updated 5/30/2006 11:19:08 AM ET 2006-05-30T15:19:08

Guest: Tony Perkins

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush, the Reverend Billy Graham has led spiritual America through war and crisis.  He is the most influential evangelical in the country. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews, and welcome to HARDBALL.  On this Memorial Day, there are many pressing issues that are dividing the country.  And for the majority of Americans, it is our personal religious beliefs that help us endure and persevere during these difficult times. 

Religion played a key role in the creation of our republic and it continues to drive the political debate today, whether it‘s on Main Street, USA or on the Highway of Death in Baghdad.  Freedom of religion is a right we fiercely protect and defend. 

Tonight, we examine religion if our country and its impact on our American way of life.  We begin with the man known as America‘s pastor.  For the last six decades, the Reverend Billy Graham has spread the word of God if person to over 210 million people in over 185 countries. 

Now in the twilight of his years and at the age of 87, and in frail health, his public appearances are rare. 

Last June, I had the honor of talking to him in his last scheduled television interview right before his monumental crusade in Queens, New York. 

Later, we‘ll examine the role of religion and presidency, with Jon Meacham of “Newsweek” and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. 

Let‘s begin with our exploration of faith with HARDBALL‘s David Shuster and his profile of America‘s most celebrated spiritual leader, the Reverend Billy Graham. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At 87 years old, Billy Graham is now quietly suffering from prostate cancer and Parkinson‘s disease, and yet his humor is said to be still intact.

Asked a year ago about the promise of heaven...

REVEREND BILLY GRAHAM:  I hope I‘ll meet all of you there—and bring your camera. 

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  The cameras have been following Bill Graham since the 1950s.  Born in North Carolina and raised as a Presbyterian, Graham graduated from Wheaton College during World War II and then he began traveling as an evangelist. 

His fiery but welcoming approach was a hit. 

GRAHAM:  You out there can give your life to Christ.  Just bow your head and say “yes” to Christ right now. 

SHUSTER:  And in 1957, this mission at New York City‘s Madison Square Garden ran nightly for 16 weeks. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over):  His is a crusade for the soul of the world‘s greatest city. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over):  Our guest, ladies and gentlemen, is the world famous evangelist, Reverend Billy Graham. 

Does this mean that you expect eventually the whole world will be Christianized, Dr. Graham? 

GRAHAM:  I should say that we welcome them to our services, but we‘re trying to get them to receive Christ and become Christians. 

SHUSTER:  John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was the first president Graham became close to.  Both men seemed to bond over their drive and sense of purpose.  And on that awful day in 1963, it was Graham who seemed to speak for a nation in mourning. 

GRAHAM:  Tonight, I watched on television as they wheeled the casket out of the plane in Washington, and I thought how quickly life is snuffed out. 

There‘s better steps, the Bible says, between me and death.  The president is in eternity tonight. 

SHUSTER:  During Vietnam, Graham visited the troops in the field, then he came back and urged President Nixon publicly and controversially to end the war. 

GRAHAM:  I personally want to see us get out.  I want to see peace.  I think it‘s gone on far too long and the people are getting discouraged with it. 

SHUSTER:  If Graham was ever a thorn in the side of our nation‘s leaders, they never let it show.  His spiritual guidance was embraced by presidents of both parties—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and President Clinton. 

In 1995, he joined the president in Oklahoma City for a memorial service to those killed in the bombing of the federal building. 

GRAHAM:  Any child that young is automatically in heaven and in God‘s arms. 

(APPLAUSE)

SHUSTER:  Graham was also a source of comfort following the 9/11 terror attacks. 

GRAHAM:  September 11th will go down in our history as a day to remember. 

SHUSTER:  In recent years, however, there was a controversy over Billy Graham.  When the National Archives released some of President Nixon‘s audiotapes, Graham could be heard along with the president disparaging Jewish reporters and editors.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Newsweek is totally—it‘s all run by Jews and dominated by them and their editorial pages.  The New York Times, The Washington Post, totally Jewish too.

GRAHAM:  This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain. 

NIXON:  Do you believe that?

GRAHAM:  Yes, sir.

SHUSTER:  Graham said he regretted the remarks, but waited several days before issuing a formal apology. 

Soon enough though, Graham was forgiven.  He spent most of his life working to improve Christian-Jewish relations.  He also spoke out early for civil rights, and always crusaded for peace and political tolerance in the United States and around the globe. 

A year ago, Graham conducted his final crusade, attracting nearly 100,000 people to New York City‘s Flushing Meadow Park in Queens. 

