Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The irony of Trump’s Graham tribute

President Trump touches the casket of Billy Graham during a ceremony Feb. 28, 2018, in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington. Graham, who died last week at age 99, will lie in honor as a tribute to America's most famous evangelist. Trump was joined, from left to right behind him, by Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — I’m OK with Billy Graham spending a couple of days lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, but not because he was the avatar of American civil religion. It’s his due for playing the political game so long and so successfully.

True, Harry Truman thought he was a fake, and those pesky Oval Office tapes caught him counseling Richard Nixon about a Jewish media “stranglehold.” These glitches aside, no prophet has ever enjoyed such honor in the White House and in the halls of Congress, and we can expect that will remain the case until the end times.

That Graham should have received his final presidential tribute from Donald Trump is, perhaps, his ultimate triumph. That’s because he was responsible for wrecking the public career of Trump’s beloved pastor, Norman Vincent Peale.

Turn back the clock to August of 1960, as the general election contest between Nixon and John F. Kennedy was getting under way. Graham, the brightest star in the American Protestant firmament, was deeply concerned about there being a Catholic in the White House and up to his armpits in an effort to keep it from happening.

On vacation in Montreux, Switzerland, after a series of European crusades, he convened a politically like-minded group of Protestant leaders, making a special effort to round up Peale, the celebrity author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” After the meeting, Graham wrote Nixon to tell him that there was going to be “a highly financed and organized office” in Washington to manage the anti-Catholic effort.

Spun out of the National Association of Evangelicals, the new organization was called Citizens for Religion Freedom. (To paraphrase French revolutionary Manon Roland before she was guillotined, “O Religious Freedom, what crimes are committed in your name!”)

CRF’s coming-out party was a September 7 conference at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel presided over by Peale and featuring speeches on the perceived Catholic threat by prominent evangelicals (including Graham’s father-in-law Nelson Bell but not Graham himself, who remained safely in Montreux).

The conference was closed to the press, but as Shaun Casey recounts in his fine book, “The Making of a Catholic President,” reporters from Newsday and the The Washington Post contrived to listen in, and the result was a disaster for Peale. Their stories made clear that he didn’t tell the truth when he denied the group’s anti-Kennedy purpose in speaking with the press afterwards. Graham didn’t come to his defense, and never let on that he was the one behind “the Peale group.”

So depressed was Peale by the episode that he resigned his New York pulpit, and though the resignation wasn’t accepted, his reputation never recovered.

“(T)oday,” said Trump on Wednesday, “we say a prayer for our country, that all across this land the Lord will raise up men and women like Billy Graham to spread a message of love and hope to every precious child of God.”

Somewhere, Norman Vincent Peale is raising an eyebrow.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

ADVERTISEMENTs