Nixon and Billy Graham, UT-Knoxville, 1970 (Wikimedia Commons)

“[Roger Williams] described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as “the Wilderness,” a word with personal resonance for him. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world,” he warned, “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics.” — John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,”Smithsonian, January 2012.

So I’m looking today for some of the material on church-state relations I save to the blog, and a keyword search brings up my notes on an article reminiscing about the time President Nixon appeared at a Billy Graham rally, oops, I mean “Crusade,” in the University of Tennessee’s football stadium in Knoxville. I was there. In fact, it came at kind of a turning point in my academic career. And the article I’d cited sent me down memory lane.

I never got around to writing a post on those notes, but I included a quote from Roger Williams for use as an epigraph. So it’s obvious where I wanted to go with it. I’ve long thought that Billy Graham’s cozy relationship with Nixon was one of the first cracks in the wall of separation between church and stage — at least in my lifetime — and the article made that point.

It was a 2020 opinion piece in The Nashville Tennessean by attorney, columnist and free-lance writer Bill Haltom, who splits his time now between Memphis and the Cumberland Plateau in Monteagle, Tenn. He has sterling credentials, i.e. past president of the Memphis and Tennessee bar associations, longtime humor columnist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. And — last but certainly not least — both Haltom and I started out as columnists for the UT Daily Beacon. Said Haltom in his opinion piece, dated June 2, 2020:

Prior to the 1970s there had been a strong separation of church and state in politics. In 1960 John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, had had to assure voters that the policies he pursued as President would not be dictated by his faith. 

20 years later, millions of voters wanted to know the religious beliefs of candidates for public office and would cast their votes as literally matters of faith. That trend grew to the point that American elections are now often decided by religious views as much as political ones. 

And this may have had its Genesis, so to speak, at a crusade in Neyland Stadium a half century ago. 

I might move the date for our flirtation with theocracy back a little — oh, say to the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 or the banishment of Roger Williams in 1636 — but I’ve got to concur with Haltom. Nixon’s appearance at the crusade in Knoxville was a sad day for the separation of church and state, what Williams called “soul libertie.”

Nixon appeared in Knoxville on what was billed as the “Youth Night” of Rev. Graham’s “Crusade for Christ.” (As hard as I try now to give the elder Graham the benefit of the doubt, especially in light of his son’s antics and today’s hyper-politicization of evangelical Christianity, the 1970 rally in our football stadium left a bad taste in my mouth that can’t go away.) It was Nixon’s first appearance on a college campus after the invasion of Cambodia and the killing of student anti-war demonstrators at Kent State and Jackson State, and the official White House photo above (in the public domain and available on Wikimedia Commons) conveys an accurate sense of the contemplative, deeply spiritual nature of the event.

Writing in 2020 for the Nashville Tennessean, Haltom sets the scene like this:

College football stadiums in the south have often been compared to cathedrals. In a very real sense Neyland Stadium was a cathedral that May evening as thousands came there to hear a preacher. Not just any preacher but the man known as “America’s Preacher,” the famed evangelist Billy Graham.  

It was the seventh night of a ten-day Graham crusade, and it had been designated “Youth Night.” Dr. Graham would of course preach that night, but he was not the only speaker who would address the crowd from the pulpit on the platform that had been built in the south end zone.

Billy Graham was a close friend of President Nixon and an ardent supporter of his expansion of the war. Graham sought to have the President as a youth night speaker on the UT campus to demonstrate student support. 

The UT student body was regarded as very conservative at the time. Indeed Nixon has easily won a mock election on the campus in 1968. 

But among the thousands that gathered in the stadium that night were several hundred UT students and faculty members who had come not to worship but to protest the president and America’s expanded war effort In Vietnam and Cambodia. 

A number of the protesters carried signs that read “THOU SHALT NOT KILL.” Knoxville police confiscated many of the signs. 

That’s pretty much the way I remember it. I would have estimated the number of demonstrators a bit lower — perhaps between 75 and 100 — but we were packed pretty tight, almost all of us taking up perhaps a dozen rows between the 10- and 20-yard lines on the home-team side. I had just started writing a weekly column for the Beacon, and I hadn’t learned how to do crowd counts yet. So my estimate may be too low. But on this, Haltom and I agree: The students were badly outnumbered.

In fact, in light of what happened next at Rev. Graham’s religious service, a joke went around campus about the night the lions were fed to the Christians.

Haltom picks up the story of the edifying religious colloquy between the lions and the Christians that night like this:

Billy Graham introduced President Nixon, calling the recent invasion of Cambodia “a courageous act,” and the overwhelming majority of the crowd gave him a warm and prolonged ovation. But many of the protesters chanted “Peace!” Others simply stood in silence. The crowd booed the protesters and Ethel Waters lectured them. 

The evening ended with an altar call as hundreds walked to the end zone as the choir sang the hymn “Just As I Am,” to accept Dr. Graham’s invitation to make a profession of faith. 

The president flew back to Washington D.C. on Air Force One. The protesters quietly left the stadium. 

In the days that followed, 47 of the protesters were served with warrants charging them with either disorderly conduct or disrupting a religious service, a rarely prosecuted misdemeanor under Tennessee law. Knoxville police had taken photographs of the protesters and then somehow identified them leading to the arrests. 

Again, Haltom’s memory pretty well jibes with mine. But I can fill in a few details. We may have started chanting “Peace! Peace!” But what I remember most clearly is a barnyard epithet more recently and memorably used by a US attorney general who similarly used it, in 2022, to describe things he didn’t believe to be true.

Also this: I’d forgotten Ethel Waters was there, but now it comes back to me. I’d admired her singing, and it was a disappointment to see her on the marquee with a couple of politicos.