GRAHAM:  Every day we strive to change our surroundings for the better, or we live in denial.  But this is an inescapable biblical truth: 

We were made by God to do better, to have a better world. 

SHUSTER:  In the midst of that weekend, Graham gave what would be his final television interview, an exclusive to Chris Matthews. 

GRAHAM:  I‘m looking forward to going to heaven.  I‘m looking forward to death.  But I feel like Larry King says:  I don‘t want to be there when it happens.  There‘s a mystery about death. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  What do you think it‘s like, heaven? 

GRAHAM:  Oh, it‘s gorgeous.  The 21st chapter of Revelations describes it in detail.  No more tears, no more suffering, no more death, not even a sun or a moon because God is the light of heaven. 

SHUSTER:  A few months later, after Hurricane Katrina hit the nation‘s Gulf Coast, there was Graham providing comfort and spiritual guidance to some of the victims. 

Even now at the age of 87 and in frail health, Graham is still trying to reach out.  But Billy Graham has told friends he welcomes the end.  Death, says Graham, is part of life.  And this evangelist says his has been a life fulfilled. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  It was so great to meet him.  Thank you, David Shuster.

Last June, upwards of 300,000 people attended the Reverend Graham‘s three-day New York City crusade.  Before he gave his sermon, he gave me an exclusive, behind the scenes look at that inspiration event, the likes of which we‘ll never see again. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS (voice-over):  The amazing thing about meeting Reverend Billy Graham—when you first meet him today, on Sunday, in 2005 here in New York—is that he looks very much like he did back in the 1950s.  The guy is amazingly preserved.  In fact, when I first saw him in his sunglasses, I thought it was Billy Graham from 1957. 

GRAHAM:  ... that the harvests would be past, the summer would end, the day of opportunity would be gone, and you had not given your life to Jesus Christ. 

MATTHEWS (on camera):  Hi, Reverend Graham.

GRAHAM:  It‘s good to see you.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s great to see you.  It‘s an honor.  Chris Matthews.

GRAHAM:  (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS:  I‘d like to think so.  It‘s great—you look like you did 50 years ago here. 

Hi, are you a great grandson. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Grandson. 

MATTHEWS:  God. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is the great grandson. 

MATTHEWS:  Hi, Chris Matthews. 

Well, it‘s one of those great historic opportunities to be here for the final crusade of the Reverend Billy Graham, perhaps the best known evangelist in history, since the Christian era.

(voice-over) And he talked to me right before he went on stage.  He was quite a gentleman.  He took some time with me and he talked about the war in Iraq and the people that are going to die over there and have died.  He talked about heaven and what it‘s going to be like, he‘s looking forward to heaven. 

(on camera) Do you think that God plays HARDBALL? 

GRAHAM:  With some people, he does.  In a way, that‘s some of the things I‘m going to say at this service today. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  Break a leg.  It‘s a big night.  Thank you. 

(voice-over) I‘ve seen big crowds before, but this is the biggest religious crowd, some very religious people here, coming in this case, to be saved.  Not just to observe, but to participate. 

It‘s pretty strong medicine.  Also the diversity of the crowd—as Reverend Graham pointed out, there‘s like 100 languages spoken just in the nearby area here. 

(on camera) You know, when you talk about going to heaven, it almost sounds to me like one of those guys that win the NBA playoffs and say they‘re going to Disneyland. 

GRAHAM:  Well, I don‘t know about that.  I‘ve never interviewed anybody in the NBA playoffs, but I‘ll tell you how I feel.  I feel wonderful about it.  I‘m looking forward to going to heaven. 

(voice-over) Just a few minutes arcs I was talking to Chris Matthews, and he asked the same question, about death.  What happens when you die?  are you looking forward to death?  Yes, I‘m looking forward to death.  I‘m not looking forward to being dead. 

MATTHEWS (on camera):  Everybody thinks evangelists as being kind of a rural thing, kind of a country religion. 

(voice-over) And I think one of the messages that they wanted to demonstrate here was that evangelism is very big in a big city like New York.  Because you know, we don‘t always get along in this country, and I was watching some white people and black people, different colored people all being just as emotional about this chance to be saved.  It‘s very dramatic.  It kills your cynicism to see personal expressions of faith in a world that is pretty secular, and I think that‘s what separates this from another kind of public event here in the Big Apple.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  What a great day and you can see I was enjoying myself to meet this great man.  When we come back, my interview with the Reverend Billy Graham in his last television interview to date.  But first, some words of inspiration from his final New York City crusade last June.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM:  Get into a church where Christ is proclaimed.  I‘m not going to tell you which denomination or which church.  God will lead you to the one that you want to go to.  Or maybe one that‘s counseling you will give you some suggestions, I don‘t know.  And then the next time is witness—witness the Christ put a smile on your face or going out of your way to be a friend to a person of another ethnic background. 

