so roundly scores him. This came to light in a taped conversation with Nixon in 1972. This conversation lasted an hour and a half and was mostly denunciatory of Jews. Graham suggests, in an eerie echo of the “Final Solution,” that something might be done about this “problem” after Nixon’s reelection. Bothwell quotes Graham as accusing the Jews of “putting out the pornographic stuff” and “undermining the country.” Later, Graham said that his anti-Semitic statements did not reflect his real beliefs, to which Bothwell rejoins, “What are we to make of a preacher who insists that his words don’t reflect his beliefs?”

In mitigation of Graham’s anti-Semitism, one might point to his much- vaunted pro-Israel stance. But this is inspired by his millennial expectation that Christ, upon his return, will use Israel as his headquarters from which to set up his kingdom on earth, whereupon he will exterminate all Jews and countless others who do not believe in him.

Then there is the matter of Graham’s racism, explicable perhaps in light of his Southern upbringing. Bothwell relates this anecdote from Graham’s youth. To a friend’s recommendation of a “colored barbershop,” Graham riposted, “Long as there’s a white barbershop in Charlotte, I’ll never have my hair cut at a nigger barbershop.” It is not fair to attribute to the man the attitudes he held in his callow youth, but Graham’s opinions and actions later in life are perfectly consistent with his youthful views.

Graham opposed the quick dismantling of the Jim Crow laws. As late as 1991, he maintained membership in the segregated Biltmore Forest Country Club, which distinguished itself by ejecting a black child from its swimming pool in 1988. And, of course, conspicuously absent was Graham’s complete lack of support for Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for civil rights. When Graham was petitioned by officials concerned for public safety to go to Little Rock, Arkansas, and lend his prestige to help calm the disturbances that erupted after the forced integration of the city high school in 1957, he declined, thereby avoiding retaliation from his white, Southern base of supporters. Indeed, he was a harsh critic of King’s crusade for social justice. His backhanded response to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” Graham’s magazine, Christianity Today, failed to mention King at all, only breaking its silence in 1964 with the terse announcement that Time had named King “Man of the Year.”

Sometimes Graham condemned racism from the pulpit; at other times he said there was no scriptural objection to segregation. According to Graham, racism was a “local” issue that did not warrant comment. His waffling on the issue of race may be explained by his need to appear good not only to his white Christian supporters but also to their opposite faction—the decent people who were clamoring for social justice. According to Graham biographer William Martin, whom Bothwell cites, Graham “sometimes seemed less concerned with the intrinsic injustice of racial discrimination than with the effect on his ministry’s image.”

Lest it be thought that he was merely the hapless victim of his racist Southern culture, it should be remembered that there were other clergy who risked life and limb to promote civil rights for blacks. As early as 1947, the Reverend Charles Jones confronted white supremacists intent on violence when he held integrated labor meetings at his church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Graham’s home state).


Yet Graham’s warmongering and bigotry are not the worst of his sins. Bothwell suggests that Graham was complicit in genocide, if only indirectly. Through the combined efforts of Graham, missionaries, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Rockefellers, over one hundred thousand indigenous people in South America were murdered because they stood in the way of and resisted miners and oil rigs—Manifest Destiny marching south. This is a severe charge, but Bothwell lets the facts speak for themselves.

Bothwell reports that John D. Rockefeller Jr. funneled $50,000 to Graham’s sixteen-week Madison Square Garden crusade of 1957. The author speculates that a motive behind Rockefeller’s largesse may have been access to South American oil fields. Standard Oil and Shell Oil had penetrated the Huaorani territory in Ecuador’s Amazon area but were driven out in 1948 by native tribes who had previously suffered enslavement and massacres at the hands of rubber barons. In the meantime, the Missionary Aviation Fellowship and other organizations such as the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS) were working their way into the South American wilderness. JAARS together with other missions were associated with the Christian fundamentalist Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a front for Wycliffe Bible Translators, which translated the Bible into native languages. Graham sat on the Wycliffe board.

SIL/Wycliffe made its translators available to the CIA. Missionaries worked as CIA operatives, and missionary maps were used for locating and targeting tribes. According to Bothwell, the missionaries would soften the native population for future military and industrial exploitation by flying over villages slated for “salvation” and dropping candy, trinkets, and pictures of the whites who would soon appear. This strategy was quickly taken up by mercenaries who on their first fly-over dropped supplies of sugar on the villages to gather the population and then on their second dropped dynamite on the unsuspecting natives. Subsequently, when the natives took to defending their land, thereby being reclassified by the political authorities as communist insurgents, the U.S. government provided napalm that conveniently eradicated any evidence of genocide.

Not coincidentally, money from the appreciative industrial recipients of the missionaries’ assistance swelled the coffers of SIL, Wycliffe, and the Graham crusades. Time reported that Graham’s missionary activities in South America had been underwritten in part by an organization funded by the CIA.

One might excuse Graham’s complicity in what amounted to genocide by saying that he did not engage in it intentionally. However, his later actions during the Vietnam War indicate that had he known he might have approved of them. In April of 1969, Nixon received from Graham a letter headed, “The Confidential Missionary Plan for Ending the Vietnam War,” in which he advocated the bombing of the North Vietnamese dikes. This action, by destroying their agricultural system, would indirectly kill masses of people. After Graham’s letter was made public, he, true to form, shifted the blame to others, saying that it expressed the opinions of missionaries (how extraordinary!) and he was simply their messenger. However, Graham took the precaution of later sending a copy of the letter to Henry Kissinger, then assistant to the president for national security affairs, and commended it to his attention.