My opinion of Rev. Graham also took a nosedive that night. I grew up in a mainline Protestant church with a very different theology than his, but I had heard him preach in New York City as a teenager; I even answered the altar call. I think it was mostly out of curiosity, but my uncle, who accompanied me, enjoyed remembering later that I cross examined the attendants who signed me up about whether I was “saved” for all time. (Sometimes now, 60 years later now when I’ve left the the church and rejoined it, I wonder about that.) Back in Neyland Stadium in 1970, though, it was my first realization how enmeshed Graham was with the Republican Party. I realize he later came to regret it, but that night’s sparring match between the Christians and the lions was one of many little things that soured me on organized religion for many years.

One other detail I can add to Bill Haltom’s account in The Tennessean: Yes, we left the stadium quietly during the altar call toward the end of the rally, um, I mean the service. But we were advised by Knoxville city police that if we didn’t leave before the rest of the audience, they couldn’t guarantee our safety on the way out. The crowd was so hostile, we all could see they had a pretty good point. So as the word filtered through our seats on the 20-yard line, we left. Quietly.

It isn’t my intention here to write a history of President Nixon’s political rally at the UT campus on May 28, 1970. Others have done that better than I. Notably, Garry Wills came to Knoxville and wrote it up for Esquire magazine. He did his homework — he talked to a lot of people, especially students. And we felt like he accurately represented our point of view, in spite of some smug Yankee observations about East Tennessee and East Tennesseans.

In fact, Wills’ article was one of the things, along with the craft of writing editorial copy and meeting weekly deadlines for the UT Daily Beacon, that made me consider journalism as a viable career change. (The market for certified experts in Renaissance drama and the Shakespeare history plays was beginning to dry up at the time.) In more recent years, his books on subjects ranging from Why I am a Catholic and St. Augustine — Pope Francis, too — to Head and Heart: American Christianities on American religion from Massachusetts Bay and Roger Williams to the self-proclaimed Religious Right of the early 2000s (it came out in 2007) have been valuable in my reawakened spiritual formation. His 1970 article, titled “How Nixon Used the Media, Billy Graham, and the Good Lord to Rap with Students at Tennessee U,” is behind a paywall, but the headline catches the tone of the piece — right down to the tin-eared reference to “Tennessee U” at the end, which may have fit the space but no one ever, ever said at UT Knoxville.

Also intriguing is a 1997 article in the Journal of Church and State by Randall E. King, then a doctoral student at UT-Knoxville, titled “When Worlds Collide: Politics, Religion, and Media at the 1970 East Tennessee Billy Graham Crusade.” Only the first page is copied online, but it’s available to readers with access to the JSTOR network.

Mostly I copied large parts of Bill Haltom’s piece in the Tennessean to my blog because I can’t be sure it will always be available. Print newspapers are in such deep financial trouble, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them let their online archives go dark if it saves their new hedge fund owners a few pennies sometime not far in the future.

One last source that’s worth noting here: Mark Hulsether, of UT’s Department of Religious Studies, has a departmental history posted to his blog that mentions the role played by Charlie Reynolds, in 1970 a newbie religious studies instructor (who later went on to chair the department and serve as founding editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics). In 1970, Reynolds helped organize the protest at Neyland Stadium. He was one of the 47 faculty and students (mostly students, of course) arrested on charges of “disrupting a religious service,” which was described to me at the time as an antiquated law (TCA 39-1204) occasionally used to prosecute snake-handling sects and dusted off in 1970 when no other code section fit the occasion.

Reynolds appealed the charges on grounds that expressing opposition to the Vietnam War fell under the category of protected speech under the First Amendment. Hulsether’s departmental profile chronicles exactly how far that got him:

Among projects of this generation, one easily stands out as the most famous. It is described in this classic article by Garry Wills as well as this piece by Rosalind Hackett, and it will provide our department its ten minutes of fame in Bob Hutton’s forthcoming history of UTK, Bearing the Torch. This was the leading role of Reynolds, actively supported by several others, in protests against a visit of Richard Nixon to Neyland Stadium. Billy Graham, the world’s most influential evangelical at the time, brought Nixon to speak in a hastily-organized version of his TV revivals. This was in clear support of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to build a Republican political base and of Nixon’s claim to speak for a “silent majority.” The events unfolded in spring 1970, shortly after the National Guard killed anti-Vietnam protestors at Kent State University and it was nearly impossible for Nixon to appear on campuses without massive counter-demonstrations. By national standards UTK’s protest was not very massive, but still local Republican ire led to Reynolds being charged for (supposedly) disrupting a worship service. He appealed on free speech grounds all the way to the Supreme Court, although the court eventually voted 6-3 not to review his case. [Links in the original.]

Links and Citations

Susan B. Glasser, “Bill Barr Calls ‘Bullshit” on Trump’s Election Lies,” New Yorker, June 13, 2022

Jeff Greenfield, “When Richard Nixon Used Billy Graham,” Feb 21, 2018, Politico Magazine

Bill Haltom, “The crusade: When Billy Graham brought Richard Nixon to Knoxville,” The Tennessean, Nashville, June 2, 2020

Mark Hulsether, “A Brief History of the Study of Religion at the University of Tennessee,” MBE: Mark’s Blogging Experiment, Feb. 9, 2021

Randall E. King, “When Worlds Collide: Politics, Religion, and Media at the 1970 East Tennessee Billy Graham Crusade,” Journal of Church and State, 39, no. 2 (Spring 1997), 273-295

Stephen Prothero, “Billy Graham Built a Movement. Now His Son Is Dismantling It,” Politico, Feb. 24, 2017

Garry Wills, “How Nixon Used the Media, Billy Graham, and the Good Lord to Rap with Students at Tennessee U,” Esquire, Sept. 1, 1970

[Uplinked Sept. 11, 2022]

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