I was here several days ago and I walked around—rode around this park.  All the chairs, and I came upon two groups of people in prayer.  One was Korean, and in 1951, I was in Korea during the war.  And I went to churches, at 5:00 in the morning and people were praying.  And it‘s my prayer that here in New York, people of all denominations will start praying day and night, that God will continue to speak to us. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  It was a year ago that the Reverend Billy Graham gave his final crusade and I had the honor of talking about life, death and the afterlife with him backstage at Flushing Meadows.  Here he is in the last television interview he‘s likely to grant.  Let‘s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Reverend Graham, it is great.  You‘re about to go out to this incredible audience here in Queens, New York.  Your last, maybe your last ministry in the country, how does it feel?

GRAHAM:  It feels great.  I‘m feeling good.  And I feel stronger now than when I began a few days ago.

MATTHEWS:  Really?

GRAHAM:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think you might be able to do some more after this? 

GRAHAM:  Well, I told one of—I think Brian Williams or somebody the other day that I will never use the word never. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GRAHAM:  Because that‘s a bad word. 

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM:  I may have to revise that someday.  I don‘t know.  But I feel fine. 

MATTHEWS:  The word is that, over in London, they‘re hoping you‘ll return to the beginning of your...

GRAHAM:  Well, I‘m meeting some London pastors tonight after I finish here today. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to go to London after New York? 

GRAHAM:  I don‘t know.  I‘ll wait and pray about it and think about it and see what interest there is.  I‘ve received a lot of letters. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, when you talk about going to heaven, it almost sounds to me like one of those guys that win the NBA playoffs and say they‘re going to Disneyland. 

GRAHAM:  Well, I don‘t know about that.  I‘ve never interviewed anybody in the NBA playoff, but I‘ll tell you how I feel.  I feel wonderful about it.  I‘m looking forward to going to heaven. 

I‘m looking forward to death.  But I feel like Larry King, who says, I don‘t want to be there when it happens.  There‘s a mystery about death. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  What do you think it like, heaven? 

GRAHAM:  Oh, it‘s gorgeous.  The 21st chapter of Revelation describes in it detail, no more tears, no more suffering, no more death, not even a sun or a moon, because God is the light of heaven. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think there will be a lot of people in heaven, do you think? 

GRAHAM:  Oh, yes.  I think there will be a lot of people.  And a lot of people won‘t be there, too, that you expect to be there. 

MATTHEWS:  Really?  Do you think that God plays HARDBALL?

GRAHAM:  With some people, he does. 

In a way, that‘s some of the things I‘m going to say at this service today, that God is also a God of judgment.  He‘s a God of love and mercy and forgiveness, but he also is a God of judgment.  And this other—that the whole thing revolves around Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins.  And then God raised him from the dead.  So, I think that Jesus today is alive and I‘m looking forward to seeing him. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think people can be churchgoers and not be saved? 

GRAHAM:  Oh, yes, definitely. 

MATTHEWS:  How does that happen?

GRAHAM:  I was a churchgoer.  I went to church all—every Sunday.  But when I received Christ, that was the first time I really surrendered myself to him. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that people like the late pope, John Paul II, do you have any sense of whether he accepted Jesus? 

GRAHAM:  Oh, I know he was a—I‘ve talked to him three separate times.  I just love him.  And I followed his suffering and his death.  He taught us how to suffer.  He taught us how to die.  He taught us about Christian living. 

I never knew a more wonderful man than Pope Paul II.  I think the new pope is going to be the same way. 

MATTHEWS:  Really?  Do you think you‘ll meet him in heaven? 

GRAHAM:  Oh, absolutely.  I‘m looking forward to it. 

MATTHEWS:  Really?

GRAHAM:  Maybe he‘ll come to see me.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, because someone said to me that you‘re very good in your ministry over these last decades of understanding the connection between religion and popular culture.  You were on Broadway.  Somebody told me you just would name out the names of the plays and have a... 

GRAHAM:  Some.  If it‘s “Phantom of the Opera” or something like that, or many, many different things.

My wife and I watch videos every day, because she‘s an invalid and she watches videos day and night.  And we have a film that we love, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in “An Affair to Remember.” 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GRAHAM:  And Cary was a friend of mine.  So, I like to watch him.  He was always Cary Grant wherever he was. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about today.  It seems that Hollywood puts millions of dollars into creating pretend religions, like “Star Wars” and the Force and “Lord of the Rings.”  Do you think that‘s trying to satisfy people‘s need for spirituality? 

