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Johnson calls Billy Graham a ‘towering figure in my life’ at Capitol statue unveiling

North Carolina picked the evangelist to represent the state in bronze

Speaker Mike Johnson joins the North Carolina delegation and family members of Billy Graham to unveil a statue in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Thursday.
Speaker Mike Johnson joins the North Carolina delegation and family members of Billy Graham to unveil a statue in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Mike Johnson said he doesn’t normally get nervous before public speaking. But Thursday morning, surrounded by members of the North Carolina delegation and governor in Statuary Hall, he described a different feeling.

“I am nervous today, can I be honest with you? Because Billy Graham is such a towering figure in my life. As he is in all of our lives,” the House’s top leader said at the unveiling of a statue honoring the late evangelical minister. “And such a singular figure, the leading ambassador for the Kingdom of our lifetimes.”

The 7-foot bronze statue of the late reverend, who offered spiritual counsel to U.S. presidents and was designated North Carolina’s “Favorite Son” in 2013, finally arrived in D.C. nearly 10 years after approval from the North Carolina General Assembly. 

The statue depicts Graham gesturing toward a Bible, atop a pedestal engraved with biblical verses. It joins the National Statuary Hall collection, which allows each state to display up to two statues honoring deceased individuals of historical significance.

Graham’s likeness replaces a statue of Charles Aycock, a former North Carolina governor and white supremacist who was one in a series of controversial historical statues to exit the Capitol in recent years, including Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

However special the moment was for Johnson, Graham’s sculpted presence in the building came with some controversy of its own for those who cited his complicated record on civil rights and homosexuality.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, hailed Graham, who was 99 years old when he died in 2018, as a flawed individual who nevertheless dedicated his life to equality.

“He brought together people of different faiths and different races. Today we acknowledge that he is a better representation of our state than the statue it replaces, which brought memories of a painful history of racism,” Cooper said. “He treated all with dignity and respect. He once said, ‘Racial prejudice, antisemitism or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart.’”

But ahead of the ceremony, critics of the statue, including secular groups advocating the separation of church and state, highlighted other parts of Graham’s legacy. 

In a recorded conversation with then-President Richard Nixon that was released decades later, Graham can be heard perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes about Jewish people and lamenting their “stranglehold” on the country and media. (He later apologized for his comments.) And, although he rarely spoke about homosexuality or gay rights, he opposed same-sex relationships

For Graham, the statue marks a trifecta. He is now one of just a few people to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, lie in honor or state at the Capitol and have a statue placed at the Capitol. The others are former Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and civil rights icon Rosa Parks. 

Seeing honors bestowed on a religious leader irritates groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

“Speaker Mike Johnson should remember that the U.S. Capitol is the People’s House — a potent symbol of American democracy and its constitutional promise of church-state separation,” Americans United CEO and President Rachel Laser said in a statement. “The Capitol is not Johnson’s personal church, but he’s blurring the line by relocating the National Prayer Breakfast to Statuary Hall and now presiding over the installation of a statue to honor a controversial Christian pastor.”

Johnson has often come under fire for his purported ties to Christian nationalism since ascending to the speakership last October. Members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, a secularist group of about 20 lawmakers, released a report in January outlining ways in which Johnson has integrated his conservative Christian views into the public sphere. 

“He has dedicated his career as a lawyer, advocate, and legislator to undermining … constitutional freedoms, weakening the separation of church and state, and trying to impose his own radical religious views on other citizens,” the report argues.

But the decision to honor Graham in bronze was made by state lawmakers, not by Johnson. Statues in the National Statuary Hall collection are donated by the states, and the process to replace one can be lengthy, including design approval from the Joint Committee on the Library.

Graham’s statue is one of several that have joined the collection recently or are slated for placement in the future. Last week, Johnson attended the unveiling of a statue honoring Daisy Lee Gatson Bates, an Arkansas civil rights icon. A statue of Johnny Cash, also an Arkansas native, is scheduled for installation at the Capitol later this year.

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