A Confidant in Faith: Billy Graham's Influence Over World Leaders

To commemorate Billy Graham's passing, here's a look at some of the leaders who connected with the preacher, and what came of their interactions.
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Billy Graham

Billy Graham

Over the course of his long life, evangelist Billy Graham — who'd been dubbed "America's Pastor" — advised people around the world. Those who received his spiritual guidance include every president from Harry Truman (who actually didn't get along with Graham all that well) to Barack Obama (who visited the ailing Graham in 2010 at his North Carolina home). To commemorate Graham's passing, here's a look at some of the leaders who connected with the preacher, and what came of their interactions.

Queen Elizabeth II

In the 1950s, Billy Graham spent time in the United Kingdom holding religious rallies that attracted large crowds. This gave the preacher the opportunity to meet Queen Elizabeth II. The two, who both drew strength and inspiration from their faith, developed a friendship that would span decades.

The queen invited Graham to preach to her and the royal family on multiple occasions, among them Easter Sunday in 1995. And at one point in the 1990s, she requested input on her Christmas message (an annual address made by the British monarch) — despite their different denominations: Queen Elizabeth is head of the Church of England, while Graham was a Southern Baptist. As Graham noted in his autobiography, "Her official position has prevented her from openly endorsing our Crusade meetings."

Martin Luther King Jr.

Graham once stated, "Christianity is not a white man's religion, and don't let anybody ever tell you that it's white or black. Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world." This belief was demonstrated when he integrated his religious meetings in the 1950s. On July 18, 1957, fellow preacher Martin Luther King Jr. shared the stage at a gathering in New York City, where he called "for a brotherhood that transcends race or color."

However, being a man of great faith didn't make Graham infallible. Though King asked Graham not to let a segregationist governor introduce him at a crusade in Texas, Graham didn't go along with the request. Graham was also a gradualist who, when talking about equal rights for black Americans, hoped "extremists on both sides will quiet down." And after King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was published, Graham said King should "put the brakes on a little bit," something that would have meant prolonging the daily indignities and cruelty of racial segregation.

Graham endorsed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also came to regret some of his inaction in the fight for civil rights. In 2005, he told the Associated Press, "I think I made a mistake when I didn't go to Selma [to join the historic march]. I would like to have done more."

Richard Nixon

The 1950s marked the beginning of Graham's long friendship with Richard Nixon. Graham tried to buoy Nixon's spirits following his losses in the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial race, and the preacher was glad when Nixon won the presidency in 1968. At Nixon's swearing-in ceremony, Graham was there to offer a prayer.

Yet with Nixon, the preacher also had a hand in more worldly affairs: after meeting missionaries from Vietnam, in 1969 Graham wrote a letter to Nixon proposing several possible courses of action for the Vietnam War; one suggestion was to bomb North Vietnam dikes, which could have killed one million people. And while talking to the president in 1972, Graham went along with Nixon's anti-Semitism while making his own bigoted statements about a Jewish "stranglehold" of the media. (When tapes of this Oval Office conversation became public in 2002, Graham offered an apology.)

The preacher supported Nixon as the Watergate scandal developed. When evidence finally made it clear that the president had lied about his involvement and participated in a cover-up, Graham was devastated. After this, Graham tried not to get so involved in partisan politics.

Bill and Hillary Clinton

As a young man, Bill Clinton had been impressed by Graham's refusal to have segregated seating at a religious meeting held in Little Rock, Arkansas. And Graham liked the politician, whom he'd met when Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Though they often didn't agree on policy, Graham decided to pray at Clinton's presidential inauguration — to the dismay of many of his evangelical counterparts.

Graham also provided both Bill and Hillary Clinton with support as the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky turned into a national scandal and personal ordeal. The preacher not only offered his public forgiveness of the president, he was a source of strength for Hillary as she made the decision to stay in her marriage.

Hillary later said in an interview, "The entire world was judging my decisions and my actions and there weren't very many people who, frankly, were understanding, and he was. He said, 'You know, forgiveness is the hardest thing that we're called upon to do. And we all face it at some point in our lives and I'm just really proud of you for taking it on.'"

George W. Bush

Graham advised George W. Bush during his time in the White House, and came to Washington, D.C., to speak at the National Cathedral days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. However, their spiritual relationship began long before Bush's ascension to the presidency.

Graham was visiting the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1985. On this visit the two went out together for a stroll, during which the preacher asked, "Are you OK with God?" Bush later said that Graham had "planted a seed in my heart and I began to change." A year after this meeting, Bush was reading the Bible regularly and in a Bible study group; he also made the decision to stop drinking.

Kim Il-Sung

Though North Korea is an officially atheist country, Graham wanted to reach out to the isolated regime (his wife had lived there in the 1930s, a time when the area had a large population of Christians). Graham visited in 1992 and returned in 1994.

On this second trip, the preacher carried a message from President Bill Clinton that said authoritarian North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung needed to allow inspections of nuclear facilities before relations between North Korea and the United States could improve. According to Steven Linton, a Korea expert on the trip, an offended Kim felt he and the U.S. president first needed a personal relationship before discussing such requests.

To smooth things over, Graham encouraged Kim, as an elder statesman, to make allowances for the younger Clinton. Weeks later, the inspectors were permitted at nuclear sites. The deeply Christian Graham may have forged enough of a connection with the atheist Kim to make these inspections possible.