Evangelist Billy Graham preaches to a crowd of more than 17,000 people at the New Orleans Arena during the “Celebration of Hope'' hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, on March 12, 2006. RNS photo by Jennifer Zdon/The Times-Picayune

Billy Graham should not lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda

(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.

READBilly Graham set a record on Gallup’s ‘Most Admired Man' list

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.

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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.

READ: Billy Graham at 99: He kept the faith and (mostly) dropped the 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.

People line the street to pay respects as the hearse carrying the body of the evangelist Billy Graham travels through Black Mountain, N.C., on Feb. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek, Pool)

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.

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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.

READ: Rosa Parks statue unveiled at Capitol, celebrated by AME Church

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.


In an unprecedented act of Congress, Billy Graham was allowed to hold a service from the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 3, 1952. Thousands stand in the rain to hear him preach. Photo courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

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.

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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.

President Nixon, right, and Billy Graham bow their heads in prayer during the president's visit to the Billy Graham East Tennessee Crusade at Knoxville, Tenn., in 1970. RNS file photo

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.


  1. I support but disagree with the Freedom From Religion Foundation when, on February 23, 2018, they wrote these words to the U.S. Senate Majority Leader (Mitch McConnell) and the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker (Paul Ryan):

    “While it would be appropriate for evangelical Christian institutions to honor him in this manner, it is not appropriate for Congress and our federal government to do so.”

    I wish these were the words, instead:

    “Since it would be [abominable for fired-up & die-hard followers of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles & revelation to canonize & idolize their brother Billy Graham] in this manner, it is not appropriate for Congress and our federal government to do so.”

    I know, I know, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a bunch of atheists. But hey, at least they’re trying not to get God & Jesus angry. Unlike all of the fired-up & die-hard followers of Billy Graham who – OMG forbid! – want his dead body to “lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda”!

  2. Seriously, folks? People gonna complain merely because a man who is bipartisan-recognized from top to bottom as “America’s Pastor”, (having a positive and wholesome effect on millions of diverse Americans over the years), gets a tiny bit of Capitol Rotunda honor?

    I like RNS, but this article was unnecessary. I’m glad Graham is in heaven right now, so that he don’t have to put up with this tomfoolery.

  3. Being recognized by some as “America’s Pastor” doesn’t mean that he was! I think that honoring the man this way actually dishonors our nation.

  4. Con men like Billy G. should be displayed in “Ten Most Wanted Con Lists of All Time”. What a disgrace to have him laid out in the rotunda of the Capital! Thomas Jefferson is not happy!!

  5. BG’s lying in state is a perfect example of the violation of the separation of church & state being imposed on the US by the heretics running the SBC and other right wing “churches”. They are nothing more than arms of the far right posing as religious organizations and do not reflect the teachings of The Christ. They must be stopped before they impose their dystopian views on the US and destroy the US Constitution.

  6. I considered myself an evangelical prior to such with the name supporting Trump. Nonetheless, I do believe Scripture is God’s love letter to us and I have great respect for Billy Graham. I do, however, fully agree with this writer. He represented what he believed to be true about God & faithfully shared that. His death should not be politicized.

  7. Lupfer’s article is spot-on. Ryan and McConnell are pulling this stunt for purely political reasons, to shore up their evangelical political base. They have little respect for real religious liberty or our constitutional heritage of church-state separation.

  8. Mr. Lupfer’s bleeding-heart knee-jerk liberal bias is blatantly obvious.
    He downplays the Reverend Dr. Graham’s achievements, but praises a troublemaking criminal.

  9. Rosa Parks was a hero. She was not a troublemaking criminal unless you think that busses in the South should not have been intergarated.

  10. I agree with Susan and tattoo. Being bipartisan doesn’t mean it’s OK to be anti-Semitic. He wasn’t my pastor and I’m American nor did he represent all Christians.

  11. Neither Jesus, nor the first-century Christians, ever got involved in human politics, nor in worldly conflicts (wars).

    Their main purpose was preaching the GOOD NEWS of God’s kingdom, or heavenly government (Matthew 4:17), a major theme of the entire Bible.

    A faithful man, Daniel, prophecied that God’s government would put an end to and replace all human governments (Daniel 2:44), as well as the world powers in their exact order.

    Since we are living in the last days of a wicked era (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), that heavenly government will soon intervene in man’s affairs and fulfill Daniel’s prophecy.

    Christ Jesus, as Its King (Isaiah 9:6, 7) will then start his loving, just and righteous rule over all meek mankind on earth, after putting an end to all wicked ones (Isaiah 11:1-5).

    That rule and the benefits of Jesus’ ransom sacrifice will then put an end to all sickness, disease, old age and death of the human family (Revelation 21:3,4). Mankind will finally live forever on a paradise earth, God’s original purpose for us. It will restore the perfection that our first parents, Adam and Eve, lost for us.

    Thankfully, the good news of God’s government as the ONLY hope for mankind is being preached in all the inhabited earth in these last days before the end of it comes (Matthew 24:14).

