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The Preacher and The Presidents

The following excerpt from The Preacher and The Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House discusses Graham’s relationship with Ronald Reagan, which began in 1952. At the time, some in Hollywood thought the actor might be tapped to play the evangelist in a movie.

Graham and Reagan were both young, handsome, charismatic, talkative, fascinated by politics — and visionary innocents in a world of hard-boiled sharpies. They shared supernatural gifts as communicators who could reduce complex problems to instinctive and clear solutions. Both men invoked images of an idealized America when they talked, relying heavily on their roots in Illinois and North Carolina. Each man would become larger than life: mythic to their admirers, simplistic to their detractors — and a bit unknowable to their biographers. Both wanted to show “communism for what it really is,” and both thought Christianity could play a big part in the showdown.

Partly because of the sheer breadth of what Reagan tried to accomplish as president, historians have tended to dismiss his faith and its impact on his presidency … . It was commonplace among reporters in the 1980s to write off Reagan’s faith as a convenient story cooked up by his handlers to mollify the cultural conservatives who worshipped him. But with a depth of field of nearly 20 years since his presidency came to a close, Reagan’s faith seems a more integral part of both the man and his time in office than was realized in the 1980s … .

Reagan made regular demonstrations of his faith as he began his climb to the top. In a conversation with David Frost in 1968, the year he mounted his first bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan put Jesus at the top of the list of historical figures he most admired. Reagan and his wife opened Graham’s 1969 crusade in Anaheim, where the governor said that, “I’m sure there will be those who will question my participation here tonight. People have become so concerned with church-state separation that we have interpreted freedom of religion [as] freedom from religion.” … As president, Reagan would often, before an important speech or meeting, tell his chief of staff, James Baker, “I need a minute.” Baker would turn and see Reagan saying a silent prayer in preparation. “Faith was a part of him and always was,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who began working for Reagan in 1966. “Whenever there was a disappointment or a setback, his response was always, ‘There’s a reason for this and we’ll find out someday what it is. But it’s all a part of God’s plan.’ He wasn’t sappy about it. He was almost matter-of-fact.”

But his intense interest in religious freedom in the Soviet Union was something of an obsession. His letters were sprinkled with sad mentions to friends about the Soviet people’s inability to pray openly when their loved ones passed away. He saw the steady reintroduction of faith as one of the keys to breaking the communist empire.

Excerpted from The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Copyright (c) 2007 by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. All rights reserved. No portion of this excerpt may be reproduced or distributed without permission of the publisher Center Street.

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