Billy Graham, the most important figure in twentieth-century American Christianity, died this morning at the age of 99. You’ll have the opportunity to read countless obituaries or columns on his life, evangelistic prowess, stances on race, sexuality, his conversations with Nixon about Jews, and his theatrical preaching in postwar America. I’m sure you’ll also read about his son, Franklin, and the roles that the Grahams have played in the election of Reagan and Trump. Historian Anthea Butler called Graham the closest thing to a Protestant Pope that America has ever had. I think she’s right. Graham’s meteoric rise in film and radio is the stuff of legend. He preached to more than a hundred million people in person and taught a particular way to be Christian and American.
The most important thing that Graham ever did for Mormonism was remove it from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s list of “cults.”[i] He did so after a meeting with Mitt Romney in October 2012, during the home stretch of the Republican presidential nominee’s campaign, in an attempt to increase the evangelical vote.
Mormonism no longer being named as a cult by the most prominent voice in American evangelicalism was a major coup for the LDS Church and its members. Although scholars no longer use the term cult, it has a powerful meaning in Christian communities (just ask Pastor Jeffress). Latter-day Saints, who have wanted to be a part of the White Protestant Establishment since the early twentieth century, had been excluded because of their views on the trinity, sexuality, and other non-creedal views. But, at least for the 2012 election, Graham gave Mormonism, and its most famous adherent, his blessing.
When asked about the change on the BGEA website, Graham’s spokesperson did not say that Graham suddenly viewed these beliefs as orthodox or even tolerable. “Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” [spokesperson] Barun said in a statement. “We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.” The campaign took precedence over soteriology. In short, Graham was more concerned with the Electoral College than the doctrine of election.
Romney won the LDS Church some political respect, even though he lost the 2012 election. He received Graham’s blessing and succeeded in having all negative commentary on Mormons scrubbed from the BGEA website. In doing so, Graham went a step further than his brethren in the Moral Majority, who only reluctantly worked with Mormons in matters of politics.
Graham’s political career ended with an ecumenical move that positioned Mormons as Republican but not Christian. Graham wiped out everything he had ever said to support a Republican candidate that happened to be Mormon. In a blog post posted on billygraham.org on October 22, 2016, Graham said,
“We need something like what Jerry Falwell did in the 1980s. We need a “moral majority”—made up of Christians, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and many others of faith—to come together to take a stand for our religious freedoms and rights.
In recent days, President Clinton said that President Obama “has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up.” But God-fearing Americans have no desire to see America rebuilt—but rather restored. To “rebuild it” would be to create a new nation without God or perhaps under many gods. This was never the intent of those who shed their blood for the freedom to worship as “one nation under God.”
I pray that all Christians and God-fearing Americans will put aside labels and vote for principles—God’s principles—that for many years have resulted in His blessing upon our nation.”
Graham’s willingness to accept Mormons under the broad umbrella of “God-fearing” Americans marked a major change in politics. He was willing to take back what he had said about Mormonism’s Christology if it led to the election result he wanted. His willingness to forget religion in the name of politics has been taken to the extreme by his Trump-loving son, Franklin. Billy Graham showed he could accept a Mormon as president. Franklin upped the ante and supported Trump in the name of Republican victory. Billy could accept a Mormon. Franklin could accept a man that said he had no need for repentance.
Franklin Graham’s reaction to Romney during the 2018 election season will tell us a lot about the folks that John Fea calls the “Court Evangelicals.” Will they care about Romney’s Mormonism? Or will they care that he is the most famous face of the Never Trump GOP? Will his party membership suddenly matter less than his faith? Will they attack him for his previously anti-Trumpian politics and calls for basic decency? His non-creedal Christianity? Or will Romney’s pleas for decorum and compassion be met with derision (Romney has recently said that he agrees with certain parts of Trump’s traditional Republican platform)? Will Romney’s vision for the GOP be treated as a cult within the Republican Party? Will politics matter over party—or will differences in politics lead to Mormonism’s ostracism within the GOP? Only time will tell.
[i] He also put it there in the first place, but that’s another story.