For me, the separation of church and state and America’s promise that all religions are treated equally is not academic. It’s what makes me, as a Jew, just as much an American and a North Carolinian as anyone else.
So it hit me like a slap when I read that the N.C. legislature approved a statue of the Rev. Billy Graham holding a Bible to represent our state in the halls of Congress. It turns out the original slap was six years ago, and I missed it.
In 2015, the N.C. legislature passed a resolution to replace the statue of former Gov. Charles Aycock in the U.S. Capitol building with a statue of Graham. Each state gets two statues to represent it in the National Statuary Hall. Aycock is now deemed unworthy because of his role as a mastermind of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre and coup.
In July, a congressional committee approved a preliminary model of the Graham statue. The model has Graham holding a Bible and standing atop a pedestal inscribed with two Bible quotations. John 3:16 reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” and John 14:6 reads “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
The two pedestal quotes affirm that this statue is about what the good Reverend’s life was about: evangelism for Christ.
Franklin Graham said of the statue, “I like that it’s simple and my father has an open Bible in his hand — that’s what his life was all about.”
Dr. David Bruce, one of the seven N.C. Statuary Hall Selection Committee members and a 20-plus year employee of Billy Graham’s said, “He’s leaning forward,....and he’s in a preaching mode. ...You know he’s a preacher of The Gospel.”
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s statement of faith, in a slight extension from John 14:6, includes, “We believe...that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation,” and that the “lost” who don’t accept Christ are subjected to “damnation and eternal punishment.”
It’s one thing for a private religious organization to proselytize that I, as a Jew, am eternally damned. For our state government to send a proxy for this message to the U.S. Capitol frightens me. It hits me as an act of deep disrespect and a potential threat.
The very first clause of the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is the basis for the separation of church and state — that government should remain neutral toward religion, not favoring one religion over another, and should avoid unnecessary entanglement with religion.
With the erection of the Graham statue, the core messages of Christianity will be enshrined in stone and enthroned in our nation’s Capitol. I believe this violates the Establishment Clause, and it certainly favors Christianity above other religions.
Don’t mistake what I write as denigration of Rev. Graham, who was an accomplished religious leader. North Carolina has previously honored Graham in many ways, including naming him “North Carolina’s Favorite Son.”
However, the two statues representing our state in our national shrine of democracy should represent us all. Those of us who are not Christian are just as much North Carolinians.
I hope our legislature will withdraw its approval of this statue, and instead choose one that represents all North Carolinians — and doesn’t violate the Constitution.
Sherri Zann Rosenthal is an attorney who lives in Durham.