Thursday, May 11, 2017

Frances FitzGerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, on Billy Graham and Richard Nixon: Valuable Historical Reminders



One of the important contributions of Frances FitzGerald's book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017) is that it recovers for us history that is, for many of us, still alive in memory, but about which younger Americans now have no inkling. One section of her book focuses on the strong connection the leading white American evangelist Billy Graham made with Richard Nixon, and how that connection was tested when the Watergate d├ębacle happened. 


This is obviously a timely historical discussion, in light of the resurgence of interest in Nixon and Watergate following Trump's firing of Comey, and in light of Trump's strong (and continuing) support among white evangelicals. In the passage I have snipped for you above (both from page 257, two connecting paragraphs on that page), FitzGerald discusses Billy Graham's tortured, timid attempt to come to terms with who Nixon was, following the revelations about Watergate.

As she reminds us, even right into the heart of the Watergate crisis, Billy stood by his man. He valued his access to presidents, his ability to tell presidents what to do. White evangelicals valued this power and access through Rev. Graham. It bolstered their sense that this was their country and that they own it — a sense that continues in evangelical circles in America today, and largely accounts for the decision of over 80% of white evangelicals to vote for Trump in the last election, as Robert P. Jones has repeatedly reminded us.

And so he was very loath to criticize Nixon. When the tapes damning Nixon came to light, the tapes showing that he personally directed the Watergate break-in and cover-up, Graham's initital reaction was to condemn Nixon's coarse language — not his lies, destruction of evidence and property, and betrayal of the presidential office.

Only very slowly and tortuously did Graham realize that he had been had, that he had placed his confidence in a very flawed and not in the least admirable man, that white evangelicals had created an idol of Republican leaders, and their integrity and ability to preach the gospel were being undermined by their idolatry of Republican leaders. Graham finally, slowly, admitted all of this and distanced himself from Nixon.

But this is clearly a lesson that white evangelicals have not really learned, have refused to learn, as they keep lusting for power through their idolization of folks like Donald Trump, who exemplifies Christian values in no shape, form, or fashion. As yet another survey conducted by Robert P. Jones' PRRI group has just found, "Nearly eight in ten (79%) white working-class evangelical Protestants express fear that the country is losing its culture and identity, compared to 56% of those who are religiously unaffiliated."

"Fear that the country is losing its culture and identity" or "cultural anxiety" are shorthand for, "I fear that people with black and brown faces are taking over my country, which God put into my hands to own and to run." They are shorthand for, "I want my country back."

At the very root of white Christian resentment of the Other in America today, which has given the world Donald Trump, is the racist root of the Christian right movement, which is right there to be seen in Billy Graham's own history, if we open our eyes, as Frances FitzGerald reminds us. As it's to be seen plainly in the history of his successor, the next leading white evangelical leader in the U.S., Jerry Falwell — as FitzGerald also reminds us.

Until Americans deal with the nation's original sin — racism — honestly and redemptively, we will continue to see people like Richard Nixon and Donald Trump leading our nation to white evangelical applause (and the applause of white Catholics led by bishops who have long since made common cause with white evangelical leaders). 

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