Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
A debate is emerging about whether the Rev. Billy Graham should by lying in honor in the US Capitol, only the fourth private citizen to be honored this way.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the right decision in asking Graham’s family to allow the evangelical religious leader to accept the honor.
You could make a strong argument that, outside of America’s elected and military leadership, no American in the last century has done more to burnish our nation’s image abroad than Graham.
An old friend of mine asked the relevant question in The Washington Post:
“Lying in honor should be someone who served their country. Well, how did he do that?” asked Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center for presidential and political history at the University of Virginia.
Here’s the answer: Graham served his country by making her look good to millions of people around the world. His message of peace – spoken to some 215 million people in 185 countries in person – made him by far the most popular Protestant religious figure of the last century.
No matter what was happening in America and no matter who was in charge, Graham also was the American the world looked up to and trusted. He appeared on Gallup’s “Most Admired Man” list 61 times, more than any other person by far. There’s a reason – he had integrity, and people knew it.
While other evangelists came and went, succumbing to personal failings, scandals and political ambitions, Graham plowed forward and stood above it all, delivering a consistently peaceful message for decades.
A nation’s influence in the world is measured by many things, one of which is how her people are perceived by others. Are we charitable? Do we care for our fellow man? Do we treat people with respect and inclusion? Do our religious convictions lead us to anger and violence, or do they lead us to reconciliation and peace?
Graham answered all those questions for tens of millions the right way. His voice – a unique American voice –communicated to the world that Americans, at their core, are peaceful and seeking a better world for everyone, not just themselves.
What better public service can a civilian provide than to show – through words and deeds – the rest of the world that the American experiment has produced a population that wants peace and justice for everyone?
When you consider recent surveys that have shown waning standing and influence in the world for the United States, choosing to put a someone in the US Capitol who polished our nation’s image seems the right call at the right time.
May all the people who were touched by Billy Graham over the years look at this gesture today and be reminded of the fundamental goodness of the American people, as exemplified by a homegrown preacher who was as comfortable in the Oval Office as he was in the vestibule of a small country church.
The United States is a force for good in this world. Billy Graham knew it, and we could all honor his life by living up to that awesome responsibility as often as possible.