When I was an evangelical convert in high school in the 1990s, the Religious Right was rallying—not that it mattered to us. To be a Christian, I and my friends were learning, was to become an exile. The first book we studied seriously, on the tattered couches of our youth pastor’s parsonage, was the Book of Daniel. A Jewish exile in Babylon, Daniel taught us how to live apart from the blood sport of high school popularity contests. The ethos was well illustrated by the cover of the Keith Green album we listened to, titled No Compromise.
It showed Daniel standing with nonchalant defiance amid a prostrate crowd, while the reigning authority’s furious henchman vainly commanded his assent. Ours was the kind of faith that would take a placard with Daniel 3:16 (“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you”) alongside John 3:16 to a football game.
During the Trump presidency, I don’t believe this attitude has changed—certainly not at Wheaton College, the evangelical institution where I now teach. Yet cries of “evangelical” complicity in our current political predicament grow ever louder. Lately I took a walk through the Billy Graham Center Museum here on campus, to see whether I had got this whole thing wrong.
Walk through Wheaton’s museum and you’ll see the section devoted to Graham’s attack on apartheid in South Africa. “Billy Graham: ‘Apartheid Doomed,’” announced the newspaper headlines after his 1973 visit, the font so large it filled an entire front page. “The spirit of reconciliation we sense in many of South African hearts,” claimed Bishop Alpheus Zulu of Zululand, “can be traced back directly to the Billy Graham meetings held in Durban and Johannesburg in 1973. … From that moment on we were on the road to reconciliation.”
Graham also famously cooperated with Christians of other traditions, and came under heavy fire for doing so. Collections of memorabilia record his controversial trip to Russia at the height of the Cold War, his interactions with Romanian Orthodox Christians, and his relationship with Pope John Paul II. Graham collections also show a Bible written in the Algonquin language, ample evidence of Graham’s fruitful cooperation with Native Americans, and images of his children and their ministries. I refer especially to the preaching ministry of Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz. Evangelicalism, more than any other mainstream Christian tradition, has been a historic platform for women in ministry.
None of this is to deny Billy Graham’s coziness with political power, and one remarkable set of golf clubs in another Graham collection illustrates this uncomfortably well. It’s odd to think of the evangelist vacationing in the Mediterranean, but so it was in the mid-1960s. Graham rented some equipment at the Monte Carlo golf club. He had one of the best games of his life, and asked the golf pro whether he could purchase such remarkable clubs. The golf pro declined. A few weeks later Graham related this story to his golfing buddy Richard Nixon. Some time later, underneath the Grahams’ 1967 Christmas tree, those very clubs appeared—a gift from Nixon himself. Which is to say, the most powerful man in the world used his influenced to acquire high-quality sporting equipment from the Côte d'Azur for America’s Pastor.
Grant Wacker’s study of Graham sheds light on what we might call the Monte Carlo phase of Graham’s ministry:
Academic, business, civic, ethnic, geographic, media, political, religious and even sartorial awards and honors—at least thirty-five—[were] showered on Graham in the decade following 1965. The encomia, along with honorary degrees, overnights in the White House, prayers at two presidential inaugurations, featured remarks at three presidential prayer breakfasts, well-photographed golf outings with high-ranking politicians, repeated appearances on network television talk shows, and fraternizing with some of the richest and most powerful men in American, betokened deep comfort with the culture. To be sure there was no evidence that Graham compromised his core message in any of those settings, or that he strayed morally or financially. Yet the image of a man thoroughly at home with American life prevailed. His invitingly relaxed deportment on television talk shows appeared symptomatic of something deeper. Sometimes it was hard to tell where self-confidence ended and self-satisfaction began.
Golf was a symbol of Graham’s amity with America. Indeed, Wacker claims that hundreds of photos of Graham enjoying high-profile, high-green-fee golfing events circulated in major magazines. But then, reports Wacker, something changed:
The debacle of the Nixon presidency, which Graham had strongly supported, signaled a turning point, if not consistently in practice, at least in aspiration. The sordid revelations released with the Nixon tapes saved Graham from himself. They forced him back to the drawing boards to reassess his real and perceived complicity in the smugness of that administration and by implication the smugness of his associations with other parts of the American establishment.
To borrow a phrase that Andrew Walls applies to Christianity in general, evangelicalism is “infinitely translatable.” This translatability means that evangelicalism can function as effectual resistance to racism, as an ecumenical catalyst, a platform for women in ministry, or as an endorsement machine for American politicians. Billy Graham was associated with each of these translations, and each one is duly represented among the Billy Graham collections. But one of these translations comes with a warning from Graham himself. It’s right there in his autobiography: Graham’s friendship with Nixon “muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics.”
A fresh round of sordid revelations will probably not hinder some evangelicals from the dream of golfing with our current president. And should they get the opportunity, I doubt they’ll be as lucky as Graham was in the Christmas of ’67. But exile and defiance are certainly among the movement’s infinite translations as well, and the roots of this kind of evangelicalism are as deep as Daniel. Such a faith brooks no nostalgia for Billy’s clubs from Monte Carlo, and might eventually find itself in the way of the billy club instead.
Matthew J. Milliner (whose views don’t necessarily represent those of his employer) is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College.