Is Billy Graham an anti-Semite? Was Richard Nixon? Newly released tapes from the Nixon Library certainly make these fair questions, and not for the first time. But perhaps even more importantly, since Graham is an old man and Nixon is dead, it invites us to ask what those questions really mean and who is best suited to answer them.
Without asking those questions, this story is nothing more than an excuse for a little Jewish rage-mongering, a little Nixon-bashing, and an excuse to stir up anti-Christian sentiment. While those are all popular pursuits, they are really no healthier than the ugly conversations which Reverend Graham had with President Nixon.
Certainly, Jewish leaders should not be telling Christians what the New Testament “really means”, and using that interpretation to prove that Graham was a Jew-hater. It’s just more complicated than that.
The line from Revelations 3:9, that there are those who claim to be Jews who are liars, and that they belong to a “synagogue of Satan,” refers to an ongoing debate within the early church. As the verse says, its author’s anger was directed not at Jews, but at those who “pretended” to be Jewish. However, that verse has a long tradition of use by anti-Semites and it was foolish at best for Reverend Graham to have used it.
There is no question, though, that Billy Graham has a long history of making private statements that were hurtful to Jews, and ought to be offensive to all people. Sadly, it’s a trait that his son, Franklin Graham, has picked up — only he saves his choice remarks for Muslims instead of Jews. It’s equally clear that the recently surfaced comments by Reverend Graham the elder are as bad or worse than those which surfaced in the past.
Worst of all is that when confronted with these statements, the best Reverend Graham could manage by way of response was that he was deeply apologetic for any hurt he may have caused. As we all know that’s political double-speak for: “I am willing to offer you an apology even though I don’t think that I have done anything wrong”. That is not an apology. It’s a statement of regret about the impact of one’s words, but not for the words themselves.
On the other hand, more often than not, the tapes reveal President Nixon’s simultaneous concern for Jews mixed with classical anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish cunning, control, and hostility to gentiles. And in most instances, they show Graham agreeing with the President, not initiating those ideas.
This certainly shows that the former President held anti-Semitic views and also that Graham was at least insufficiently morally courageous to stand up to his disciple. It may also suggest that he shared those views with the President. In either case, the apology he owes is far greater than the one he has ever offered.
The issue here is not what label we can place on those who have said and done ugly things; it is their readiness to fully address their past bad acts, and our willingness to help them do so in a constructive, compassionate manner. That’s not just a lesson for Reverend Graham; it’s a lesson for all of us.