It's a comment that I have heard several times from historians who specialize in the history of American religion, especially Protestantism in the 20th Century.
The Rev. Billy Graham has not had a spotless career, and he would be the first to note that. In particular, there were the revelations in the Richard Nixon tapes about some of the evangelist's private opinions, which led to a season of public repentance. When you look at Graham's work, it's clear that the Nixon-era train wreck led him to focus more on Christianity at the global level and less on America, America, America.
However, stop and think about this question: Can you name an American in his era who had a higher-profile public career than Graham, becoming -- literally -- one of the most famous people in the world, yet who was involved in fewer scandals linked to morality, money or ethics? Turn that around, as one historian did, and ask yourself this question: If I had been in Graham's shoes, would I have done as well?
This brings us to Donald Trump.
To be specific, if brings us to the new Crossroads podcast, in which host Todd Wilken and I -- spinning off my Universal column this past week -- dug into mainstream press claims that the F5 category Trump (talking media storms) has become the GOP candidate with the most appeal to "evangelical" voters. Click here to tune that in.
Why bring up Graham in that context? View the start of the video at the top of this post. That was where I started in my column:
When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.
"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."
The thrice-married New York billionaire didn't elaborate, but apparently thought he was channeling what the world's most famous preacher would feel facing a Bible Belt crowd. Participants in evangelistic crusades, however, don't bounce up and down screaming while wearing licensed merchandise and waving single-name banners.
Adjusting his red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, Trump quoted Rush Limbaugh, mocked Jeb Bush, prophesized the demise of Hillary Clinton and shared sordid details of crimes by an illegal immigrant. He offered -- in the rain -- to prove that his legendary hair was indeed his own.
One photo went viral, showing the candidate greeting supporters in front of a homemade sign that proclaimed, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump."
So why was Trump, facing a Mobile audience, opening with a shout out to Billy Graham?
Trump is (a) smart, (b) completely shameless and willing to say anything, (c) aware that he is a Yankee who needs Bible Belt voters or (d) all of the above.
When you stop and think about it, isn't Trump just about the perfect anti-Billy?
So what is the Trump appeal to evangelicals?
In the podcast, I note that the real question is this: What is his appeal to a large minority of "evangelicals" who call themselves "evangelicals," but don't frequent church pews are regularly as normal evangelicals? Yes, once again we are wrestling with an issue that I have written about many times, in columns and here at GetReligion. Does the word "evangelical" have any specific theological content, as opposed to niche-market cultural content?
Now, let me warn readers that this podcast turned way more political than is the norm, in part because Wilken asked me about the potential for a White House bid by Vice President Joe Biden, serving as a kind of outspoken Donald Trump for Democrats.
So what did I think of that? Let's say that its related to something I put up on Facebook this past week, a letter than I mailed to the White House. For those who cannot see that on Facebook, here is the short text.
I am a lifelong Democrat, yet a frustrated one. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian and, thus, highly committed to the sanctity and protection of life, from conception to natural death. I wish there were more times when leaders of my party were a least willing to compromise on the life issues, seeking centrist positions. Yet many other political commitments, also linked to my faith, make me a very poor fit for the modern GOP.
I write to urge you to seek the presidency. I do this because I at least want the option of considering the views of a qualified Democrat. Your service to the party has been long and honorable. There is some chance that you could -- perhaps working with consistently pro-life Catholics and the remaining cultural conservatives in the party -- seek centrist positions on moral issues. I cannot, under any circumstances, consider the candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton, with all its baggage that is a disgrace to our party.
Please seek the nomination. At least give Democrats such as myself a choice we can consider.