GRAHAM:  Yes.  I think there is a spirit—there is a longing in people‘s minds and hearts for purpose and meaning in their lives.  And I think that “Lord of the Rings,” for example, was very much in that direction.  I think “Star Wars”—I‘m going to talk a little about “Star Wars” tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that a distraction from Jesus? 

GRAHAM:  No.  I don‘t think so.  I hope it‘s going to be a stepping stone to Jesus and the cross and the resurrection. 

MATTHEWS:  If a person—well, millions of Americans see these movies every night.  If people go to movies like “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings,” how is that a stepping stone to appreciating Jesus Christ? 

GRAHAM:  Well, that helps them to think about God and right and wrong and the need for something else, which is found in Christ, I think.  I may be wrong, but I think. 

MATTHEWS:  I wonder, are we creating false gods?  I mean, I—I grew up with movie stars.  I love Cary Grant, but he was a movie star. 

Is Hollywood today creating people that are, like, bigger than movie stars?  They‘re almost like icons, like Madonna, Angelina Jolie and people like that?  Are they distractions? 

GRAHAM:  To some extent.  There is a lot of furor around Tom Cruise right now and the Scientology. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

GRAHAM:  All of that.  I think that causes people to think and discover for themselves.  And I hope they‘ll go on thinking and come to the point where they need to realize that they need Jesus. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that Scientology is a religion? 

GRAHAM:  I don‘t know.  Tom Cruise is trying to explain it to everybody. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, a lot of people think it has a lot to do with people‘s success in Hollywood, is being into that religion sometimes. 

GRAHAM:  Well, I don‘t know about that. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t know.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Boy it was a real privilege talking to the Reverend Billy Graham that day in New York and we thank him again for spending that time with us.  Up next, religion as the catalyst for controversy in our culture, but first let‘s hear once again from the Reverend Billy Graham at his final crusade up in New York last June.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM:  In Noah‘s day, the world was filled with wickedness, corruption, violence.  Every imagination of man‘s thought was evil.  It was a world in which marriage was abused.  It was a world in which violence prevailed.  You think of the headlines of our papers today.  It‘s a world with a decadent religion.  Many people are religious.  In fact, I think that religion is one of the great things in America today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  In this country, for better or worse, religion has the power to sway elections that impact our daily lives.  NBC‘s Don Teague takes a look at faith in America and the tension between religion and secular culture.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And truly listen to what God is saying to us.

DON TEAGUE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It‘s an inescapable part of American culture: religion.  In movies, books, and music.  Sometimes it‘s the subject of jokes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So you‘re not the prophet, huh?

TEAGUE:  At other times, a catalyst for controversy.  But religion of all faiths and forms is always there, woven into the fabric of America.  Which according to Jon Meacham, author of the new book “American Gospel” is exactly how our founding fathers intended.

JON MEACHAM, AUTHOR:  I think that the founders would recognize that their attempt to keep the theocratic impulse in check had worked.  That religious freedom is a value that we cherish.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You can have a new beginning.

TEAGUE:  Americans are free to worship as they choose, but a strong majority identify themselves as Christian.  Evangelicals have swung recent elections, while Christian values have shaped laws for generations. 

But they‘ve also ignited controversy, battles over gay marriage and the Ten Commandments.  In puritanical America, “Desperate Housewives” is about as racy as television gets.  Strip clubs and porn are frequently protested, as was Janet Jackson‘s infamous malfunction.  And Howard Stern under constant threat by the FCC, abandoned free radio for Sirius.  Some see a war between religion and secular culture.  Others aren‘t so sure.

MARK PINSKY, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SIMPSONS:  The culture war is such an anomaly.  It‘s so strange, because both sides feel that they‘re on the defensive.

TEAGUE (on camera):  Symbols of faith have been part of American pop culture for years, usually somewhere in the background.  But these days, it seems, faith itself is beginning to take center stage. 

(voice-over):  Literally, with Christian entertainment for all ages.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I really like their music.

JAMIE STATEMA, GO FISH:  We really use our music as a tool or a vehicle to get our message out there.

TEAGUE:  And be prepared for more faith-themed entertainment, because Hollywood and other industries that influence pop culture, have in turn been influenced by religion.

PASTOR GREGG HEADLEY, GOSPEL LIGHTHOUSE CHURCH:  Jesus very clearly admonished us to engage the culture and to seek to influence the culture.

