Statuary assault: Papers ponder push for Billy Graham's likeness in Capitol

Billy Graham has spanned continents, counseled presidents, preached to some 215 million people. And lawmakers are praising one more virtue: He's not Charles B. Aycock.

"Eh?" you may well ask. Well, Aycock was an early 20th century governor of North Carolina and, according to historical accounts, a noted white supremacist. That makes his statue in the U.S. Capitol rather noxious, although it's stood there since 1932.

So, for some Tar Heels, it's time for a change, reports the News and Observer. Hence the move by the state's lawmakers for a marble version of the famous evangelist in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Graham's virtues? Rather scant, according to the newspaper: Graham's "legacy of ministry and charitable work." Also, he's "the least polarizing of all the people who are worthy of consideration."

Well, how nice. An evangelical leader is thought to be non-polarizing. But to ignore the many accomplishments of the modern era's greatest evangelist -- in a newspaper in his home state -- well, in GetReligion terms, it amounts to a haunted house full of religious "ghosts."

The Asheville Citizen-Times mainly quotes the Senate version of the bill:

Senate Bill 529 praises the world-famous minister for touching the lives of millions through spoken and written spiritual advice and for his help of the poor and destitute.
"Reverend Graham has been a renowned humanitarian and philanthropist, providing financial assistance to victims of disasters, as well as collecting and distributing clothing to those in need all around the world over the years," the bill says.

What really gets the Citizen-Times' attention, though, is Aycock's record of white supremacism. At least, until the newspaper turns on Graham: reaching back to 2002, when a tape was released about his conversation with President Richard Nixon.

"Graham descended into a lengthy anti-Semitic exchange about how Jews supposedly controlled the media," the article says. It doesn't mention that Graham apologized for the remarks, an apology that the Anti-Defamation League accepted.

Nor does the Citizen-Times note Graham's long-established record on race relations. Back in 1953, at his Chattanooga crusade, he personally pulled down the ropes between black and white seating sections. And he refused to hold a crusade in South Africa until it ended apartheid.

Does anyone get it right? Well, the Fayetteville Observer has more details about Graham's work. And unlike the other accounts, it puts that material at the top:

The 96-year-old Graham has preached in more than 185 countries and territories, offering counsel to U.S. presidents and participating in presidential inaugurations.
Graham was considered at the forefront of the evangelical movement of the second half of the 20th century, particularly in the use of television and other technology to spread his Christian message.

My only complaint here is that the newspaper apparently lifted the text whole from the Associated Press. The AP's full story ran in the Greensboro News-Record.

Then again, it proves that you don’t have to get mushy or long-winded to add important background. And the Fayetteville paper partly redeems itself with a beautiful 48-picture gallery of Graham throughout the decades.

I liked the lore in the News and Observer story. Did you know that each state has two statues in the National Statuary Hall? And that some states have changed their statues? One recent swap was California's Ronald Reagan in 2009, replacing Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King. State legislators decided King was "too obscure," the newspaper says.

BTW, the other statue from North Carolina is that of Zebulon Vance, a governor, Confederate officer and U.S. senator.

Why haven't I quoted the Charlotte Observer? Because, for some reason, the state's largest newspaper didn't produce its own story on the plans -- even though the Billy Graham Library, and the Graham organization itself, are in Charlotte, and a street there is named for him. The newspaper just reprinted the News and Observer's April 6 piece. A day later, the Observer's religion writer, Tim Funk, reran a 2011 story in which he proposed such a statue.

And I found it weird that none of the mainbar articles discussed the obvious matter of church and state: putting up a statue of a religious leader on public ground. The sponsors of the statue bill may have been thinking about that when they pumped Graham's "good works." But first and foremost, he has urged people to "get right with God" and place their faith in Jesus. Tens of millions of Americans, of course, would see great value in that. So a brief pro/con discussion would be appropriate here.

As for church vs. state, the News and Observer says that private donations, not taxes or government grants, would pay for the Graham statue. And fundraisers will have some time, because you have to die before the statue goes up. Graham is 96, but he's still around.

Only the Charlotte Observer's Tim Funk tackles both questions, but for his blog rather than the mainbar. He says he asked reaction from the Graham folks, but they didn't reply.  And he says the National Statuary Hall already has 12 religious figures from various states, including Brigham Young, Father Damien and Father Junipero Serra.

Photo: Billy Graham in Cleveland in 1994. Photo by Paul M. Walsh via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).


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