What more, on Bothwell’s account, might be said about Graham’s professed “moral code” beyond its permitting bigotry and both complicity in and advocacy of mass murder—enough to damn anyone? One thing is that it permits mendacity and making ad hoc excuses when one is caught out in a falsehood or lie. As one example, in that aforementioned telegram urging Truman to go to war against North Korea, Graham asserted that there were more Christians per capita in South Korea than anywhere else in the world. According to Bothwell, this claim was palpably false. What does this say about a man who has made a business of proclaiming the “truth” of Scripture? We are entitled to ask whether he actually believes any of it.

Graham’s morality also condones ambivalence about the law. For instance, when Graham learned that four thousand “full-time Christian workers” who collaborated with him in his organization were eligible for the draft in 1969, he made an urgent call to the White House requesting that they be granted the same exemption as the ordained clergy. Earlier on, when he himself was eligible for the draft during the Second World War, he applied to become a military chaplain. This required his entering a chaplain’s training program at Harvard Divinity School (an education that would have done him a world of good). Instead, he informed the authorities that he was not well enough to travel. He was discharged, and he returned to Florida to recuperate at the expense of a sympathetic listener to his radio programs.

It seems that even torture (in serving a righteous cause, of course) may be forgiven and condoned on Graham’s moral principles. Bothwell reports that Graham employed Nelson Bardesio, formerly a torturer in Uruguay’s Death Squad, for his Mexican crusade of 1977. Nevertheless, Graham’s delicate moral sense is offended by certain things—not by war, racial injustice, or genocide, of course, but by Playboy centerfolds. (I once heard a snippet from one of his crusade sermons in which he fulminated against the rising tide of pornography. To stem it he recommended legally sanctioned censorship, to which his audience applauded approvingly.) Graham was able to fault Nixon only for his profanity, notes Bothwell, “while giving his friend a pass on all of his very real crimes: conspiracy to burglarize, bribe, extort, subvert justice and the rest.” He excused his intimate friend’s malfeasance by attributing it to “sleeping pills and demons.”

Graham’s moral beliefs are derived from the Bible—more accurately, from a narrow and now discredited (at least by reputable biblical scholars) fundamentalist interpretation of it. The Apostle Paul unambiguously states in Romans that government is established by God, and so empowered as “the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Graham takes these words literally and out of context; he believes them to be inerrant and inspired by God, and so not to be trumped by a principled right of civil disobedience as defended by the likes of Henry David Thoreau and exercised by Martin Luther King Jr. Bothwell quotes these telling words of Graham echoing his interpretation of Paul: “I do believe we have the responsibility to obey the law. No matter what that law may be—it may be an unjust law—I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it. Otherwise you have anarchy.”

Graham is billed as an evangelist, which by definition is a bearer of good news. But Graham’s message is at bottom bad news. It is a message of fear—fear of the devil, hell, communists, left-wingers, pornographers. Graham, more accurately, is a “dysevangel,” to borrow a term from Nietzsche. Graham himself is a very fearful man who reportedly sleeps with a loaded gun at the side of his bed.

However, to give the devil his due, Graham must be given credit for his astuteness as a wheeling-and-dealing power-broker and businessman. For one who has claimed to follow the teachings and example of a homeless itinerant teacher who had no place to lay his head, Graham has made a killing from peddling salvation. Bothwell calculates Graham’s personal compensation package from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for 2005 as exceeding half a million dollars, based on tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service.


Graham’s life is further evidence, as if any were needed, that religion and morality are quite distinct. A colleague once remarked to me that the pious often think that being religious excuses them from the necessity of being moral. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” comes to mind. The protagonist in that story finds himself in the forest at night, either awake or dreaming. There he witnesses a witches’ Sabbath being celebrated by the very folk he took to be paragons of piety in his village—among them his catechism teacher and even the pastor himself. Like the “good” people in Hawthorne’s story, Graham appears before us proudly wearing the mantle of respectability, but Bothwell reveals him to be an emperor without clothes. Brown’s nocturnal experience in the forest forever jaundiced his view of his neighbors. Similarly, after reading Bothwell’s book, no one should be able to look upon Graham or others who set themselves up as religious or spiritual leaders without suspicion.

Graham is now at death’s door, and I shudder at the fulsome eulogies and encomiums that will be heaped on him upon his demise. Fortunately, Bothwell’s book can provide a salutary antidote to them. It is the only fitting memorial for Graham and stands as a stark warning to posterity to be on guard against similar charlatans, mountebanks, and demagogues, especially in the fertile field of religion. Bothwell’s book should be required reading for all Americans.

Richard Hall

Richard A.S. Hall is associate professor in the Department of Government and History at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.

The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, by Cecil Bothwell, second edition (Asheville, N.C.: Brave Ulysses Books, 2010, ISBN 9781456325909) 215 pp. Paper, $16. Billy Graham has had public and private facilities named after him and been called the “preacher to presidents” and “God’s ambassador.” He is an icon of …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.