Opinion

Billy Graham rightfully lies in honor at the Capitol

President Trump touches the casket of Billy Graham during a ceremony Feb. 28, 2018, in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington. Graham, who died last week at age 99, will lie in honor as a tribute to America's most famous evangelist. Trump was joined, from left to right behind him, by Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(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. 


RELATED: Billy Graham should not lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda (COMMENTARY)


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.

Evangelist Billy Graham fields questions during a 1989 news conference at Drumlins Country Club in Syracuse, N.Y. Graham was in Syracuse for the Billy Graham Crusade at the Carrier Dome on April 24, 1989. RNS file photo by Stephen D. Cannerelli

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.


RELATED: Billy Graham, America’s pre-eminent evangelist, dies at 99


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.


RELATED: Graham and American presidents shared personal bonds


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.) 

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Mark Tooley

11 Comments

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  • 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!

  • “Billy Graham … serve[d] … as a high priest of American civil religion.” And you didn’t even blink when you said that, brother Mark Tooley!

  • Absolutely agree with you. If only these people would stop claiming the name of Christ.

    Then we could have a more reasonable and intelligent discussion on this issue. Hearing these people is like watching the village idiot play wise and all knowing philosopher and teacher. It’s amusing and tragic at the same time when people like that are dictating our shared narrative. What a farce.

  • BG should not have been given the honor to lye in state in the Capitol Building. This is a disgraceful and perfect example of the violation of the separation of church & state. Graham was 99% politician and 1% preacher, shamefully mixing extreme right wing politics & religion. He support Nixon and of all things the war in Vietnam! Just what part of “Thou shalt not kill” did he not understand??????????????????

  • Words recommended for Billy G’s tombstone:

    “The Two Universal Sects

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,
    Christians, and Zoroastrians:

    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
    One, man intelligent without religion,

    The second, religious without intellect. ”

    Al-Ma’arri
    , born AD 973 /, died AD 1058 / .

    Al-Ma’arri was a blind Arab philosopher, poet and writer.[1][2] He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the claim that Islam possessed any monopoly on truth.”

  • Do you really think that Jesus’ words mean you can ignore racism, make idiotic anti-Semitic remarks, twist Jesus’ words on the subject of LGBTQ people, suck up to politicians, etc?

  • What a ridiculous response! Point out where in my comment I did any of those things. And when you have failed at that, maybe you could address the question I ACTUALLY posed stan, namely: Do you actually think that Commandment applies to war?

  • It’s clear to me that the words of the OT or NT mean what an interpreter needs or wants them to mean at any given time and circumstance.

  • It’s clear to me that you are unable to “Point out where in my comment I did any of those things”, as I requested. So by default you are admitting that your original comment was not only base, but baseless.

    “It’s clear to me that the words of the OT and NT mean what an interpreter needs or wants them to mean at any given time and circumstance.”

    That’s an easy cop-out for those who are too lazy to do the heavy spade work of linguistic and exegetical studies.

  • Author Tooley wrote “America is a spiritual enterprise and always has been.”

    Sorry, this is just plain nonsense. If it were true, then blasphemy would be prohibited, and there would be no article in the Constitution stating “no religious test for office”.

    In fact, the founding Dads were deists. And they had the model of state Constitutions that contained explicitly religious or “spiritual” parts, but deliberately ignored them.

    Also nonsense, of course, is the praise of the racism-accepting, power-hungry, anti-Semitic-approving BillyBob Graham.

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