  12. Wrong, wrong, wrong:

    For the nitty-gritty:

    “Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll branded Revelation “the insanest of all books”.[30] Thomas Jefferson omitted it along with most of the Biblical canon, from the Jefferson Bible, and wrote that at one time, he “considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” [31]

    Martin Luther “found it an offensive piece of work” and John Calvin “had grave doubts about its value.”[32]

    Matt 4: 17 not spoken by JC: e.g. http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb214.html

    Ditto for Mark 13, Matt 24 and and Luke 21:e.g. Professor Gerd Ludemann, Jesus After 2000 Years, Prometheus Books, 2001.

    And the OT pickings?

    “prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered.” – Professor J. D. Crossan

  13. As to Mr. Graham’s public platform being based on his conviction that “most of the world’s people await eternal torment in hell,” such a place does not exist.

    When God pronounced judgment of death upon Adam and Eve for their disobedience to him, he stated:

    “In the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the GROUND, for out of it, you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

    Solomon confirmed this fact, as follows:

    “For the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing at all, nor do they have any reward, because all memory of them is forgotten.

    “Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might, for there is NO work nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the GRAVE, where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10).

    Instead of going to a place of fiery torment forever, most of the world’s people who are “sleeping in death” have the hope of resurrection back to life on earth (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15) throughout the upcoming millennial rule of God’s heavenly government (Matthew 4:17; Isaiah 11:1-5).

    The meek shall definitely inherit the earth, as Jesus promised (Matthew 5:5).

  14. Yeah I do not see what he did justifies lying in state…

  15. “Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might”

    Aha..finally a justification for my ummm extracurricular activities 🙂

  16. Yeah …we won;t be having a theocracy thank you very much.

  17. What precisely did Lupfer say that is liberal? A specific passage please?

  18. Well she WAS black…to some that automatically denotes criminality …welcome to 2018 Amurka 😉

  19. The complaint is legitimate given he was not an elected official.

  20. Whether or not some staffers of FFRF are atheists does not negate the good they are doing to ensure the govt behaves in a constitutional manner.

  21. All Americans can celebrate and affirm Rosa Parks? Were that it were true, but I read internet comment sections. See below.

  22. HpO’s point (I think) is that atheists wouldn’t actually utter the words he wants them to say.

  23. A generous opinion. While we have nothing personal against BG, his legacy is a matter of debate. Not ALL Christians agree with the celebrity style of his brand of evangelicalism. The man’s organisation is very condescending towards local churches & use them as platforms for their crusades (disgusting term) in order to gain more publicity for the BG brand. As if Jesus needs their kind of noise. As if the local impact of the local churches, their being salt & light in their own little corners is not enough.

    As if the local church pastors are their lackeys. As if their organisation is higher than the local church–in America, maybe, because of capitalism, even religion can be turned into family business.

  24. Who’s not happy? Jefferson the slaveholder? Go figure…?

  25. Well, THAT’s an interesting lie. Meanwhile, here’s two consecutive posts that offer the reality:

    “In 1973, when a coalition of Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, Israel found itself in a state of shock and in desperate need of weapons. Graham picked up the phone and convinced his friend Nixon to assist his other friend prime minister Golda Meir. Graham’s call helped persuade the United States to provide an emergency airlift of essential arms that rescued the Jewish state from the overwhelming Arab onslaught.” — Jerusalem Post, Feb. 27.

    Yeah, that’s exactly what Anti-Semites do, ain’t it? They go all-out at the highest national levels, to help rescue the State of Israel from her sworn extremist enemies?

  26. Jewish Groups Mourn Passing of US Christian Evangelist Leader Billy Graham
    (from The Algemeiner, Feb. 21):

    The American Jewish Committee (AJC) called Graham a “longtime friend of the organization” who was a “pillar of the country’s religious and spiritual leadership.”

    Rabbi A. James Rudin, the AJC’s senior interreligious adviser, said in a statement, “Billy Graham was an original on the American and world stages, and we are unlikely to see his type of religious leadership again anytime soon.”

    Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), stated,

    “Alongside our millions of Christian supporters and on behalf of the Jewish people, we mourn the passing of Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, a towering figure in Christianity and a historic ally and defender of Israel and of the Jewish people. Billy Graham was a giant. He set the ground for our mission of Christian-Jewish and interfaith bridge building and was a voice for truth and morality. He was a man of unbending Christian faith, but also of tolerance and understanding and cooperation, even with those who didn’t share his convictions.”

    Hmm. Some extremely nice, visibly pro-Jewish assessments of Billy Graham. Not one word about Anti-Semitism.

  27. Given the number of other BG articles, this offers balance – I am not sure that he himself would have approved of all the hoopla.

  28. She violated the law, therefore she was a criminal.
    There is a right way to get laws changed, and throwing tantrums and violating the law is not it.

  29. Read the passages that say good things about the notorious criminal and troublemaker Rosa Parks.
    Praising criminals and troublemakers is something that bleeding-heart knee-jerk liberals do frequently.

