(RNS) — As soon as news spread of evangelist Billy Graham’s death last week at age 99, the accolades began pouring in.
Widely esteemed for his faith and integrity during seven decades as a Christian evangelist, Graham was one of the most admired men in America.
The obituaries and reflections noted the oft-repeated criticisms of the most popular preacher and pastor in Christendom: He did not do enough for civil rights; his closeness to presidents diminished his prophetic voice; etc.
But the consensus across American society — not just from conservative evangelicalism — is that we have lost a truly great man.
So it was unsurprising, then, when House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked Graham’s son Franklin that his father’s remains be brought to the Capitol “in recognition of Rev. Graham’s long and distinguished service to the nation.”
Ryan announced the invitation on his Twitter feed, which is peppered with defenses of the Republican Party’s tax cuts for the rich.
Graham was no doubt a great man. His faithfulness and constancy inspired millions. It is thought that he alone pointed millions of nonbelievers toward faith in Jesus Christ.
Graham is deserving of many honors, naturally, within the religious communities that will defend, debate, and rightly honor his legacy.
By all accounts, he was an exemplary citizen as well. He was personally acquainted with every U.S. president since Harry Truman. In an age where his fellow evangelicals lost their Christian moorings and were seduced by the trappings of political influence, Graham mostly stayed out of partisan politics.
Even so, it is wrong to speak of Graham’s “long and distinguished service to our nation.” And it is a mistake for his remains to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington.
The cause that Graham served with longevity and distinction is evangelical Protestantism, not the United States of America.
The church and the state are not the same thing. It is dangerous to conflate them, as Graham himself would be the very first to admit.
I certainly understand the impulse to honor Graham, especially for politicians like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
The last time a person other than a public official lay in honor in the Capitol Rotunda was Rosa Parks, in 2005. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., found it a good opportunity to honor her “historic contributions,” as the concurrent resolution stated.
It was also a good political opportunity for the Republican Party to honor a legendary civil rights figure in such a showy way, according her an honor that had only been given to two people before her who were not military or elected officials.
Even if we assume Ryan’s best intentions, it is impossible to fully separate Graham’s Capitol honor from partisan politics.
It is also impossible to imagine that Graham would have wanted this honor for himself.
In a remarkable piece published last week, my friend and colleague Jonathan Merritt wrote for The New York Times about how Graham managed his relationship to politics and presidents.
The great evangelist said, “Don’t try to be like me, because I didn’t always get it right. But (concerning presidents), with one exception, I never asked to meet with them. They always asked to meet with me.”
Franklin Graham did not ask for the elder Graham to receive such a high national honor. But he could have politely declined.
Instead, we now must contend with yet more confusion of evangelical religion and civic life. The Capitol Rotunda will be the background for another questionable chapter in a growing book of the younger Graham’s mismanagement of his father’s great legacy.
Billy Graham could have spent his later years collecting accolades and honorary degrees. It was not his style.
But just because he was great does not mean he is deserving of every honor. Being popular does not qualify him to be a Nobel laureate or a poet laureate or the fourth person in American history to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol.
Rosa Parks is someone who Americans can universally affirm and celebrate.
Is the same true of Billy Graham?
Graham, for all his greatness as an evangelist, has a more complicated legacy in a pluralistic public square. After all, Graham’s public platform rested on the conviction that half of his countrymen and most of the world’s people await eternal torment in hell.
Saying so for seven decades may be “long and distinguished service” to Christianity. We can debate that. But it is not a great service to the nation, and supposing it is might actually create confusion if not outright harm.
If what Graham proclaimed was true, he has already received the highest reward — one he actually sought and one that is available to everyone.