On Thursday, October 11, Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, met with Rev. Billy Graham in his mountaintop home in Asheville, North Carolina. In so doing, Romney was able to check a crucial public relations event off his campaign agenda.
For the last fifty years or more, acquiring an audience—and an endorsement—from Billy Graham has been a nearly mandatory step for any candidate hoping to court evangelicals for their votes. In an interesting twist of the intermingling of church and state, presidential candidates need Graham, not the other way around. A photo-op with Billy Graham is viewed as a boost to any candidate’s credibility, just as a lack of one can be seen as a detriment to it. Graham’s approval is not only helpful, it is strategically important; even though most candidates rely on its unspoken power, rather than trumpeting loudly that they have gotten it. It is a very intriguing detail that powerfully points to the deep and interdependent religious roots of American politics.
As evangelicals, Billy Graham and his son, Franklin Graham, have taken an approach similar to many evangelical Christians: Support the man, not the Mormonism. Franklin set the antimony starkly earlier this year during the primary process when he said: “He is a Mormon. Most Christians would not recognize Mormonism, but he would be a good president if he won the nomination.” At the time, Franklin was a supporter of Rick Santorum, which begs the question of whether “most Christians would recognize” Catholicism (historically, at least since the Reformation, they do not). Franklin Graham threw his support to what he perceived to be the more “Christian” of the two men—Romney and Santorum—but now that Santorum is a distant memory, Graham must choose his words wisely in his endorsement of Mitt Romney, supporting him as a potential Commander-in-Chief, but not as a Minister-in-Chief.
Both Billy and Franklin have pledged to do what they can to help Romney in his bid for the White House. It is yet to be determined what this means exactly, but it is clearly a show of support. The elder Graham has met with President Obama and spoken with him on the phone, but it is obvious to most that either Graham does not wish to see a second term for the Obama administration. Many evangelicals already view Graham as a compromiser of sorts, making concessions as he does for Catholicism and other “liberal” Protestant denominations. As a conservative Baptist, Billy Graham is expected to hold certain traditional views on the Gospel that he has, in recent years, gone somewhat soft on, as Iain Murray points out in detail in Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950-2000.
Franklin Graham has been more direct in his public statements, evoking the spirit of a younger Billy Graham; in particular, taking heat for questioning President Obama’s claims of Christianity. But now that both Graham’s have voiced public support and agreed “to help” the Romney campaign however they can, it will be interesting to see how many undecided Protestants choose to approach the issue. The Grahams have opened the way to support the candidate without supporting his religion, and now we must wait and see what effect, if any, this will have.