Racial Equality

A statue of Billy Graham is being placed in the U.S. Capitol. That honor should have gone to someone else.

  Rob Boston

Officials at the U.S. Capitol will unveil a large statue of the Rev. Billy Graham tomorrow. This is unfortunate; Graham does not deserve this honor.

Each state is permitted to erect two statues of important figures from their state in the National Statuary Hall. A few years ago, officials in North Carolina decided to replace one of their statues. It depicted Gov. Charles Aycock, an early 20th-century figure who was an avowed white supremacist.

While it’s great to see a statue of a racist removed, the decision to replace him with Graham is misguided. Graham might have been a popular figure, but he was essentially an evangelist for his particular form of fundamentalist Christianity. That doesn’t elevate him to this honor – especially in light of antisemitic comments he’s made and his long crusade against LGBTQ+ equality, as AU President and CEO Rachel Laser points out.

Graham: missing in action on civil rights

Furthermore, when it came to the overarching social justice issue of Graham’s day – racial equality – the preacher was largely missing in action. In her book White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that Graham, given his national following, could have played a major role in advancing civil rights. Instead, he mostly sat on the sidelines.

Graham, Butler wrote, “recognized the problem of racial injustice and evoked the pain caused by unjust social norms, but he was unwilling to break ranks with the white status quo.”

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers upped their nonviolent activism against Jim Crow, Graham grew increasingly critical of the civil rights movement. Graham dismissed King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech in August of 1963, asserting that white and Black children would not walk hand in hand together until the second coming of Christ.

“He bemoaned racism as a sin yet offered only small, cosmetic adjustments to change the ethos,” Butler wrote. Graham’s overall record on civil rights, she observed, was marked by “characteristic waffling.”

Hostile to secular government

Butler, who spoke at the Summit for Religious Freedom last month, also points out that Graham was an avowed opponent of secular public education and government. After the Supreme Court invalidated mandatory, coercive forms of Bible reading and prayer in public schools, Graham warned darkly that secularism was on the march and blasted the high court for pushing religion out of “our national life.” (We still hear the same arguments from Christian Nationalists today.)

Reading Butler’s thoughts on Graham, one gets the impression of an unfortunate figure, of a man who, due to his popularity and fame, was uniquely positioned to bring Americans together during a painful, divisive time – but he lacked the courage and/or vision to do it.

That is the ultimate tragedy of the life of Billy Graham – his was an existence of missed opportunities. That’s not a legacy worth honoring with a statue in the Capitol.

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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