Billy Graham, the beloved evangelist known as "America's pastor,"
says that looking back on his long life and public ministry, one thing he would do differently is to avoid the political entanglements that have been one of the rare blots on his otherwise hallowed legacy.
"I . . . would have steered clear of politics," Graham, now 92 and in need of round-the-clock care, said via e-mail in response to questions from Christianity Today
, the evangelical monthly he founded in the 1950s.
Graham also said that if he could go back and do anything differently he would "spend more time at home with my family, and I'd study more and preach less."
But it was his regret over his past political liaisons that stands out in an era when many Christian figures do not hesitate to champion politicians or cheer for a particular party.
"I'm grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to," Graham said in the e-mail exchange.
"But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn't do that now.
Graham has been known as the "pastor to presidents" because of his ties to nine U.S. presidents. But though he befriended Democrats as well as Republicans, he was closest to GOP politicians -- George W. Bush has credited Graham's counsel for his personal religious turnabout -- and for years he was particularly close to Richard M. Nixon.
"I have often told friends that when you went into the ministry, politics lost one of its potentially greatest practitioners," Nixon wrote to Graham after Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy.
Graham became a regular at the White House after Nixon's election in 1968, offering advice and leading services for the family. He was offered the post of ambassador to Israel, but turned it down. Graham did invite Nixon to become the first president to speak at one of his rallies.
But Watergate strained their ties and led Graham to turn away from political activity; he was never involved in Christian right lobbies like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition, for example. Nixon tapes declassified in 2002 showed Graham referring to Jews in disparaging terms in conversations with the president, a revelation that deeply embarrassed Graham. "If it wasn't on tape, I would not have believed it. I guess I was trying to please," he said at the time.
Still, Graham has continued to serve as a kind of touchstone for presidents and would-be leaders. He remained especially close to the Bush family, and last April, Barack Obama made a pilgrimage to meet Graham
at his home in Montreat, N.C., where he has spent most of his time since his wife's death four years ago.
also went to see Graham early last year, and she has struck up a close friendship with Franklin Graham, Billy's son and his apparent heir as a leading American evangelist.
Franklin Graham does not seem as leery of involvement in politics as his father now is, and has frequently cast his lot with conservative causes and politicians, including Palin. While he had some kind words for President Obama's address at the Tucson shooting memorial, for example -- and he has been sharply critical of Obama in the past -- he generated controversy by saying the lack of an explicitly Christian focus showed that the service and the participants "scoffed" at Jesus
As for the elder Graham, apart from regretting aspects of his political involvement, he told Christianity Today that if he could go back and do anything differently, "I wouldn't have taken so many speaking engagements, including some of the things I did over the years that I probably didn't really need to do -- weddings and funerals and building dedications, things like that. Whenever I counsel someone who feels called to be an evangelist, I always urge them to guard their time and not feel like they have to do everything."
The exchange with the magazine offers a rare personal glimpse of a reflective Billy Graham.
"I can't honestly say that I like being old -- not being able to do most of the things I used to do, for example, and being more dependent on others, and facing physical challenges that I know will only get worse," he said
. But he counseled those growing old and infirm to accept each day as a gift from God and to focus on eternity as well as the present.
And he advised younger people to accept the "responsibilities" of having aging parents and to try to "be patient with them"
"They may not be able to do everything they once did, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily helpless or incompetent. And be alert to their needs -- including their emotional and spiritual needs. Sometimes they just need to know that you're there, and that you care."
"Occasionally I've seen children become heavy-handed and insensitive when dealing with their aging parents, and it only caused resentment and hard feelings," Graham said. "On the other hand, it may become necessary to step in and insist that they turn over the car keys, or let you handle their finances, or even arrange for them to move to a place where they'll get better care. They may resist, and you need to put yourself in their shoes and realize the turmoil these changes can cause them. But they need to realize that you're doing it because you love them and want what's best for them."
Graham also said he has been "amazed" and gratified at the global success of evangelical Christianity, though he added a note of caution to those following in his footsteps:
"[S]uccess is always dangerous, and we need to be alert and avoid becoming the victims of our own success. Will we influence the world for Christ, or will the world influence us?"