TEAGUE:  A culture that may not always show it, but is founded in faith.  Don Teague, NBC News, Dallas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  That was NBC‘s Don Teague.  On September 11th, Islamic extremists led by Osama bin Laden struck at America‘s heart in four terrorist attacks, killing thousands of innocent people.  This country retaliated by invading Afghanistan, overthrowing the Taliban, then invading Iraq.  What role did religion play in going to war?  NBC‘s Lester Holt has this report on God, America, and war.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  God bless you and God bless America.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  God bless the United States of America.  Thank you.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  President invoking the name of God is nothing new.

(on camera):  But throughout history in times of war, the question over who has God‘s endorsement and blessing has been especially loaded. 

(voice-over):  After the September 11th attacks by Muslim extremists, President Bush made this provocative declaration.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.

HOLT:  Realizing the historic implications, the White House quickly dropped the term crusade, a battle between Christians and Muslims for the holy land.  But God remained central in the call to war.

BUSH:  The liberty we prize is not America‘s gift to the world.  It is God‘s gift to humanity.

HOLT:  While not overtly religious, to Professor David Domke, the message is clear.

DAVID DOMKE, PROFESSOR UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON:  It‘s not a statement of we hope God blesses us here, it‘s not a prayer.  It is a declaration of what God wants.  That is different than other presidents.

HOLT:  But President Bush is hardly the first war president to imply God is on America‘s side.

Jon Meacham is the author of “American Gospel.”

JON MEACHAM, MANAGING EDITOR, “NEWSWEEK”:  He has been fully, I think, within the mainstream of religious presidential rhetoric. 

HOLT:  George Washington, of course, was the first. 

MEACHAM:  The only way he could possibly explain the victory of the American forces in the revolution was that the hand of providence was at work. 

HOLT:  Before the U.S. entered World War II, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt met in secret.  Inspired by hymns at a church service, FDR saw the war as a battle between good and evil. 

MEACHAM:  Roosevelt said to his son, onward, Christian soldiers.  We are Christian soldiers, and we will go on, with God‘s help. 

HOLT:  On D-Day, the most important day of the war, FDR‘s only public statement was a prayer he had written. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) 

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  With thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

HOLT:  While, publicly, presidents may say God is always on America‘s side, privately, they have had their doubts. 

MEACHAM:  A visiting minister during the Civil War came to Lincoln and said that he thanked God that God was the Union‘s side.  And Lincoln said, well, I just hope the Union is on God‘s side. 

HOLT:  Lester Holt, NBC News. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Lester Holt. 

Up next, “Newsweek” managing editor Jon Meacham with a special report on Billy Graham‘s personal relationships with presidents, like Ike, and the way to George W. Bush. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

For over 60 years, presidents from Eisenhower to George W. Bush have welcomed the Reverend Billy Graham into the White House.  While his individual relationships with each president differed, one thing was certain.  When they needed spiritual advice or when they sought to tap into his huge constituency for political gain, they turned to America‘s preacher for help. 

“Newsweek” managing editor Jon Meacham has written a much-awaited book on religion and politics in the United States entitled “American Gospel.”  And he‘s prepared this special report on Graham‘s influence on those in the Oval Office. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REVEREND BILLY GRAHAM, EVANGELIST:  You out there, tonight, can give your life to Christ.  Just bow your head and say yes to Christ right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that God plays hardball?

GRAHAM:  He‘s a lot of love and mercy and forgiveness, but he also is a God of judgment. 

MEACHAM (voice-over):  He‘s the world‘s most important Protestant evangelist, one of God‘s most tireless messengers.  Billy Graham‘s crusades have taken him to 185 countries, where he has preached to over 210 million people.

His religious mission has won him entree into the White House, where he‘s offered spiritual guidance and friendship to every president since Dwight Eisenhower. 

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Because he had gone to almost every White House, it was almost as if he inoculated himself from partisanship, because everybody, you know, from Eisenhower to Nixon, to Kennedy, to Johnson, and later presidents felt that they wanted him by their side.

So, in a certain sense, his very ubiquitousness, I think, preserved the presidents from seeming as if they were choosing a particular denominational leader to have at the White House.

MEACHAM:  His relationship with those in the Oval Office was based in part on mutual need.  Presidents used him for his advice and connection to his huge religious base.  And Graham used the powerful to help his mission to save souls. 

And, when they died, he helped smooth the transition of the new president by offering comfort to a grieving nation.

GRAHAM:  Tonight, I watched on television as they wheeled the casket out of the plane in Washington.  The president is in eternity tonight.

MEACHAM:  He has also, on occasion, publicly disagreed with his powerful friends, speaking out against Nixon‘s policy on Vietnam, for example, after visiting the troops.

GRAHAM:  I personally want to see us get out.  I want to see peace.  I think it‘s gone on far too long.  And the people are getting discouraged with it. 

