The casket of Rev. Billy Graham is carried up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Feb. 28, 2018, where it will lie in honor in the Rotunda. It's a rare honor for a private citizen to lie in honor at the Capitol. Graham died Wednesday in his sleep at his North Carolina home. He was 99. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

The ’Splainer: Billy Graham, lying in honor and civil religion

The body of Billy Graham, who died last week at age 99, lies in the Capitol Rotunda as President Trump, officials and dignitaries pay tribute to America's most famous evangelist on Feb. 28, 2018, in Washington. The North Carolina-born farm boy became a media-savvy Southern Baptist minister and spiritual adviser to numerous presidents, reaching millions around with the world with his rallies — or what he called crusades — through his pioneering use of television. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — On Wednesday and Thursday (Feb. 28 and March 1), the Rev. Billy Graham, who died last week, will "lie in honor" in the nation's Capitol, the first religious figure to do so.  Some see the honor as worthy of a preacher who had the ear of American presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, while others see it as a violation of the separation of church and state.

But honoring Graham in the halls of government can also be seen as a joint exercise in American civil religion and public mourning, one this country engages in periodically when its great public figures pass. Let us 'Splain ...

[ad number=“1”]

What is 'American 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. 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.

Billy Graham's casket is carried up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 28, 2018, where it will lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. It's a rare honor for a private citizen to lie in honor at the Capitol. Graham died Feb. 21 in his sleep at his North Carolina home. He was 99. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

So what does Graham's lying in honor have to do with civil religion?

It's another example of civil religion to honor fallen American heroes by having them lie in state or in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. In this ritual of public mourning, the coffin is flanked by a military honor guard and the American flag, and people file through to offer their respects. All of this will play out beneath the quasi-religious ceiling painting "The Apotheosis of Washington," in which George Washington sits in heaven among the angels — another example of American civil religion.

[ad number=“2”]

Is there a difference between lying in state and lying in honor, especially in terms of civil religion?

Lying in state is an honor afforded only to government servants or military leaders, such as a president, a Supreme Court Justice or a member of Congress.

Lying in honor is reserved for private citizens such as Graham. Both are awarded only to people deemed by Congress to have provided "distinguished service to the nation." Graham will be only the fourth American citizen to be honored in this way — civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005 and two Capitol policemen killed in the line of duty in 1998 precede him.

Rosa Parks lay in honor in the Capitol Rotunda from Oct. 30-31, 2005. Parks was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda and the second African-American. She is best-known as a civil rights pioneer. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Those who lie in state (not honor) do so on the Lincoln catafalque — a true saint's relic of American civil religion if there ever was one. The Lincoln catafalque is a plywood platform built to hold President Lincoln's coffin after his assassination in April 1865. Unknown soldiers from World War I through the Vietnam War, as well as Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Ford, have rested on the Lincoln catafalque, a sign of the highest service to the country.

Graham is the 34th American to lie in state or honor in the Capitol Rotunda. He will not lie on the Lincoln catafalque.

[ad number=“3”]

We have separation of church and state, so why should a preacher lie in honor in the nation's Capitol?

That's a thornier question. There are certainly arguments to be made for and against. Putting those aside, the tradition of publicly mourning notable Americans can buttress aspects of civil religion that bond Americans of all faiths and no faith.

"Funerals are powerful rites of reconciliation that may dispel controversy and promote a sense of public accord," Emma Brodzinski writes of state funerals and lying in state in the Encyclopedia of Death and Human Experience. Referring to Lincoln's lying in state — the first by an American president in the Capitol — she continues that the "grandeur" of such a setting and such a ritual can become "a restatement of American values."

In other words, whether you think honoring Graham in the Capitol Rotunda is pandering to President Trump's evangelical base or you think it is recognition due a man many beyond evangelicals considered great, his lying in honor is part of the American civil religion that can unite us all.


