Christensen: Billy Graham's blessing can't hurt

rchristensen@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2012 

Some photo ops matter, and that was the case last week when Mitt Romney was photographed with the Rev. Billy Graham in Montreat, who delivered his blessing if not his formal endorsement to the Republican presidential candidate.

Graham, the Protestant pope, is perhaps the most revered figure in North Carolina. And while he is renowned for saving souls for Christ, he also has a long history of political involvement.

Graham played an important role in two of the most important trends of the post World War II South – the end of one-party Democratic Party dominance and the end of Jim Crow segregation.

“His evangelical Christianity mediated the emergence of a post-civil rights era South simultaneously more open to desegregation and more amenable to Republican Party politics,” writes Steven P. Miller, in “Billy Graham and The Rise of the Republican South.”

As early as 1953, Graham opened up his crusades to African-Americans, despite opposition from some local officials. And he befriended civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called Mike.

An influential counselor

He also enjoyed mainly national politics, although he sometimes would interject himself into North Carolina contests.

Such was the case in 1968, when he gave the subtle nod in the governor’s race to Democrat Bob Scott over Republican Jim Gardner. Gardner had angered him by playing footsie with third party candidate George Wallace, instead of backing his friend Richard Nixon, the GOP candidate.

A few days before the election, Graham invited Scott to tea at the Biltmore Forest Country Club, where Graham told reporters that he had voted early and split his ticket.

“I am determined not to get involved in local politics or endorse any political candidate,” Graham said. “But I do have a warm spot in my heart for the Scott family. I asked Bob to come up and see me when he could.”

In the end, Graham expressed disappointment with Nixon and said he would never again openly endorse a candidate.

But Graham walked right up to the line in 2000 with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who said that Graham had helped turn around his life as a younger man.

Graham continued to be a spiritual counselor to presidents of both parties, although he has been closest to Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes.

But at age 93, Graham has once again become more active, meeting publicly with potential presidential candidate Sarah Palin in his home two years ago, voicing support for the marriage amendment that passed in the state last May, and now giving a near endorsement to Romney.

A son takes the lead

It is not a stretch to see the hand of his son Franklin Graham, who is far more connected to conservative politics and who has questioned whether President Barack Obama is a Muslim, in his father’s new higher profile. The younger Graham participated in the meeting.

None of which is likely to have the slightest effect on the public’s high regard for Billy Graham.

A committee of prominent historians, journalists and public intellectuals ranked Billy Graham as the fourth most influential Southerner of the 20th century behind only King, William Faulkner and Elvis Presley.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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