MEACHAM:  Graham considered his friendship with Nixon, who was arguably one of the least religious of our contemporary presidents, one of his closest. 

Charles Colson was Nixon‘s chief counsel. 

(on camera):  Describe what you know of Dr. Graham‘s relationship with President Nixon?

CHARLES COLSON, FORMER CHIEF COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: 

Well, It was very close.  They had known each other for years and years, played golf together, were good friends together.  Billy had ministered to Richard Nixon on many occasions and helped him. 

They got along very well, and Nixon liked Graham‘s advice.  And those of us in the White House made every effort we could to use the relationship between Graham and Nixon to Nixon‘s advantage.  Every politician does that with prominent religious leaders.  And I was in charge of that in the White House.

MEACHAM (voice-over):  Part of Colson‘s job was to exploit Graham‘s huge base of evangelical Christians for Nixon‘s benefit.  He even went so far as to ask him for the keys to his constituency.

COLSON:  We asked him for his mailing list once, because we wanted to use it politically, and he refused.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And what Billy Graham...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MEACHAM:  It didn‘t stop there.  Nixon saw the value of public appearances with his favorite preacher.  These were photo-ops made in political heaven, as far as Colson was concerned.

COLSON:  If you go to a crusade with Billy Graham, you‘re associated in the evangelical world with him.  And that‘s a plus to you.  So, obviously, you were hoping some of that would rub off, particularly during a time of a lot of campus unrest and the—and the unpleasant experiences that followed the Vietnam War.  So, someone of Graham‘s stature and charisma could be a great help to a politician like Nixon.

GOODWIN:  If the pastor is being used as a—almost like an instrumental tool to help the president, rather than an easy-flowing relationship that benefits both sides, because they can talk and think about public issues and figure out how religious values inform public life, then, I think it‘s no good for either side.

MEACHAM:  In the end, it seems, Nixon got the better of the deal.  During Watergate, Graham would feel betrayed and come to regret his connection to the president.  He would also seek forgiveness from his followers for anti-Semitic comments recorded on tape with Nixon in the Oval Office in 1972.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

NIXON: “Newsweek” is totally—it‘s all run by Jews and dominated by them in their editorial pages.  “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” totally Jewish, too.

GRAHAM:  This stranglehold has got to be broken, or this country is going down the drain.

NIXON:  Do you believe that?

GRAHAM:  Yes, sir.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COLSON:  Graham, I‘m sure, regrets to this day that terrible conversation that took place with Nixon.  And if you go back and look at a lot of my conversations, I regret them, too.

MEACHAM:  Graham‘s own apology was heartfelt.  And Jewish leaders accepted it.  A few high-profile stumbles aside, Graham, now 87 and in frail health, continues his crusade that has helped shape, for the better, the last and present centuries. 

His connection to the White House remains intact.  He is a longtime friend of the Bush families, and reportedly helped George W. Bush turn from a life of drift and drink in the 1980s. 

If Nixon was one of our least religious presidents, it can be said that George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian, is one of our most deeply religious ones.

GRAHAM:  I don‘t endorse candidates.  I‘ve already voted.  I‘ll just let you guess who I voted for.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWIN:  The decision to decide to talk about religion as much as Bush has really does put him in a different category, I think, than many of our other presidents have been, who have, had lots of them, deep religious faith, but have chosen not to speak about it as much as President Bush has.  But I think it‘s because it is so much a part of who he‘s become and how he feels transformed in his whole public and private persona. 

COLSON:  Well, I spent a lot of time with the president, the incumbent president, whose attitude towards religious people is very different from Richard Nixon‘s.  And Bush doesn‘t see it that way. 

Bush, as an evangelical himself, understands that he can‘t use us.  I don‘t—has never tried to.  I‘ve been with him many times—But has sought counsel and has been very open to it.  It‘s been a healthy relationship. 

GOODWIN:  Each president, in a certain sense, coming from all sorts of different denominations, whether belonging to a church or not, have understood the importance of religious values in public life, even while maintaining that separation of church and state. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  I like that picture of Billy Graham in the front seat, right in the middle. 

Jon Meacham joins us when we return, plus NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory, on the religious faith that guides President George W. Bush.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up:  Is George W. Bush the most religious president of modern times?

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

President George W. Bush found his faith late in life, and often credits religion for helping him through his most difficult times in life. 

Under his leadership, this country has seen the terrors of 9/11, the sacrifice of young soldiers being sent to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, of course, more recently, the tragedy of Katrina.  In fact, the faith of the entire country, you could say, has been tested. 