  1. “American civil religion that can unite us all.”
    This is a continued attempt by the Evangelicals to foster Christian Nationalism and America First. Their concept of a great country is not accepted by a large proportion of America. We don’t have the same values. Some of us do not accept that this is One Nation Under God. Or that IN GOD We Trust. Both of these were adopted by Congress due to a campaign by Graham.
    Civic Religion is the worship of the flag, patriotic songs, the Constitution, the political offices. Although most Americans accept most of these, they don’t worship them.
    This glorification of a leader of the far right Evangelical Religion will not unite us.

  2. You are constitutionally permitted to stand outside the Capitol with your middle finger in the air as long as you are not disrupting, you are also permitted to express your unhappiness in speech and writing, both thanks to the First Amendment.

    Some of us are ALWAYS unhappy about this, that, or the other that our government chooses to do or not do.

    However, despite the best efforts of Americans United, formerly Americans United for Separation of Church and State, formerly Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the First Amendment does not render the United States a secular country, nor can any religious test deny government service or government honor.

  3. Your wrong.
    Read “One Nation Under God” by Kevin M. Kruse

  4. Please provide at your earliest convenience the top five Supreme Court cases, in your opinion, supporting your interpretation of the First Amendment.

    Kruse has an opinion. His actual contribution as a historian is documenting how ministers cooperated with big business to portray the New Deal as a threat to traditional American Christian values of free enterprise and individualism, which it arguably was.

    Beyond that it’s simply Kruse’s opinions, much of it apparently aimed at selling his book by being controversial.

  5. Nope again.

    I await your court cases in support of your position.

  6. Eight years after the U.S. Constitution came into effect The Treaty of Tripoli was read aloud and then ratified unanimously by the 23 Senators that were present. It was signed by President John Adams and in his signing statement John Adams wrote: … I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.”

    In Article 11 of that treaty is the following statement:
    “Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion …”

    In 1797 it was stated in a ratified treaty that this was not founded as a Christian nation. At this time many of the founding fathers were still alive and understood the First Amendment.

    If we were not founded as a Christian nation, tell me when and how did we become one. If this is not a Christian nation it must be secular.

  7. Rosa Parks was a Christian, and she was honored by lying in state in the Capitol.

    The Treaty in question simply states that the United States was not founded on the Christian religion. A review of the founding documents confirms that.

    Which demonstrates nothing relevant.

    Much more relevant is the constant refusal by the courts to consider “In God We Trust” on coinage and currency a violation of the First Amendment.

  8. I agree that is a concern. Are our courts fallible?

    Most Americans are Christians. Rosa Parks was not honored for that reason.

  9. Explain “Are are courts fallible?”

    If you mean “Does everyone agree with every court decision?”, the answer of course is “No”.

    If you mean “Is every American bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court?”, the answer is “Yes”.

    Graham apparently is being honored for being a religious leader, not particularly because he was Christian. He did happen to be Christian. So was Martin Luther King, and we have a Federal holiday honoring him.

  10. I mean are their decisions always just and morally sound.

    Grahams evangelical success has created a large proportion of our society to be unable to recognize reality, He deserves no honor for this.

  11. You are entitled to dislike court opinions. Unless you have some heretofore hidden attributes and authority, I assume that “just and morally sound” refers to whatever personal opinion you hold.

    Evangelical Christianity is not a product of Billy Graham.

    Billy Graham is a product of evangelical Christianity.

    Your dislike of evangelical Christianity appears to be your personal issue.

  12. Freedom of speech includes religious speech. Graham lying in state was an uplift to many more than it was an upset. Many who didn’t like Graham just ignored the event.

  13. Yes, as they should ignore “In God We Trust” on coinage and currency.

  14. So you look for occurrences of God and yet do not believe in Him. It’s very legalistic to do that, which can be seen in your earlier comments and also in your comment about ignoring In God We Trust on coins. Legalism is a hard way to live. You may be on the verge of being a believer.

  15. I am not an atheist.

    My comment about ignoring in God We Trust on coins and currency is my recommendation for folks who have been straining at the gnat of Billy Graham lying in state in the Capitol.

  16. Forgive me. I misunderstood your comment and got it confused with the other Bob. I see now what you were saying. Blessings to all who seek Christ and who have not yet come unto Him, that the would. Amen.

Leave a Comment