- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

It was a good week for atheists.The Roman Catholic Church was embarrassed by a scandal involving pedophile priests and a suspected cover-up by a cardinal. Radical Muslims continued to display their intolerance of the United States and other faiths. And the Rev. Billy Graham was embarrassed by release of a 30-year-old tape on which he was heard telling President Richard Nixon that Jews had a "stranglehold" on the American media, which needed to be broken because it was ruining the country.

"You believe that?" asked Nixon.

"Yes, sir," replied Mr. Graham.

"Oh boy. So do I," said Nixon, adding, "I can't ever say that but I believe it."

"No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something," Mr. Graham said in a reassuring tone.

Is that Satan I hear laughing? Or is it the ghost of the late atheist leader, Madalyn Murray O'Hair?

Mr. Graham apologized for his remarks, saying he did not recall making them but not denying he did. Mr. Graham is now 83 and in poor health, but he was 53 when he made the remarks, in good health and presumably of sound mind. Most people will probably accept Mr. Graham's apology because of his lifelong record of good works. Still, there is a lesson to be learned from this incident for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It is this: Political power can be corrupting and can seduce even the clergy.

Former Watergate co-conspirator Charles Colson, who is heard on many of the Nixon tapes, has written about this in his book, "Who Speaks for God?" Mr. Colson notes, with the authority that comes with experience: "It's easy to become enthralled with access to places of supposed power. In time, however, without even knowing it, our well-intentioned attempts to influence government can become so entangled with a particular political agenda that it becomes our focus; our goal becomes maintaining political access. When that happens, the Gospel is held hostage to a political agenda and we become part of the very system we are seeking to change."

That last point is made crystal clear in the 1972 Graham-Nixon exchange. Mr. Graham is no bigot, although he sounds like one on the tape. In fact, Mr. Graham desegregated his crusades when it cost him support from some whites, and he encouraged the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

Who among us has not made a remark that, if recorded, might prove embarrassing?

On the tapes, one hears Mr. Graham compromising his principles in order to please Nixon. Perhaps realizing where he was headed, Mr. Graham also tells the president: "A lot of Jews are great friends of mine [because] … they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth." But then Mr. Graham gives in to the lower nature in us all, possibly fearful of offending the man whose company he enjoys keeping: "But [Jews] don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them," he says.

"You must not let them know," replies Nixon.

Had Mr. Graham spoken "truth to power" and said of Nixon's derogatory remarks about Jews, "Mr. President, those were wicked and sinful things to say about Jewish people," chances are excellent that Nixon would never again have granted the evangelist access. That's the way the game is played between politicians and clergy. And the clergy always lose in the end because it is their principles that must be sacrificed if their proximity to supposed power is to continue and their illusion of influence to be maintained.

The Christian church was intended to be, not a hierarchy, but a "lowerarchy." As Jesus instructed His disciples when sending them out to share His redemptive message: "Do not take any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep." (Matthew 10:9-10). The emphasis was on making disciples, not persuading Caesar about their point of view.

The top-down approach of many faiths today has ruined whatever compelling message they might have once conveyed. When Christian leaders, especially, speak of revival, perhaps they should take their eyes off Washington and start focusing on reviving themselves.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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