  30. She didn’t throw a tantrum. She very quietly and with dignity sat in a seat reserved for a White person. She was willing to be arrested and serve time in jail for her actions.

  31. Evangelicals care about Israel for their own dubious purposes which have nothing to do with being good for Jews.

  32. ….yeah you lost your debating privileges with the ignorant Parks statement. Buh bye

  33. You’re rambling about destroying the Constitution but no objections to what the government has already done to undermine that document? No honoring a good man is the WORST outrage ever – not the gross overreach of power by politicians, not the undermining of the Bill of Rights thats constantly manufactured by the far left and the media, not the corruption of our justice system. NOPE BG lying in state means the end of the republic. Spare me.

  34. Graham was always seen as friendly toward Jews and the State of Israel. As close as he was to Nixon, he denied that he shared the latter’s low-brow anti-Semitism. When H.R Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote a book in the early 90s stating that Graham joined in with Nixon in anti-Semitic remarks, Graham denied it. However, when several Nixon tapes were declassified 30 years after his presidency, Graham was heard on them agreeing that the Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media, controlled the pornography industry, and that a victory in 1972 would mean something could be done about it. When the tapes were released, Graham apologized and expressed deep regret. I believe most Jewish groups have accepted his apology.
    On a later tape, he mentioned Rev. 3:9, the “synagogue of Satan” verse, in relation to an upcoming dinner with Israeli PM Golda Meir. As far as I know, he never spoke publicly about it, possibly due to his declining health. His spokesman said at the time it “merely” meant those who profess Judaism but do not live according to its values. Unfortunately, that just allows Christians to call me or anyone else “fake Jews.” As Graham is now deceased, I do not think it appropriate to drag it out, as the record is fairly clear.

  35. All this negativity about the fact that he’s lying in state is just a bunch of foaming at the mouth computer SJW atheists whose sole mission in life is to stamp out Christianity. Pathetic.

  36. It is hard to take his comment seriously. He has to be baiting.

  37. Your comment tells us everything we need to know about you.

    Let’s see…BillyBob’s accomplishments: sucking up to presidents, ignoring the civil rights movement, making anti-Semitic remarks, damaging church/state separation, misrepresenting all kinds of facts and ideas…With any luck, all future comments from you will be ignored, as they will not have any credibility whatsoever.

  38. I don’t follow FFRF’s activities but this one is “good” for both America & Christianity. When it’s atheists who are now pleasing God & Jesus, this says American Christianity is no “good”.

  39. You got it. I know what they’re trying to say, but FFRF shouldn’t have said, “It [is] appropriate for evangelical Christian institutions to honor him in this manner”. Because it is unbecoming of my people of faith to behave “in this manner”.

  40. Jesus told me the other day we atheists are great people.

  41. You are a complete fool and a perfect example of just how the merger of evangelical religion & politics is bent on destroying democracy in the US.

  42. Literally ignoring everything I stated and just repeating your crazy bullcrap. Go play in traffic.

  43. I hope that’s not the same Mexican Jesus living next door to my bomb shelter.

    On a more casual note, you know what? Heretical or not, I say, If THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation comes to earth for the first time about now, He’d probably teach something that later will be called The Parable of the Good Atheist.

    Or The Parable of the Good LGTBQ (one of those).

    Atheists like you, TheMountainHumanist, and gays like Ben in Oakland, are the Samaritans in our day and age. The Pharisees and Sadducees of our time, y’know, the Christian Right Nationalists, don’t like you guys too much. Which doesn’t say much. Because this Jesus doesn’t like them either.

    Anyway, that “atheists are great people” has never been a bone of contention for me. Just their relationship with THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation, whom, I know, I know, you’ve said it 1M times, doesn’t exist. Or whose existence, let alone whose words & action, could ever be verified apart from, well, the gospels, epistles and revelation.

    The only reliable eyewitness account, those. Which, however, can never be cross-examined by anyone based on another set of reliable eyewitness accounts produced from that time of Jesus.

    Take care.

  44. I would dispute that the alleged eyewitness accounts of Jesus are 100% accurate. We have no idea.

    Your perspective is boiled down to: “I have a perspective. Mountain Humanist has a perspective. I think the Christian worldview I accept is the correct path. MH does not. He maintains his position is the probable correct one (although I never claim certainty).”

    As long as we can have respect for our mutual worldviews…I think atheists and Christians and/or humanists can work together to achieve beneficial goals..alleviating suffering and poverty, promoting peace etc. Humanist/atheists may do it for the good of humanity qua humanity. Christians may do it to glorify and follow Christ. The end result is the same.

  45. Which reminds me of when “Captain Louis Renault, the unabashedly corrupt Vichy prefect of police … suggests to Rick [Blaine, owner of Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca] that they join the Free French in Brazzaville. As they walk away into the fog, Rick says, ‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'”

    I’ll take you up on that challenge, then, Rick I mean TheMountainHumanist!

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