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What we can learn from Billy Graham about navigating church and state

In the aftermath of Billy Graham’s death, much attention has turned to Graham’s relationship with U.S. presidents during his lifetime. Having some degree of religious influence with every president since Truman, Graham’s passing presents an opportunity to reflect, however briefly, on the model that his life offers for looking at the relationship between religion and politics, and church and state.

While I am an ethicist, not a historian, Graham’s life offers much in the way of navigating the often-turbulent waters of church and state.

Much could be written on the different types of relationships that he had with presidents. In whatever capacity he operated with each president, it is accurate to suggest that Graham’s persona weighed heavily on American politics in general, and with the White House, in particular.

“America’s pastor,” Graham always welcomed opportunities to provide spiritual counsel to American leaders. In this, Graham never saw himself as a political “kingmaker,” but a Baptist preacher who gained influence through the sincerity of his preaching and the humility and authenticity of his demeanor. In his personal capacity alone, Graham’s character demonstrated that influence comes less through thundering expectation that presidents conform to Christianity’s moral teaching in the pursuit of protecting the majority culture, and more through the gentle, amiable hospitality he exuded toward all people who sought a counsel that was cultivated by a deep and genuine encounter with the gospel.

In many ways, Billy Graham epitomized a healthy and constitutional vision for church-state relationships. While Graham would come to regret his involvement with Richard Nixon, Graham’s witness reveals a person whose primary function as a Christian evangelist was to shape consciences through the proclamation of the gospel. Shaping consciences is not first and foremost a political project. Sure, it has political implications for how one understands the obligations of conscience in the voting booth. More importantly, though, the shaping of the conscience is done in order to help the conscience discern what is true and follow God’s truth accordingly.

Graham’s life encapsulates the reality that Christianity had a large influence over the culture, so much so that presidents sought his counsel, which was entirely appropriate, and constitutional given the framework at work in America. In many ways, Graham’s model is the very embodiment of what the American Constitution allows for: Ample relationship between religious influence and political action. Graham never sought out to be, preeminently, a political influence. He wanted his legacy to be one of evangelism and proclamation (and he succeeded, ably, at attaining this legacy). But Christianity is always a contextual faith, and the possibility of political impact can never be cordoned off from the proclamation of the gospel. So much political change in America transpired, in fact, because people of faith were energized and transformed by inner renewal.

The church must consider what might happen if its mission actually succeeds in a given culture; when a large percentage of the population claims a Christian identity and votes accordingly with biblical values. Though Graham was not a public theologian by today’s standards, his life and ministry remind us of what happens when a culture has, in fact, been influenced by Christianity—there becomes a responsibility to steward that political influence well, not to use one’s Christianity for some ulterior gain.

Graham’s life is a living example of how church and state ought to remain institutionally separated, while recognizing that religion and politics, by definition, never can. Graham’s church-state model was not apolitical (since that is in itself impossible). Instead, Graham’s life shows how church and state, and religion and politics, often reduce down to an incarnational reality: Where Christians can ascend to places of influence and give counsel to the consciences of a nation’s policymakers. Every pastor and every Christian leader has something to learn from Graham’s life when it comes to church and state—that people are influenced by authentic relationships where influence is earned rather than demanded.

Lastly and supremely, Graham’s life teaches an important and enduring principle for how Christians ought to understand the relationship between church and state—that Christian witness is never a means to some greater cultural or political end. Christianity is not a political instrument toward self-empowerment. It is not, and ought not be, an instrumentalized faith. When one uses Christianity for some other predetermined end (say, for example, the cult of personality, political, sexual liberation, or racial supremacy), eventually the need to hold on to that Christianity withers away when one’s pet project is ascendant. Even though Graham ministered during a time where Christianity was culturally ascendant and he could have used his influence toward some greater, worldly end, he never took his eyes off the main thing: proclaiming peace with God through Jesus Christ.

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