Was it appropriate for the remains of Billy Graham, the great American Evangelical pastor, to lie in honor in Washington, D.C. in the Capitol Rotunda? That honor, accorded usually only to presidents, war heroes, and assorted other political notables, has been extended only to three other civilians, Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, and two Capitol policemen killed in the line of duty. Does Billy Graham belong in their company?
President Donald Trump apparently thought so, as he noted on Feb. 28, in a ceremony preceding Reverend Graham’s lying in honor in the Rotunda. "The North Carolina farm boy walked out of those fields into a great and beautiful history. Starting at a small Bible school in Florida, he soon led a nationwide revival — from a large tent in Los Angeles, to 100,000 people in a single day at Yankee Stadium, to more than 2 million people at Madison Square Garden, over 16 weeks in 1957."
Mr. Trump himself had been in the audience at Yankee stadium, with his father, whom the president described as a "big fan" of Rev. Graham. Mr. Trump noted that in "places all over the world, Reverend Graham shared the power of God’s word with more than 200 million people, in person, and countless others through television and radio. . . . "
Everywhere Graham went, said Trump, he delivered "the same beautiful message: God loves you." Here in this room, said the president, gesturing toward the Rotunda, "we are reminded that America is a nation sustained by prayer." Graham was, said the president "an ambassador for Christ who reminded the world of the power of prayer and the gift of God’s grace."
Not everyone approved of according such an honor to the Rev. Graham.
Michelle Boorstein, writing for The Washington Post, the foremost journal of the progressive point of view in the nation’s capital, noted that "The idea of coming together to honor someone primarily for his or her religious faith now seems almost unfeasible."
She reported that some called the ceremony "a throwback," to an era when there was a kind of religious consensus in this country that purportedly no longer exists. Ms. Boorstein quoted one Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center for presidential and political history at the University of Virginia, whom Ms. Boorstein said "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."
Others apparently raised similar objections, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which Boorstein described as "a nonprofit that pushes for the separation of church and state."
Ms. Boorstein also reported the words of the "advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State," whose statement provided that "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."
Who got that one right? Could it be that the president captured more effectively the still remaining religious foundation of American culture? Is it true that Mr. Graham’s lying in the Rotunda violated the spirit of the First Amendment? That amendment does say that Congress "shall make no law” regarding "an establishment" of religion, and it is true that the federal courts have occasionally (and wrongly, in my view) interpreted that language to mean that our local, state, and national governments may neither "endorse or promote" religion.
This ignores, however, the spirit present in the founding generation, and the belief, as I have stressed on this blog before, that no order could exist in America without law, that law could not be maintained without morality, and that morality could not exist without religion. The permeation of this view throughout American history lingers in the motto still to be found on our currency, "In God We Trust."
We read daily of the supposed chaos and incompetence in the White House, a tale kept alive by the president’s enemies, who still predominate in the press. The president’s words at the ceremony honoring Rev. Graham, however, show that he has a much deeper understanding of the essence of the greatness of America than do his critics.
It's not that the president is a "throwback," it is that he and those others who spoke in praise of Graham at the ceremony, including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have acknowledged the continuing importance and still vital quality that a shared faith plays in American life.
The purportedly surprising victory of Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton, his continued popularity among his supporters, and his prospects for reelection in 2020 owe much to his belief that America is, as he put it, a "nation sustained by prayer."
Honoring the Rev. Billy Graham was entirely proper.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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