One of The Most Influential Religious Leaders of the 20th Century: “Billy Graham” on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, May 17 at 9 pm

Posted on:

< < Back to

American Experience Billy Graham

Premieres Monday, May 17, 2021 on PBS


Explore the Life of One of the Most Influential Religious Leaders of the 20th Century


American Experience presents Billy Graham, a new documentary that explores the life and career of one of the best-known and most influential religious leaders of the 20th century. From modest beginnings on a North Carolina farm, Graham rose to prominence with a fiery preaching style, movie-star good looks and effortless charm. His early fundamentalist sermons harnessed the apocalyptic anxieties of a post-atomic world, exhorting audiences to adopt the only possible solution: devoting one’s life to Christ. Graham became an international celebrity who built a media empire, preached to millions worldwide, and had the ear of tycoons, royalty and presidents. At age 99, he died a national icon, estimated to have preached in person to 210 million people. Billy Graham examines the evangelist’s extraordinary influence on American politics and culture, interweaving the voices of historians, scholars, witnesses, family, and Graham himself, to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of a singular figure in the American experience. Directed by Sarah Colt, produced by Helen Dobrowski and executive produced by Cameo George, Billy Graham premieres Monday, May 17, 9:00-11:00 p.m.  on American Experience on PBS, and the PBS Video App.

Billy Graham (left) talks with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office, 1966.
Billy Graham (left) talks with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office, 1966.

“Billy Graham profoundly changed our nation and, through his extraordinary powers of communication, rose to the highest heights of international fame as well,” says Cameo George, American Experience Executive Producer. “Before Billy Graham, it was not commonplace for presidents of the United States to hold prayer breakfasts and publicly meet with religious leaders. That’s all a direct result of Graham’s mission and strategy. He became a catalyst for the whole evangelical movement.”

Born November 7, 1918, on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, to a conservative Presbyterian family, Graham grew up in a fundamentalist South where preachers were considered cultural heroes. He discovered his own talent for converting people to Christ as a college student, preaching in small Florida churches. In 1949, seeking a larger audience, Graham headed to Los Angeles to hold a series of revival meetings — “crusades” he called them. Charismatic, energetic, with a voice “like a train whistle on a prairie,” Graham gave his message a sense of urgency by connecting it to current events, including the recent Soviet test launch of an atomic bomb. His anti-Communist rhetoric caught the attention of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who directed his editors to give Graham front-page coverage. Attendance surged, and Graham was catapulted onto the national stage.

Departing from Christian fundamentalist tradition, Graham associated his crusades with influential civic leaders, celebrities and politicians, increasingly connecting his ministry to power and influence. His anti-Communism, pro-capitalist message resonated with many, including the business community, and his empire grew. In 1950, he established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Guided by Graham’s instinctive media savvy, the BGEA moved into modern telecommunications, launching a weekly radio program that reached 20 million listeners within weeks of its first broadcast, creating TV programs and establishing a movie studio. In 1954, Graham took his message to the UK, packing the 11,000-seat Harringay Arena in London for 12 weeks. By the time the crusade came to a close, Graham had arguably become the most famous person in the world.

Billy Graham (left) with Nancy and Ronald Reagan. 1981.
Billy Graham (left) with Nancy and Ronald Reagan. 1981.

In the U.S., Graham had also become the figurehead for a movement which brought Christian fundamentalists “from the fringes of society and put them right into the center of American Protestantism,” explains historian Anthea Butler. “Billy Graham becomes a household name, and he ends up making American evangelicalism a household name as well.”

Graham’s entry into the American political arena was launched when, at the age of 31, he had the audacity to secure a meeting with President Truman in the Oval Office. Truman was the first president with whom Graham met, but not the last, and he became an increasingly visible advisor to American presidents in the years that followed, most notably Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

When Dwight Eisenhower ran for president, Graham made it clear that it was the duty of Christians to vote. Despite public pronouncements that he wasn’t going to enter into partisan politics, he served as Eisenhower’s spiritual advisor during the campaign. Following the election, Eisenhower and Graham together promoted ideas about nationalism and Christianity and advocated for a spiritual renewal in America’s battle against the Communism threat. “Eisenhower was pleased by thinking of Graham as the sort of religious leader of the country,” writer Frances Fitzgerald explains. It was during Eisenhower’s administration that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Prayer Breakfast became an annual event and the nation’s first official motto — “In God We Trust” — was adopted and added to paper currency.

Graham always sought to expand his audience, and this included welcoming people of color to his crusades. His invitation to Martin Luther King, Jr. to give a prayer at his 1957 New York Crusade at Madison Square Garden was seen as a statement on civil rights. Yet when King asked Graham not to appear at a crusade event with Texas’ segregationist Governor Price Daniel, Graham refused. He would continue to disappoint King, who wrote in his seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the greatest stumbling block in the civil rights movement might be “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than he is to justice.” “Even though he’s speaking to those clergy members from the city of Birmingham,” asserts theologian Jonathan Walton, “he’s articulating a larger critique of the white Evangelical movement, namely its moderates – of which Billy Graham is at the forefront.”

Ruth Graham reads to her four children. 1955.
Ruth Graham reads to her four children. 1955.

With the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, Graham became more deeply entangled in partisan politics than ever before. Graham advised Nixon and discussed policy with him, despite Graham’s public statements that their relationship was entirely pastoral. Graham even appeared in television commercials created by Nixon’s campaign in 1970 to persuade white Southerners to abandon the Democratic party and vote for the Republican ticket. An ardent supporter of Nixon even as the Watergate scandal unfolded, it was not until Graham read the transcripts of the White House tapes that he learned that his faith in Nixon had been misplaced. “Billy Graham’s friendship with Richard Nixon had tainted the very work of his life,” says Butler. “This is the first time that he’s had a huge moral misstep.”

Chastened, Graham retreated from politics and began to focus more on international efforts. His view of the world broadened, and he became less dogmatic. Once a staunch anti-Communist and American exceptionalist, Graham began speaking out in favor of nuclear disarmament, and in 1982, in defiance of the Reagan administration, traveled to Moscow for a peace conference. “He became less American, and more global,” says journalist Nancy Gibbs.

When Baptist minister Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, a conservative movement that became a powerful political force, Graham refused to join. But Graham’s more than two decades in politics had opened the flood gates. “The closer he moved Christianity to politics, the more he opened up the opportunity for Christianity being used to polarize, to politicize,” says historian Uta A. Balbier. “He opened Pandora’s box the second he stepped into the Oval Office for the very first time.”