When Billy Graham died at the age of 99 in February, the virtually unanimous consensus was that America had lost its most famous evangelist of the 20th century and a fine Christian gentleman. I won’t disagree, though Fulton Sheen was no piker. But there is an embarrassing history.
Nearly 60 years ago, in 1960, Billy Graham, though a registered Democrat, would oppose his party’s presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, because Kennedy was Catholic.
Graham’s fear — shared by many in mainstream Protestantism at the time — was the old canard that the pope and the hierarchy could control a Catholic president, which would be a decisive threat to American Protestant culture. Billy Graham hosted about 25 Protestant leaders in Switzerland in August to devise a strategy to block Kennedy. The most prominent participant was Norman Vincent Peale, author of the huge best-seller “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Like Graham, his popularity crossed all denominational lines, including Catholics.
These leaders drew their perspective from a shared White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) understanding of America. They saw their concerns as the farthest thing from crude anti-Catholicism. They didn’t want the religious issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism to get caught up with the campaign’s populist rhetoric alleging Knights of Columbus members pledging to kill Protestant babies, Abraham Lincoln assassinated in a Jesuit conspiracy and Catholic churches with arsenals hidden in their basements awaiting the nod from the pope. To the Protestant leaders assembled by Graham, the Great American Experiment was WASP in its foundation and heritage. As were America’s freedoms. Diminish that WASP cultural and political authority and the Great American Experiment was doomed.
In September, Peale hosted a conference in Washington, D.C., to spell out “the nature and character of the Roman Catholic Church” and its threat — Kennedy’s threat — to America. No Catholics were invited. The conference was a disaster. The press went after Peale tooth and nail. Many Protestants condemned the expressed religious test for office, and Catholics — Democrat and Republican — were incensed. Peale’s reputation would never quite be the same.
It was a week after the Washington conference that JFK spoke to a ministerial gathering in Houston that calmed fears of him being in papal bondage. Many Catholics today argue that Kennedy went way too far in distancing himself from the proper role of his faith in public life. But he did win the election. So it goes.
According to Peter Steinfels, writing years later in The New York Times, “Dr. Peale’s associates carried on a reproachful correspondence with Mr. Graham, who had taken no part in the events that followed” the Switzerland meeting.
Perhaps Graham had second thoughts from the meeting. Was it fear for the future of his crusades in Catholic countries, as Steinfels wonders? Or maybe it was after deeper reflection. Or prayer. In any case, he privately disavowed directly to candidate Kennedy that he would raise the religious issue. While he certainly held firmly to his Baptist and evangelical faith, he never engaged in any rhetoric that could be construed as anti-Catholic.
Today, the popular crusades conducted under his name by his son are done in cooperation with all local churches, including the local Catholic dioceses. Those attending who might be fallen-away Catholics are nudged back to their parishes. They are a good thing. Billy Graham in 1960 was a product of his times. But I’d like to think that his faith and character allowed him to move beyond old prejudices. It is another reason to remember him as one of our finest Christian gentleman.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.