In recent weeks, the country has been undergoing a long-overdue discussion about what types of monuments should occupy public spaces. In some states, notably Virginia, statues that glorify leaders of the Confederacy have been removed due to orders by government officials. Other statues have been pulled down by crowds of protestors.
Americans of goodwill may disagree about the best way to deal with offensive monuments, but we all ought to agree that this period should be a teachable moment for our country. We need to do the hard work of facing up to difficult periods of our past and begin a dialogue about how we can best move forward as one people. Unfortunately, we lack the national leadership to kick start that conversation. President Donald Trump actually wants to make things worse. He has issued an executive order to create a type of national garden that would contain statues of alleged “American heroes” – at least a few of whom are problematic and divisive figures.
Trump has proposed adding statues of evangelist Billy Graham and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to the collection. Neither deserves that honor.
When Graham died in February of 2018, Congress allowed his body to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol, something that is rarely granted. As Americans United noted at the time, while many Christians admired Graham, he spent most of his life trying to convert people to his brand of conservative Christianity. His work served a private religious interest; it's not the type of activity that deserves high recognition from the federal government.
AU also noted that during this long career, Graham made troubling statements about Jews, African Americans and LGBTQ people. And while he met with presidents of both parties, Graham ultimately got sucked into right-wing politics. Late in his life, Graham stated that his political activities were his one regret.
Likewise, Scalia was no champion of the American people and certainly does not qualify as a hero. The late high court justice held a cramped vision of the rights of the people, firmly anchored in a time when a privileged few held sway over everyone else. His view of church-state relations was similarly outdated, and all too often his response to church-state violations was a shrug.
As Americans United pointed out after Scalia’s death, “His vision of the Constitution excluded too many Americans and left a lot of people on the outside looking in. His was a jurisprudence that too often looked back to the 19th century instead of forward to the 22nd.”
While the current national conversation about who we honor and how we honor them has at times been difficult and painful, it’s also necessary. Trump’s proposal is merely another sop to his far-right, Christian nationalist base. It adds nothing of value to the discussion we so desperately need to have.