Asked in a 2011 by Christianity Today magazine about his greatest regret, evangelist Billy Graham famously said, “I would have steered clear of politics.” That regret now haunts him in death in form of a debate about whether or not his body should have laid in honor at the U.S. Capitol.
Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99, is the fourth civilian to lie “in honor” in the Capitol Rotunda, and the first religious leader. The tribute — previously afforded to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and two Capitol police killed in the line of duty — recognizes private citizens for their contribution to the nation. The more commonly used term “lying in state” is for elected officials and military officers.
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan extended the invitation in a Feb. 22 letter to Graham’s son and successor at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Franklin Graham.
“The life and ministry of the Rev. Billy Graham was dedicated to a sweeping mission: proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every part of the world,” Ryan said in response to Graham’s passing. “Rev. Graham preached, in person, to more than 200 million people in 185 countries. Through books, radio, and television, he brought the Word of God into countless homes.”
Speaking Feb. 28 at a ceremony honoring Graham, President Donald Trump described the evangelist as an “ambassador for Christ, who reminded the world of the power of prayer and the gift of God’s grace.”
“The man we recognize today may well have shared the Gospel with more people, face-to-face, than anyone else in history,” added McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky.
Graham, who counseled every U.S. president since World War II, for decades bore the nickname “America’s pastor.” His legacy includes humility, an ecumenical spirit and integrating his crusades beginning in the early 1950s.
Some, however, suggest a Rotunda honor for someone whose primary vocation was converting individuals to a particular faith violates the American value of separation of church and state.
“Not that he shouldn’t be lauded, but does he deserve to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol?” Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center for presidential and political history at the University of Virginia, asked in the Washington Post.
“Once you open that door, where do you stop?” the historian continued. “Lying in honor should be someone who served their country. Well, how did he do that?”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State released a statement Feb. 28 saying Graham’s spiritual accomplishments do not qualify him to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.
“We don’t say this to criticize a man who has died, but because the question of who should receive this rare honor warrants public discussion,” the religious liberty watchdog group opined.
While previous honorees represented ideals valued by all Americans, AU said, Graham’s “primary self-described mission was less expansive. As he put it, his goal was to ‘just keep preaching the Gospel.’”
“Such a high government honor for someone solely for their work spreading an interpretation of one faith offends the spirit of our First Amendment’s guarantee that government will not take actions that endorse or promote religion,” the statement said.
Though beloved by many of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for President Trump, Graham’s legacy is more controversial among American minorities.
Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said Graham “promoted a white evangelical respectability that wanted to ‘put the brakes’ on the civil rights movement, and never really accepted women as equal to men.”
“He may have been the country’s greatest evangelist, but he was also an apologist for the racist and sexist beliefs pervasive among white evangelical men in 20th-century America,” Butler wrote Feb. 28 in the Huffington Post.
NBC News made note of Graham’s “painful legacy” for LGBTQ Americans.
“Over the course of Graham’s 99 years of life, he reached millions of Christians around the world and had an outsized impact on the national political landscape,” NBC reported Feb. 22. “For many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, however, Graham was a crusader against them, one whose efforts shaped the religious right into an anti-LGBTQ political force.”
A joint resolution passed by the Senate Feb. 28 recalled Graham’s words opposing the Soviet Union during the Cold War: “Communism has decided against God, against Christ, against the Bible, and against all religion.’’
Tributes to Graham have also resurfaced attention to audio released in 2002 that revealed the evangelist parroting anti-Semitic remarks in a White House meeting with President Richard Nixon.
Graham apologized for his remarks, but the relationship between evangelicals and Jews in the United States remain frosty. Evangelical Christians rate near the bottom of favorability of various faith groups among Jews participating in a recent Pew survey. Jewish Americans viewed evangelicals in a warmer light than Muslims, but less favorably than Catholics, mainline Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons and atheists.
The Anti-Defamation League released data Feb. 27 showing a nearly 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017, the highest number since the ADL started tracking such information in the 1970s.
Kimberley Winston of Religion News Service said the secular tribute to Graham can be viewed partly an exercise in “civil religion.”
“American civil religion is the idea that, even though the United States has no official religion and is made of up of adherents of every religion and no religion at all, there is a set of common symbols, rites, rituals and traditions that serve Americans the same way religions do for adherents,” Winston wrote.
“Think of the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the national anthem or ‘God Bless America,’ a military gun salute, the honoring of veterans on Memorial Day, etc. These rituals are valued, expected on certain occasions or holidays, and they unite Americans of different backgrounds in their observance.”
After lying in honor at the Capitol yesterday and this morning, Graham’s body will return to Charlotte, N.C., for burial next to his wife, Ruth, who died in 2007. About 2,300 guests are expected at his funeral service Friday at the Billy Graham Library. The service is private, but the public can view a livestream beginning at 10 a.m., EST. The service begins at noon.