The gap that Billy Graham leaves behind

Billy Graham preaches on the third night of the Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade on November 20, 2004 in Pasadena, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Billy Graham was the most significant American preacher of the post-war years, excepting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, the two men were linked. In 1957, Graham asked King to join him for a 16-week revival in New York — a testament to Graham’s commitment to racial equality. The two men quarreled over the Vietnam War — because Graham was, at heart, an old-fashioned conservative — but Graham bailed King out of jail when he was arrested while campaigning against segregation in Georgia.

Graham’s life is a rebuke to the idea that evangelicalism and politics don’t or shouldn’t mix. He became almost part of the unwritten constitution of American politics: a counselor to presidents, Democrat and Republican, and for many Protestants a moral anchor in a fast-changing century.

Raised on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, Graham dedicated his life to Christ when he was just 16. After World War II he became a full-time evangelist.

An innovator in technology and theatrics, he spoke to large crowds with such eloquence and passion that he became a kind of star among Protestants. In 1953, he met Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan at a benefit for retired actors and was impressed when Reagan persuaded another preacher there that movies were not the instrument of the devil. The fact that Graham met and knew men before they became president speaks to the cultural power he enjoyed: Influential people queued up to meet him. He was up there with Elvis Presley.

His impact upon American society is illustrated with a story from 50 years ago, recounted in W. Terry Whalin’s 2014 biography, “Billy Graham: A Biography of America’s Greatest Evangelist.” In 1966, Graham started a new mission based around screenings of a movie he’d made. Graham insisted that screenings not be segregated.

When the film came to rural Georgia, his organization struggled to find anyone willing to host it — until a young farmer stepped forward by the name of Jimmy Carter. Carter had been born again that very year. Ten years later this progressive Christian would win the presidency, an election victory that put evangelicalism into the Oval Office.

Managing these kinds of relationships could be tricky: Graham would acknowledge the risk of compromising his own mission, which is why he didn’t endorse Reagan in 1980 — although he had been very close to Richard Nixon and vouched personally for Nixon’s morality and Christianity. When Graham finally read the Watergate transcripts, it was humiliating. Indeed, tapes released later of his 1972 conversations with Nixon would reveal Graham’s own prejudices against Jews. He apologized in 2002.

Nevertheless, he transcended the Nixon years to become a bipartisan confessor to presidents. He was there at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, counseling Hillary Clinton, who later said he helped her get through it. Graham’s advice was that Bill Clinton should quit politics after the presidency and go into preaching, because he had the necessary skills, and let his talented wife run the country instead.

Graham’s death means a loss of continuity in American life. For decades he was a rational meeting point between faith and politics, a man who transcended parties to provide moral leadership. It was important that president after president could pick up the phone to the same man who would listen and advise with patience. He leaves behind a country that has always been divided — as the politics of his own time proves — but feels increasingly incapable of crossing those lines of disagreement.