(RNS) — My friend Jacob Lupfer in a recent Religion News Service column argues that evangelist Billy Graham should not lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol. He says Graham was a good and influential man, but honoring him as though he were a statesman conflates church and state.
It’s wrong to speak of Graham’s “long and distinguished service to our nation,” Lupfer says — quoting House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — because Graham served Christianity, not America. I see his point, but the full story is more complex, and Graham is rightly honored not just as an extraordinary Christian but also as a great American. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Yes, Graham chiefly served the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ, not a nation-state. He preached globally to tens of millions. The gospel belongs to no one country, he rightly believed. He also in his final decades strove to avoid partisan politics in favor of a message of salvation accompanied by reconciliation. For these reasons he was almost universally admired and even loved.
But Graham was not a ghost or a cloud. He knew God had placed him in a particular time and place, as the son of a North Carolina dairy farmer in the United States, primarily in the 20th century. He was an unalloyed American and never pretended to be otherwise.
Both Graham’s Christian faith and his American identity summoned him to serve his nation in ways arguably not replicated by any other preacher in our history. He was a counselor to American presidents and countless politicians of both parties across 70 years. As a global traveler and celebrity, he also befriended scores if not hundreds of foreign leaders, to whom he was not just an envoy for evangelicalism but also for America. Indeed, he was one of America’s most winsome, articulate and effective representatives, especially during the unique challenges of the Cold War.
Graham’s message of tolerance and civility, even as he proclaimed redemption only in Christ, won him respect from other faith groups, from nonreligious people and from Catholics, mainline Protestants and other Christians not always collaborative with Baptist evangelists. He was both evangelist and champion of American ideals about human equality, human dignity and religious freedom for all. These highest aspirations of American culture uniquely equipped Graham to be an effective global proponent of the gospel. It’s hard to imagine a preacher from any other country during Graham’s lifetime, or perhaps any time in modernity, who could have so effortlessly appealed across cultures. America has been called the first universal nation, and Graham’s life is evidence for it.
Unlike for other evangelicals of his generation, Graham’s sincere adoption of and understanding of American ideals uniquely equipped him to serve not just as Christian evangelist but also as a high priest of American civil religion. He gave invocations at presidential inaugurals. He presided at presidential funerals. He reassured and ministered to the whole nation, not just Christians, in times of national crisis. Graham’s sermon at the post 9-11 interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral was a masterpiece of both careful Christian theology and the best of American civil religion. It was inclusive without banality. Nobody else in USA history had both the skill to craft it and the credibility to deliver it to a receptive nation.
Graham understood and lived out what some Christians and other persons of faith often fail fully to realize: America is a spiritual enterprise and always has been. Not all Americans are Christian. Not all are self-consciously religious. But nearly all Americans have been shaped by our centuries of popular self-understanding as a nation of decisive moral and spiritual purpose. Graham spoke to this self-understanding, to America’s soul, and he was heard, respected and appreciated by the country, even by many who rejected the specifics of his theology.
Although supremely a Christian of Baptist and evangelical bent, Graham understood his mission and witness included not just exclusively serving the church but also serving America. This service he no doubt understood as a witness to Christ. No doubt he hoped his mission would persuade nonbelievers to heed his gospel. But that choice he knew was theirs. He would serve them and other Americans regardless. After all, God had placed him in America and had raised him up from obscurity in rural North Carolina to a national and global pulpit, for whose responsible use God would hold Graham accountable.
America across centuries has had many great and influential preachers, bishops, rabbis and other clerics who loved God and America, serving both. But none have ever before lain in honor in the U.S. Capitol because none have so uniquely and for so long served, understood and embodied American ideals. There was only one Billy Graham, evangelist and American.
(Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)