WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump honored the late Rev. Billy Graham in the Capitol on Wednesday, calling the evangelist “an ambassador for Christ.” Graham is the fourth private citizen — but the first religious figure — to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda.
Graham died Wednesday in his North Carolina home. His funeral will take place Friday. He was 99.
The outspoken preacher encouraged thousands of Christians to engage in social and political activism, preaching from the Soviet Union in 1984 despite poor Soviet-U.S. relations because he said he had a responsibility to “’build bridges of understanding and good will.”
Graham is also known for preaching to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries, spreading the Gospel and using the latest radio and TV technologies to galvanize people.
“Today in the center of this great chamber lies legendary Billy Graham,” Trump said. “An ambassador for Christ who reminded the world of the power of prayer and the gift of God’s grace.”
Graham is the 32nd person to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, but until 1998, no civilians had received the honor, which is usually reserved for former U.S. presidents. The previous civilians to receive the honor were Capitol Police members Jacob Joseph Chestnut and John Michael Gibson in 1998 — both of whom were killed in the line of duty — and civil rights activist Rosa Parks in 2005.
“Americans came in droves to hear that great young preacher,” Trump said. “America is a nation sustained by prayer.”
The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2018
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) praised Graham’s dedication and service to his faith, calling him “America’s pastor.” Graham held close relationships with many presidents since Harry Truman.
McConnell said Graham “became a trusted friend and counselor to American presidents and powerful leaders around the globe.”
Despite bipartisan attendance at the memorial, some criticized the decision to honor Graham in the U.S. Capitol. Honoring a religious figure at the Capitol blurs the line between church and state, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Gaylor said honoring Graham in this way sets a precedent that allows this “unique” honor to be used for religious purposes. She also criticized what she said were his “repressive and sometimes bigoted views.” She called Wednesday’s service “divisive” and “inappropriate.”
Gaylor said the Freedom From Religion Foundation would not have issued a statement in protest of a service honoring Graham’s life and work if it had been held by private citizens.
“This is something for the private religious sphere to handle,” she said. Gaylor pointed to Graham’s anti-semitic comments on the Nixon tapes as an example of Graham as a “very polarizing figure.” Graham apologized for the comments after they became public in 2002.
Graham’s body will remain in the Capitol until midday Thursday.