Billy and Ike: How Graham Became ‘America’s Pastor’

Billy Graham, right, talks with President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a visit at the White House in 1957. Graham was a counselor to each president from Harry S. Truman through George W. Bush. (AP)
Billy Graham, right, talks with President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a visit at the White House in 1957. Graham was a counselor to each president from Harry S. Truman through George W. Bush. (AP)

Ike and Graham forged a partnership that fed America’s religious revival in the 1950s — but it came at a cost.

In late December 1955, the Gallup poll issued its annual list of the “most admired men in America.” At the top of the list stood President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had also been ranked first for the previous four years. But a new name entered the list that year: the Rev. Billy Graham, the most charismatic evangelical preacher of his generation.

Graham lies in honor today in the Capitol, an exceedingly rare privilege for a private citizen. From Ike on, Graham served as a close personal adviser to every U.S. president. But it was his relationship with Eisenhower that turned Graham from a popular preacher to “America’s pastor.” Together, Ike and Billy formed a powerful tandem, twin exemplars of the public piety and fatherly certainty that marked — and marred — midcentury America.

The 1950s were a time of religious revival. Prodded by the Cold War struggle against “godless Communism” and an active movement to engender piety, Americans filled the nation’s pews. Church membership rose from 49 percent in 1940 to 69 percent in 1960. The most popular public figures of the day were men of the cloth. The Rev. Fulton J. Sheen, a bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, was a national radio personality who, after 1951, hosted a  popular weekly television program called “The Catholic Hour.” His program regularly bested Milton Berle and Bob Hope in the ratings.

Norman Vincent Peale, Methodist pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, also became a household name in the 1950s. He published a stream of best-selling self-improvement books containing handy biblical passages designed to solve any problem at home or in the workplace. His book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” appeared in 1952 and stayed on the bestseller list for 186 weeks.

But the most significant evangelist of that decade was Billy Graham, the tall, rangy Baptist from Charlotte, who had been leading youth revivals since the mid-1940s. An eight-week run of revival meetings in Los Angeles in 1949 — which Graham called a “crusade” — pulled in 350,000 worshipers and made the reverend a national figure. With unrivaled charisma, Graham argued that all the world’s problems could be solved with conversion to Christ. “If we change men,” he said, “we can change the world.” The Cold War and the arms race, poverty and inequality, divorce and moral turpitude, all this would simply wither away if the people of the world made a “decision for Christ.”

As president, Eisenhower championed this kind of popular piety. Raised in a nonconformist family of devout Mennonites, Eisenhower often said he was “the most spiritual person I know.” As a boy, Ike sat with his family every night in the living room of their simple Abilene, Kan., home reading from Scripture, and he carried this belief into politics. Eisenhower told an audience of church leaders in 1955 that “religious principles must not be kept in a realm apart from everyday life.” He welcomed the insertion of the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, and gladly declared “In God We Trust” the official motto of the country in 1956.

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SOURCE: William I. Hitchcock
The Washington Post

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