Rob Christensen

When Billy Graham stepped into presidential and North Carolina politics

In this Oct. 16, 1971 file photo, the Rev. Billy Graham and President Richard Nixon wave to a crowd of 12,500 at ceremonies honoring Graham in Charlotte, NC. Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died.
In this Oct. 16, 1971 file photo, the Rev. Billy Graham and President Richard Nixon wave to a crowd of 12,500 at ceremonies honoring Graham in Charlotte, NC. Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died. AP

While the Rev. Billy Graham was a figure on the national and world stage – Time Magazine once dubbed him “the Pope of Protestant America” – he also made his presence felt in the region and in North Carolina.

No issue troubled the South as much as race, and Graham sought to be the voice of moderation.

While segregationists such as future Sen. Jesse Helms were portraying Martin Luther King Jr. as a tool of the communists, Graham was befriending the civil rights leader. In a newspaper interview in 1957 shortly after King led the Montgomery boycott, Graham told a newspaper that King was “setting an example of Christian love.” King soon accepted Graham’s invitation to give an invocation during a New York crusade.

King asked Graham to call him Mike, a birth name used only by black intimates.

Graham racially integrated his crusades, starting with a revival in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1953. When ushers threatened to put back up the ropes cordoning off the black section of the auditorium, Graham said: “Either these ropes stay down or you can go on and have the revival without me.”

Graham died Wednesday at age 99.

While Graham and King would always remain cordial, the two would grow apart in the 1960s because Graham was never comfortable with civil disobedience, preferring to change people through individual conversation because of his belief in obeying the law. Graham was not a civil rights marcher, but that gave him credibility with Southern governors and mayors.

“As an evangelist, Graham could stand removed from the fray of both the civil rights era’s politics of rage and its politics of protest,” wrote historian Steven P. Miller, author of “Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South.”

“Instead, he endorsed and advocated the politics of decency, which invoked evangelical faith, combined with law and order, toward moderate ends.”

Calls for Nixon

Graham was famous for advising presidents and heads of state. But he was closer to Richard Nixon than any other political figure – a decades-long friendship that began when North Carolina Sen. Clyde Hoey introduced the two in 1952 in Washington.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Graham was strongly aligned with Nixon, which had consequences in North Carolina.

U.S. Rep. Jim Gardner, who was running for governor, was among a group of Republican House members who endorsed Nixon early in the year. On the day the national convention opened in Miami Beach, California Gov. Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy, and Gardner endorsed Reagan. He seconded Reagan’s nomination and helped the Tar Heel delegation vote 16-9 for Reagan over Nixon – part of a Southern effort to strengthen its position with Nixon on civil rights.

Graham had called Gardner two or three times before he endorsed Reagan to ask that he stick with Nixon and had requested permission to address the North Carolina delegation at Miami Beach.

It was hard to fault Gardner. Reagan had raised campaign contributions for the Rocky Mount businessman, and he was the future of the party. But the Nixon people did not see it that way.

To make matters worse, in the fall Gardner and his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Robert Scott, both avidly courted supporters of third party candidate George Wallace.

This was too much for Graham.

Graham, a registered Democrat, invited Scott to tea at the Biltmore Country Club, where Graham told reporters that he had voted early and had split his ticket. He swung a golf club that he noted had been given to him by his friend Nixon. He would not say how he split his ticket, but he said reporters could guess.

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

Graham noted that Bob’s father, Gov. Kerr Scott, had invited him to make his headquarters at the governor’s mansion prior to his crusade at Reynolds Coliseum in 1951.

“He did me a number of personal favors,” Graham said. “I never asked for anything that he didn’t turn heaven and earth to do it.”

Scott polled 821,233 votes to Gardner’s 737,075 votes or 52.7 percent to Gardner’s 47.3 percent, the closest margin by any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the 20th century to that date.

Had Graham’s endorsement swung the election? Probably not, but it undoubtedly helped Scott in a close race.

Several weeks after the election, Graham wrote Scott congratulating him on his “magnificent race” and victory. “I believe you have all the moral and spiritual attributes to make a great governor,” Graham wrote.

Helms ad

North Carolina politicians, of course, have tried to get Graham’s blessing ever since.

In 1972, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Skipper Bowles, who was friends with Graham, attended church with Graham in Montreat, and put out a news release afterward.

This apparently gave Republican Senate candidate Jesse Helms an idea, according to Jim Aycock, who was then publisher of the Black Mountain News. A few weeks later, Helms attended church with Graham and then distributed a newspaper ad showing Helms and Graham standing together, apparently taken outside the church, with the headline: “Who Stands with Jesse Helms?”

Aycock called the Graham organization and asked if Graham had endorsed Helms, and was told no. Later in the day, the Helms campaign called the newspaper to cancel the ad. Better not to trifle with the Protestant Pope.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, @oldpolhack

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