JEREMY SABELLA

Religion Department, Kalamazoo College

The King’s Chapel Revisited

This post inaugurates a series of reflections on Reinhold Niebuhr’s March 1969 article entitled, “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court”. These reflections will examine how Niebuhr’s critique of church/state relations illumines contemporary politics.

To outside observers, the prominent role of clergy at our presidential inaugurations might suggest that America has a state religion.

Franklin Graham’s opening comments at this year’s festivities might also suggest that the president is its high priest.

 

“Mr President,” Graham intoned, “in the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing. And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”

 

To implore God’s favor at the start of the presidency is standard inaugural fare. To declare that the Almighty sent baptismal rain from heaven as a sign of divine approval implies something more. It suggests that Trump is no mere democratically elected leader, but rather, the Lord’s anointed in the vein of Moses or King David.

In his prayer, Franklin carried on a family tradition of imparting religious sanction to the presidency. His father, the world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham, counseled every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Obama. Over time, Billy Graham became deft at offering counsel while upholding church/state boundaries. But this wisdom was hard-won. It took the disillusionment of the Watergate era for the elder Graham to sort out how to relate religious authority to political power. By all appearances, the younger Graham has yet to learn this lesson. But he can still glean it by revisiting the work of one of his father’s most perceptive critics: Reinhold Niebuhr.

 

Billy Graham talking with President Lyndon B. Johnson
In 1969, the ailing theologian published one of his final articles, a piece entitled, “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court.” This withering indictment of Graham’s relationship with Richard Nixon prompted a torrent of hate mail and an infuriated J. Edgar Hoover to personally reopen Niebuhr’s 600-page FBI file.  The immediate cause of Niebuhr’s ire was the Nixon-era practice of holding religious services at the White House. For Niebuhr, this established a modern version church/state collusion that in biblical times prompted the high priest Amaziah to mock the prophet Amos:

“O thou seer, go, flee thee away… prophesy not again any more at Bethel,
for it is the King’s Chapel and the King’s Court” (Amos 7:13).

Giving preachers such intoxicating proximity to political power compromised their prophetic function and allowed the state to co-opt their religious authority.

“It is wonderful,”
Niebuhr observed, “what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties, thereby confirming the fears of the Founding Fathers.”

But Niebuhr saved his harshest words for Billy Graham, who presided over the first White House service. Niebuhr labeled the view of religion and politics underpinning Nixon’s collaboration with Graham the “Nixon-Graham doctrine.” This doctrine presumed, first, that “all religion is virtuous in guaranteeing public justice,” and second, that a “religious change of heart would cure all men of sin.” The first point overlooked how vulnerable religion was to misuse: it can be used to cover injustice as well as to promote justice. The second overlooked how the deceptive power of sin continues to snare us even post-conversion. For Niebuhr, Graham was dangerously oblivious to how easily a gospel allied to political power degenerated into false religion.

 

Niebuhr’s critique does not seem to have affected Graham initially. In 1970, Nixon and Graham appeared together at an evangelistic crusade in Knoxville, Tennessee. As the Watergate crisis deepened, Graham defended Nixon till the foul language Nixon used on the Watergate tapes exposed his duplicity. Tellingly, Graham did not abandon Nixon till his behavior called into question the authenticity of the religious change of heart. Nixon, in other words, had to violate a core tenet of the Nixon-Graham doctrine before Graham could see how Nixon had abused his trust.

But this moment did mark a turning point in how Graham related to the presidency. Henceforth Graham would position himself above the partisan fray. In 1979 he explained his rationale for declining to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority:

“Evangelists can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person.
I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”

Niebuhr’s critique may well have contributed to this change. As Graham quipped in the 1980s:

“Reinhold Niebuhr was a great contributor to me. He helped me work through some of my problems.”

It seems that Graham came to see Niebuhr’s stinging criticisms as righteous rebuke.

Franklin Graham’s prefatory remarks mark his own “King’s Chapel” moment. For Billy, presidential profanity exposed how he had allowed his religious authority to be misused. One wonders if Franklin will experience a similar wake-up call. Franklin has followed his father’s footsteps in counseling presidents; time will tell if he will also emulate his father’s humility in accepting the rebuke of the righteous.

Billy Graham talking with President Lyndon B. Johnson

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