Billy Graham, lying in honor and civil religion

(RNS) — On Wednesday and Thursday (Feb. 28 and March 1), the Rev. Billy Graham, who died last week, will “lie in honor” in the nation’s Capitol, the first religious figure to do so. Some see the honor as worthy of a preacher who had the ear of American presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, while others see it as a violation of the separation of church and state.

But honoring Graham in the halls of government can also be seen as a joint exercise in American civil religion and public mourning, one this country engages in periodically when its great public figures pass. 

What is ‘American civil religion’?

American civil religion is the idea that, even though the United States has no official religion and is made of up of adherents of every religion and no religion at all, there is a set of common symbols, rites, rituals and traditions that serve Americans the same way religions do for adherents. Think of the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the national anthem or “God Bless America,” a military gun salute, the honoring of veterans on Memorial Day, etc. These rituals are valued, expected on certain occasions or holidays, and they unite Americans of different backgrounds in their observance.

So what does Graham’s lying in honor have to do with civil religion?

It’s another example of civil religion to honor fallen American heroes by having them lie in state or in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. In this ritual of public mourning, the coffin is flanked by a military honor guard and the American flag, and people file through to offer their respects. All of this will play out beneath the quasi-religious ceiling painting “The Apotheosis of Washington,” in which George Washington sits in heaven among the angels — another example of American civil religion.

Is there a difference between lying in state and lying in honor, especially in terms of civil religion?

Lying in state is an honor afforded only to government servants or military leaders, such as a president, a Supreme Court Justice or a member of Congress.

Lying in honor is reserved for private citizens such as Graham. Both are awarded only to people deemed by Congress to have provided “distinguished service to the nation.” Graham will be only the fourth American citizen to be honored in this way — civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005 and two Capitol policemen killed in the line of duty in 1998 precede him.

Those who lie in state (not honor) do so on the Lincoln catafalque — a true saint’s relic of American civil religion if there ever was one. The Lincoln catafalque is a plywood platform built to hold President Lincoln’s coffin after his assassination in April 1865. Unknown soldiers from World War I through the Vietnam War, as well as Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Ford, have rested on the Lincoln catafalque, a sign of the highest service to the country.

Graham is the 34th American to lie in state or honor in the Capitol Rotunda. He will not lie on the Lincoln catafalque.

We have separation of church and state, so why should a preacher lie in honor in the nation’s Capitol?

That’s a thornier question. There are certainly arguments to be made for and against. Putting those aside, the tradition of publicly mourning notable Americans can buttress aspects of civil religion that bond Americans of all faiths and no faith.

“Funerals are powerful rites of reconciliation that may dispel controversy and promote a sense of public accord,” Emma Brodzinski writes of state funerals and lying in state in the Encyclopedia of Death and Human Experience. Referring to Lincoln’s lying in state — the first by an American president in the Capitol — she continues that the “grandeur” of such a setting and such a ritual can become “a restatement of American values.”

In other words, whether you think honoring Graham in the Capitol Rotunda is pandering to President Trump’s evangelical base or you think it is recognition due a man many beyond evangelicals considered great, his lying in honor is part of the American civil religion that can unite us all.

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