Chief White House correspondent David Gregory has this report on our faith-based president. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  When you accept Christ as a savior, it changes your heart. 

Prayer and religion sustain me. 

Freedom is the almighty God‘s gift to each man and woman in this world. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It‘s not, observers say, that George W. Bush is any more religious than past presidents. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN F. KENNEDY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Presidents like Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton did nothing to hide their faith. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don‘t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Yet, it is this president‘s embrace of evangelical Christianity through personal crisis and his attitude toward faith that has set him apart. 

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA:  This president has rather explicitly expressed his own commitment to a particular form of religion, and has been quite straightforward about its influence on his life. 

GREGORY:  And the influence on his policy.  From abortion to stem cell research and gay marriage, the Bush era has created not just a political, but a religious divide as well. 

(on camera):  Mr. Bush won reelection, in large part, through support from people of faith, those who attended church more than once a week, and evangelicals.

(voice-over):  Particularly after the 9/11 attacks, critics have accused the president of using religion to close himself off from opposing points of view.  He told journalist Bob Woodward he consulted—quote—

“a higher father” than his own, the former president, when preparing for war in Iraq.

What some see as the president trying to fulfill what he considers to be God‘s mission, the president‘s defenders see as a strength. 

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  He wants to do what he believes is right.  And, in that sense, his—his faith does have a lot to do with that. 

BUSH:  I don‘t expect you to agree with me, necessarily, on religion.  As a matter of fact, no president should ever try to impose religion on our society. 

GREGORY:  Yet, it is the president‘s faith, one he said has deepened in office, that may define his White House legacy. 

David Gregory, NBC News, the White House. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, NBC‘s David Gregory. 

God has always had a place in the Oval Office, but, in George Bush‘s administration, religion seems to be the base of many of the president‘s decisions. 

Jon Meacham is the managing editor of “Newsweek” and the author of the new book, big new book, “American Gospel.”  And Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council. 

Tony, you first.

Is this president more overtly Christian than other presidents? 

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  I think the times in which we find ourself has required this president to call publicly more upon his faith. 

I think he—in dealing with some of the issues of his past, I think he made the distinction of past and present before Christ, after Christ.  I think that was very key.  In fact, I was—when he—the day before he announced his presidency, I was in Austin, Texas, where he gave his testimony, talking about the past and the walk with—he took with Billy Graham that led him upon the path of a relationship with Jesus Christ. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about salvation and presidents. 

You know, I quit drinking years ago.  This president quit drinking years ago.  It‘s a big—his religion was a big part of that, he says, and, of course, his wife, Laura, and maybe Billy Graham, we just talked about.  I didn‘t realize that, but he had a role in that. 

Do you think, because he was saved from his booze problem by Jesus, do you think that led him to believe that he was now being directed by Jesus to do something particular? 

MEACHAM:  I have talked to people who have talked to the president about this who say...

MATTHEWS:  That very thing?

MEACHAM:  Yes, who say that he resists very much the idea that he‘s been ordained to do a certain thing, that he‘s there by the hand of God. 

Now, that is a very sensible and encouraging thing for the president... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe it? 

MEACHAM:  I do.  I do, because if—the kind of tradition the president comes from now and believes in is one in which one surrenders oneself to the will of God, and one does everything one can to fulfill a destiny, to, in Augustinian terms, to continue the pilgrimage, the journey, back toward heaven...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MEACHAM:  ... doing the best he can on this side of paradise.  But that doesn‘t mean he—everything he does is divinely sanctioned. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s get to the key question of his presidency, his most profound decision, historians will agree, the decision to go to Iraq. 

He used the term crusade at some point.  I think it was before Afghanistan.  But he has used that term.

Do you think, Tony, that he believes that he is, without—I know it carries a bad connotation to the Islamic world—and it probably should—does he believe he‘s a crusader, saving that part of the world for Israel, for the holy land, against the Islamic zealots?

PERKINS:  No, I don‘t think so.

I think, as—as John described, I think he has a sense of purpose.  And I think those that have a relationship with Jesus Christ and—and live that faith actively do have a sense of purpose in whatever it is, whether they‘re a schoolteacher, whether they‘re, you know, serving in the legislature or serving as president of the United States.

I think he—as he has articulated, he does see as his sense of

purpose of taking freedom and individual liberty to these countries, but I

I have never sensed or picked up that there‘s some kind of this overt—this covert spiritual mandate that he‘s under...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, you both agree, he‘s not—he doesn‘t feel messianic? 

MEACHAM:  I don‘t...

MATTHEWS:  He was called to this by Jesus?

MEACHAM:  I think he might feel called, because we all..

