For seven hours Wednesday, the remains of the Rev. Billy Graham lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Hundreds of people streamed past his coffin, many with tales of how the iconic pastor brought them closer to Jesus Christ. The coffin was escorted out of the Capitol Thursday morning for its journey to Charlotte, N.C. for a private funeral Friday.
Wednesday began with a private, televised memorial at the Rotunda, the nation’s three most powerful politicians — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Trump — speaking of Graham’s great gift to America: his evangelism.
The most remarkable thing about Graham, said McConnell, was not his cutting-edge, multimedia ministry or his counsel to presidents — it was the fact that Graham knew God, not he himself, was responsible for his success. “’The secret of my work is God,’ he said. ‘Without him I would be nothing,’” McConnell quoted Graham as saying. “This is what made Billy Graham America’s pastor.”
While Graham was the first religious leader to lie in honor at the Rotunda — only three other private civilians have received that honor — this type of experience would feel familiar to him. He had already received some of the highest civic awards the U.S. government can bestow on a civilian: the Congressional Gold Medal (1996, with his wife, Ruth) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1983).
But Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99, was of a different era, a different America in which there was even roughly a shared idea of religion. Historians on Wednesday said the service was a striking example of how much the country has changed during Graham’s long life, becoming a much more diverse and divided place. The idea of coming together to honor someone primarily for his or her religious faith now seems almost unfeasible. Some called Wednesday’s ceremony a throwback.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like this again,” said John Fea, a historian of American religion at Messiah College. “Graham represented the white middle class religious revival of the post-World War II era. He was the embodiment of a mass culture that was largely white and Protestant. We are now–for good or bad–a fragmented society. There is no religious figure who can command consensus the way he did.”
In announcing Congress’s invitation last week, Ryan said Graham had “spread the gospel in 185 countries during his 99 years on Earth, touching the lives of many and forever changing the course of the world’s spiritual health.”
“Rev. Billy Graham was an American evangelist and minister, internationally known for his devout faith, inherent humility, and inclusive nature,” reads a statement on Ryan’s website announcing the event. Graham was on Gallup poll’s list of “Top Ten Most Admired Men” 61 times — more than any other man since the list began in the 1940s.
Graham joined civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and two Capitol Police officers killed while on duty to lie “in honor” at the Rotunda. The designation is different for presidents, statesmen and war heroes, who lie “in state.” In total, 32 people have been granted the honor, starting with Henry Clay, the former House member and senator from Kentucky and secretary of state.
Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center for presidential and political history at the University of Virginia, said she thinks honoring someone whose primary service was the conversion of people to a certain faith with a Rotunda ceremony violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Although Graham was an adviser to presidents, Perry noted, tapes came out later revealing Graham and President Richard M. Nixon sharing anti-Semitic views, and civil rights historians have noted that Graham urged the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others not to press hard on the cause of racial equality.
“Not that he shouldn’t be lauded, but does he deserve to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol? And once you open that door, where do you stop?” Perry said. “Lying in honor should be someone who served their country. Well, how did he do that?”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization that pushes for the separation of church and state, wrote a formal complaint letter to Ryan and McConnell. “The fact is that Graham lived his life in service to his evangelical Christian religion, and the Bible that he believed was an infallible reference manual. He placed the Bible far above the Constitution,” the advocacy group wrote.
The advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State on Wednesday released a statement saying Graham should not have been a Rotunda honoree.
“We don’t say this to criticize a man who has died, but because the question of who should receive this rare honor warrants public discussion. … Such a high government honor for someone solely for their work spreading an interpretation of one faith offends the spirit of our First Amendment’s guarantee that government will not take actions that endorse or promote religion,” the statement read.
The office of the historian of the House of Representatives declined to give more information about the criteria used to select Graham, or other past honorees. The Office of the Architect of the Capitol, which hosted the service, said only that such services are prompted by congressional resolution or by congressional leaders.
