At the time Dr. Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan first met in 1953, both men were rising stars, one in the pulpit and the other in a pseudo-political role.
Mr. Reagan was on the verge of signing a lucrative deal as a corporate spokesman for General Electric, a move that would not only earn him a good living but also put him in everyone’s living room for the next eight years.
Still, Dr. Graham’s future appeared even brighter. The great Los Angeles crusade in the fall of 1949, held inside a hot Ringling Brothers circus tent, made Billy Graham a household name all across the nation. By the hundreds of thousands people were flocking to stadiums and arenas to hear his lilting Carolina drawl. With enthusiastic and robust evangelical fervor, the tall and lanky Graham was sparking spiritual revival all throughout post-World War II America.
That first meeting between Graham and Reagan was memorable for another reason. They had gathered in Dallas to help raise funds for a retired film actor’s home. On the dais with the two men was Dr. W. A. Criswell, the senior pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church, one of the country’s largest and most influential Protestant congregations.
The forty-four-year-old Criswell was known for strong opinions, both in and out of the pulpit. With Graham looking on, the Southern Baptist clergyman was true to form. Movies were of the devil, he told Reagan. Graham was incredulous. All the while, Mr. Reagan listened politely. He then proceeded to share with Criswell his perspective on the positive aspects of the movie industry and the number of good, wholesome films that were being made in Hollywood. To his credit, the fiery pastor absorbed the winsome retort. When Reagan concluded, Criswell spoke.
“I’m going to start going to some movies,” he replied, “and I’ll tell my congregation that it’s not a sin to see certain types of movies.”
The incident greatly impressed Dr. Graham, who marveled at his new friend’s keen ability to navigate cantankerous criticism.
“Ron had not only changed a man’s mind,” Graham wrote, “but he had done it with charm, conviction, and humor—traits I would see repeatedly as I got to know him.
These same traits and shared interests kept Reagan and Graham close through the years. The close ties also put the evangelist in a tough spot when Mr. Reagan was running for president in 1980. Just prior to the Republican Convention, Dr. Graham crossed paths with Reagan during a trip through Indiana. The polls were tightening, and Mr. Reagan said he especially needed help in North Carolina—Billy’s home state.
Would Graham be willing to say a kind word about him? It was the first time he had ever asked for political help, and he only now did so because it could well make the difference in the race.
“Ron, I can’t do that,” Graham told him. “You and I have been friends for a long time, and I have great confidence in you. I believe you’re going to win the nomination and be elected President. But I think it would hurt us both, and certainly hurt my ministry, if I publicly endorsed any candidate.”
Mr. Reagan told Graham that he understood, though his aides appeared frustrated. Still, just like that, the tension between the two quickly faded.
For Dr. Graham, the church’s business wasn’t just the exposition of the gospel and the defense of orthodox doctrine and evangelism. It surely wasn’t less than that—but it was far more too.
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