MATTHEWS:  No, this particular mission of saving the Middle East from terrorism? 

MEACHAM:  He certainly feels called to do that.  He feels called to do that as president. 

Franklin Roosevelt, an Episcopalian, felt called to save the world from tyranny. 

PERKINS:  But—but it‘s not a battle—I don‘t see—he—he‘s not a crusader for Christianity against Islam.  I don‘t see that at all.

MEACHAM:  No, not—I agree. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We will be...

(CROSSTALK)

MEACHAM:  ... with that.

MATTHEWS:  Interesting stuff. 

We will be right back with Jon Meacham and Tony Perkins. 

This is HARDBALL, on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back. 

We‘re back with Jon Meacham, the managing editor of “Newsweek” and the author of the new book, big book, “American Gospel,” and Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council.

You know, I was going to ask you the obvious question, because all this show tonight has been about Billy Graham.  And it was absolutely magic to meet the guy.  What a great guy.  I can understand why presidents trust him and look up to him morally.  I do.  Anyway, that‘s just me. 

Do we live in a country that is not ready to take big heavy-hitters like that, a Babe Ruth of religion like—like Billy Graham, like the Reverend Martin Luther King was to African-America, the—the person who really does unite huge numbers of millions of people?  Is it—are we living in a more divisive society, Tony, that can‘t handle that kind of leader? 

PERKINS:  Well, I think the times in which Billy Graham emerged, we were a more unified nation.  We had a more—a common set of values and traditions.

And he really became, I think, the chaplain, the national chaplain.  That‘s why he transcended through these administrations and various presidents. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree.

PERKINS:  I think it‘s different today. 

I—and—and also because of the issues that we‘re forced to deal with.  You know, since he emerged on the scene, we have got abortion on demand.  We now a battle over same-sex marriage.  Religious leaders have to take positions on those issues.  And when you take firm positions on policy issues, it does divide.  And, so, I think there—it‘s a different time. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you agree? 

MEACHAM:  I don‘t, in a way, because I think that one of the things that made Dr. Graham such an effective pastor is, as he grew older, he moved away from taking positions on issues.  And he became more unifying when he removed himself from the kingdom of this world...

MATTHEWS:  But he did take sharp...

MEACHAM:  ... and began talking about the kingdom of God. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about civil rights.  He‘s a Southerner from North Carolina.

When civil rights was the hottest—it still is, in many ways—the hottest issue in the country, the Brown case in ‘54, the—the Birmingham situation, all the violence in the late ‘50s, was he out there on the forefront of change? 

MEACHAM:  He was the person, the first major white evangelist, to indicate his crusades.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, he himself removed the ropes between the

segregated sections.  Early—very, very early, he wasn‘t as good, but he

he pushed ahead on that.  So, yes, he was.

MATTHEWS:  So, he—he took the kind of stand that usually costs you support? 

MEACHAM:  Right.  But—but, again, I think he has become more powerful as a pastoral presence the fewer policy positions he has taken. 

PERKINS:  I agree with that. 

And I think, in fact, that‘s why some people have been critical of Billy Graham, is because he has not used his influence with presidents on key issues.  His son, Franklin, is much different. 

Franklin, I think, represents kind of a new generation of—of spiritual leader, who not only ministers to the—the soul of the nation, but also understands that those issues transcend into the—the political arena. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it vastly and obviously political that John McCain went to Liberty University to speak? 

MEACHAM:  Yes. 

PERKINS:  Well, I think...

(LAUGHTER)

PERKINS:  I happened to be there.  I think it was a...

MATTHEWS:  Was it political or spiritual, that event, for him, for John McCain? 

PERKINS:  Well...

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS:  I think it was political. 

I mean, I think he was trying to mend fences with Jerry Falwell, who continues to be a very influential member of the evangelical community.  And I think he wanted to show that he can work with all people.  Whether or not it worked for him is—is highly questionable.  But I think it was political. 

MEACHAM:  But you know what he said in that speech, is, he didn‘t talk about Jesus.

What he talked about was nature‘s God and our creator, which is what Jefferson talked about in the opening of the Declaration of Independence.  And he was trying to make a point, I think, about what Benjamin Franklin called our public religion, that is not sectarian, and is, in fact, more unifying than divisive.. 

PERKINS:  I think he—Jon, you‘re absolutely right on that.  I—I think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  By the way, we have to stick with your first verdict.  It was political.  It was political. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Jon Meacham and Tony Perkins.

Tomorrow on HARDBALL, all the latest political news.  Join us at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern.

And, from all of us here at HARDBALL, have a happy Memorial Day.  Good night.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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