At the private service Wednesday, Ryan, McConnell and Trump gave deeply religious tributes.
“Today we give thanks for this extraordinary life. And it is very fitting that we do so in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where the memory of the American people is enshrined. Here in this room we are reminded that America is a nation sustained by prayer,” Trump told the crowd. “Today we honor him as only three other previous private citizens have been. Like the faithful of Charlotte once did, we say a prayer that all across the land, the Lord will raise up men and women like Billy Graham to spread a message of love and hope to every precious child of God.”
According to Pew Research data, about a half of Americans say they pray daily, while a quarter say they seldom or never pray. Trump’s own belief about God and his prayer life are not clear, though he does not attend church regularly and has said he does not ask God for forgiveness — two basic tenets of traditional Christian practice. About one-fifth of Americans say they have no religious affiliation.
Historians and Graham experts said his life spanned a period when there was more of a shared concept of American “civil religion” — in other words, that being a pious person in and of itself had merit.
Graham’s other high honors, said William Martin, senior fellow in religion at Rice University and author of the upcoming “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” came in part because “of just the fact that he was calling people to be Christian. To live lives as good citizens and of service.” These were decades when the connection between those things seemed obvious to Americans — even if they unofficially agreed not to speak of things like racial segregation and gender inequality.
However, Martin said Graham was responsible for more than winning souls. He served as a kind of unofficial diplomat between the United States and foreign leaders, comforted soldiers in Korea and Vietnam, and “did more to enlarge the scope of religious freedom in Eastern Europe than perhaps any else.”
The Wednesday service, Martin said, “to a significant extent shows the difference between then and now.”
Historians also said while Graham typically delivered public prayers explicitly in the name of Jesus Christ, he became increasingly in his life more sensitive to the diversifying America. In contrast to his son, evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy Graham said decades ago that Muslims and Christians worshiped the same God, Martin said. Franklin Graham has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion.”
Wednesday shows how America includes radically different religious bubbles. While some considered the service shocking for such a diverse nation, the country’s three most prominent political leaders chose to focus not on Graham’s secular accomplishments but on his faith, known as a sincere and humble one.
“But remember the current leadership hasn’t been remarkably hospitable to the changes” in America, Martin said.
Grant Wacker, author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” said that although the lawmakers in the Rotunda on Wednesday focused on Graham’s religious faith, the late evangelist would have expanded on how that faith must lead people to confront societal problems.
Ryan praised Graham as “challenging us to look at the right questions.”
“Although Ryan does not say so, part of Graham’s lifelong mission was pressing people to look around at the crises on the international and national scenes and look within at the crises in their own lives, and ask what is wrong? In all cases what is ultimately wrong is sin, resulting in greed, cruelty, etc.,” Wacker wrote to the Post.
Historians, clergy of all kinds and everyday Americans have been memorializing Graham in the days since he died, sharing stories about how his multimedia, racially integrated and nonpartisan crusades changed the face of American religion. Many have shared simple stories of how his humility and clear faith converted them. Others have debated what impact he could have had on issues such as racism and economic equality if he had made them his causes. Some say he would have bemoaned how partisan U.S. evangelicalism has become, while others argue that he planted the seeds.
As his body was driven Saturday from Asheville, N.C., to Charlotte, the motorcade was greeted by thousands of admirers along the route, including some waving Bibles and American flags. Graham’s Friday funeral will be private.
Fea said that although he normally “would be screaming” about the overlap in church and state, Graham may be an exception.
There have been a lot of times in American history when the wall between church and state has had openings or checkpoints. Graham was one of the most famous men of the 20th Century. The decision to honor him in the Rotunda might be an example of one of those checkpoints,” Fea said. “Evangelical Christianity, whether you like it or not, has always been at the center of the Republic, since the 18th Century. It’s only in the last decade or so that evangelicals have been forced to live without cultural power, to be at the periphery. Graham was the embodiment of a major stream of American culture. Not just religion, but American culture.”