George Bush Honors Billy Graham

Barbara Bush's timing was perfect. At a ceremony honoring the Rev. Billy Graham on the campus of Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas, on Monday afternoon, the former First Lady said a few words about Ruth Graham, the evangelist's beloved wife who could not make the trip from Montreat, North Carolina. An interviewer, Mrs. Bush said, once asked Ruth whether, as a Christian, she had ever considered divorce.

"'Divorce? No,'" Mrs. Graham had replied. "'Murder, yes.'" A tide of laughter rose in the huge room, but Mrs. Bush was not done. She waited a beat, then added: "I can understand that." Her own husband, George H. W. Bush, seated a few yards away next to Graham, joined in the cheers. (The crowd was a predictably eclectic Bush gathering, with guests ranging from actor Chuck Norris to AOL founder Steve Case.) When the former president's turn came to present Graham with the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service, Bush frankly admitted he was too choked up to say much. The white-maned Graham, at 87, sat quietly as Bush said: "What he has meant to me and to my family is too personal, too emotional." A few moments later, Graham made his way to the podium. Setting his walker to his left, Graham summoned the old strength once more. Backstage beforehand, Graham's voice was barely more than a whisper; now, in the moment, he rose to the occasion, and spoke boldly. Ruth, he said, loves Barbara Bush "like a sister," and, addressing the former president, Graham said: "Your friendship and your warmth over the years have meant more to Ruth and me than I can possibly express, and you have made us feel almost like members of your family. I thank you and Barbara for what you have meant to our nation, and our world, and to my family." From the wit to the evident warmth, the occasion did in fact have the feel of a family affair, and, given Graham's age and health, it may mark one of the last times the world's most influential Protestant evangelist and the 41st president of the United States can publicly pay homage to each other. (In the holding room before the ceremony, Graham asked someone to speak up. "I'm so sorry, but I'm nearly deaf," he said. "Aren't we all?" cracked Mrs. Bush, putting her guest at ease.) Beyond the personal, though, the Graham-Bush relationship also sheds light on the sometimes complex connection between faith and politics in American life. For six decades—since Eisenhower, really—Graham has been what Bush called "the nation's pastor," a seemingly ubiquitous figure at the highest levels. From pressing Ike to enter the 1952 presidential campaign to golfing with Kennedy to helping save George W. from a life of drift and drink, Graham has managed, with only a few missteps, to be more unifying than divisive as a Christian evangelist in the public square, which is no small feat in a country founded on religious freedom and wary of sectarian religious allusions. He belongs to a particular tradition of what Benjamin Franklin called "public religion" in America, and as he fades away, ever so slowly and with great grace, it is worth considering his legacy as the nation prepares, as it ultimately must, for a post-Billy Graham era. Rarely very strident or fundamentalist-Graham dropped out of Bob Jones College, a forerunner of South Carolina's hard-line Bob Jones University-Graham nevertheless spoke out on political and cultural issues for many years, and his association with presidents, including, obviously, the Bushes, had worldly implications. From Eisenhower forward, politicians who were seen with Graham were invested with a kind of religious aura. It is easy—too easy—to be cynical about Graham, to consign him to the role of preacher to the powerful. His decades of ministry, however, show him to have been at once a maker and a mirror of the nation's public religion, from Cold War millennialism to the suburban sunniness of the conservative counterculture in the 1960s and '70s. Eloquent and driven—like George H. W. Bush, as Mrs. Bush pointed out, he was addicted to travel—Graham was not only a gifted preacher but possesses even now the capacity to bring calm to the most turbulent of personal moments. "When my soul was troubled," Bush said in College Station, "it was Billy I reached out to, for advice, for comfort, for prayer." There is no question Graham's pastoral touch played an essential role through the years. He was with the Bushes on the night Desert Storm began, and on the evening before they surrendered the White House to the Clintons. He was at the prayer service at Washington National Cathedral on the Friday after the attacks of September 11, sitting near the Bushes and the other former first families—implacable and reassuring, his strength drawn from his role as a symbol of much of the nation's faith, a faith above politics. For many years, though, Graham tried to have things both ways, dabbling in direct political involvement while feeling he should, as a minister, avoid partisan entanglements. His friendship with Richard Nixon proved to be a turning point, moving Graham further from the temporal realm and back toward the spiritual. He and Nixon were, Graham, thought, very close, but when the White House tapes emerged-which, among so many other things, captured Nixon's propensity for profanity-Graham was confused and hurt. In one 1972 conversation, Graham found himself agreeing with an anti-Semitic Nixon about alleged Jewish control of the media. "A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine," Graham said. "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." Click here to buy 'American Gospel' When the conversations were released in 2002, Graham said he could not recall the episode and sought forgiveness and reconciliation: "Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart," he said. Jewish leaders, many of whom appreciated his support of Israel and his refusal to join other evangelicals in calling for the conversion of the Jews, accepted his apology. "Much of my life has been a pilgrimage—constantly learning, changing, growing, and maturing," Graham said. "I have come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and message, not the least of which is in the area of human rights and racial and ethnic understanding." The significance of Graham's journey from flirting with partisanship to a more pastoral role is that the more distance he put between himself and the strife of the political arena, the more able he became to serve as a source of unity. "It is true that we are a pluralistic nation," he said in 1985. "We have a Constitution which guarantees to all of us human freedoms, of which religious freedom is foremost. In America any and all religions have the right to exist and to propagate what they stand for. We enjoy the separation of church and state, and no sectarian religion has ever been—and we pray God, ever will be—imposed upon us." For Graham, then, politics became "hot-button issues" to be avoided. "At my age," he said last summer in New York, "I have one message:" the Gospel. Younger evangelists do not always see what Graham has: that politics is of the kingdom of this world, subject to change and chance. His voice, when it is stilled, will be difficult to replace. In College Station, Graham reflected a bit on the connection between his ministry and his role in the country's public life. "To be honest," Graham said to Bush, "when you first contacted me about this award I was very reluctant to accept it. After all, the words "public service" usually bring to mind someone who has been active in government or politics, or perhaps a business leader or philanthropist. But that has not been my calling. My calling has been to proclaim the Gospel, and urging people to commit their lives to Christ. My calling has been to help people look beyond this world and its problems to the world to come-to help us understand that we weren't created for this life alone, but we were created for eternity and for fellowship with God. And yet over the years I have realized that my commitment to Christ makes me more concerned about this world. God loves us, and Christ commanded us to have compassion for others and to be concerned about human suffering and injustice wherever they occur." Whatever our faith, whatever our doubts, the sentiment and spirit of Graham's words—that we are to live lives of service to others—is perhaps the most fitting benediction for his public life. For Christians Graham will always be a powerful messenger of God, but in a nation built on the idea and the reality that all men are created equal and have the right to believe or not to believe as they wish, his closing words are useful for us all. "Freedom and public service go hand in hand," Graham said, "and this is one reason why America has always been a nation of opportunity and progress." When he was done, he grasped his walker and moved, slowly but steadily, off stage. Outside, in the Texas afternoon, he put on his sunglasses, was helped in to a car, and driven away to a well-deserved rest. The enormous crowd drifted away, with President Bush's words of farewell—so consummately Bushian, hollered with both arms in the air—ringing in the air. "Go in peace," he cried with a grin, "thank you!" For more on "American Gospel," go to JonMeacham.com