Convocation 2007: Authors Discuss Future of Religion and Politics in U.S.
Evangelist Billy Graham has had an impact on many of the men who have occupied the Oval Office during his lifetime. Michael Duffy, OC ’80, and Nancy Gibbs recently wrote a book, The Preacher and the Presidents, about Graham and the history of American Christian politics. Thursday evening, they spoke at Finney Chapel as part of the Convocation Lecture Series.
Duffy and Gibbs, both veteran editors at Time magazine, addressed Christian politics in America and the realignment of the Christian vote, which may lead to more balanced constituencies of Christian voters in the major parties.
“We’re on the cusp of religion and politics being at a balance they haven’t been at in 30 years,” said Duffy.
Graham is one of the world’s most influential religious leaders. Although his career as an evangelist is well-known, he has kept his friendships with presidents discreet.
Graham, said Gibbs, is unique in that “no one else has had the kind of access to the Oval Office that he had.” While an active evangelist, Graham cultivated relations with 11 presidents, from Eisenhower to our current president.
“Presidents have to appear more confident and self-assured than any person should be, but there are lots of fears and doubts that they can’t express,” said Gibbs. With Graham, “they could ask the simplest questions — life and death, sin and forgiveness, power.”
Gibbs and Duffy described Graham’s moderate political philosophies as significant in the present political climate, which is characterized by consistent polarization of issues between the left and right. Graham famously stated, “Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left.”
The speakers mentioned former presidential candidate John Kerry as an example of a politician who failed to understand the importance of the religious vote. Duffy explained that liberals have begun to bridge gaps to Christian thought, mentioning Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent statement: “Science is a gift of God to all of us, and science has taken us to a place that is biblical in its power to cure.... And that is embryonic stem cell research.” As Duffy said, Democrats “are learning a new language.”
Gibbs said, “We’re going to see if not a realignment of Christians to the Democratic party, then at least somewhat of a dealignment from the Republican party.”
Regarding Graham’s controversial friendship with President Nixon, Duffy and Gibbs said that Graham was essentially innocent regarding Nixon’s legal controversies, and that his “heart was broken” when the extent of the corruption was revealed. However, audio tapes released in 2003 included recorded conversations in which Graham agreed with Nixon that Jews control the media.
Duffy and Gibbs also spoke about Graham’s friendship with Hillary Clinton. While they stopped short of suggesting that Graham would endorse Clinton in the coming election, Duffy and Gibbs said that she is a deeply religious person. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Graham was among the few who urged Clinton to forgive her husband.
At several points the audience broke out in laughter, particularly when Duffy reminisced on his days as a student at Oberlin, joking about different co-ops and how he met his wife at Tank.
At the end of the talk, Duffy and Gibbs answered questions for half an hour about a variety of political and Christian topics — such as atheism, Graham’s personality, and the Left Behind series — before retiring to the lobby to sign books.