On Sunday, the Episcopal Church’s National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. will host “A Call to Compassion” to commemorate 9/11. President Obama will attend and speak at the concluding “Concert for Hope.” Patti LaBelle will sing. CNN’s Anderson Cooper will host. After the recent earthquake and the collapse of a crane, the cathedral has gone “on the road” and relocated its 9/11 events to a nearby synagogue and the Kennedy Center. Controversy has surrounded the cathedral’s choice of spiritual representatives. Although its prayer service will include the President of the Islamic Society of North America, a Buddhist nun, and a Hindu, evangelicals and conservative Protestants were omitted, though they represent 30-40 percent of Americans. No Catholic is listed on the event website. So liberal Episcopal clergy apparently will represent Christianity. On Thursday, a cathedral spokesman told The New York Times that a Baptist may be invited.
Hopefully the “Days of Compassion” will tastefully commemorate 9/11. But this weekend’s events almost certainly will not compare to the exalted tones of the National Cathedral’s post 9/11 service, held just 3 days after the attacks. All of official Washington attended, as did all living former presidents, except an ailing Ronald Reagan, who was represented by Nancy. President George W. Bush memorably spoke, as did a Jewish rabbi, Muslim imam and the Catholic Archbishop of Washington. Hymns included the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Mighty Fortress is our God," both suitably robust for a nation looking to regain its footing.
Not quite 83 year old Billy Graham was the preacher, in one of his last great national appearances. His lifespan stretches across nearly 40 percent of the nation’s history, and his prominence dates back over 60 years. The acquaintance and often close friend of every president since Harry Truman, not to mention heads of state from Winston Churchill to Chiang Kai-shek, there is no one in American history who could have so appropriately filled the pulpit on that day. An evangelical and Southern Baptist, Graham remarkably took the center stage of American religion over 50 years ago when liberal mainline Protestants still dominated. He never lost that dominance, especially after evangelicals have since become America’s largest religious demographic. His televised stadium revivals across the decades, accompanied by savvy media appeals and his founding of Christianity Today, helped to usher in evangelical predominance.
Although never compromising his core evangelical theology, Graham adroitly reached out to liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. He also mostly stayed away from open political endorsements and befriended Republicans and Democrats. Graham almost seamlessly interwove his revivalistic appeals with American civil religion, reinforced by his presidential friendships, especially with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes. In 1969, he famously spent the night at the White House during LBJ’s final hours, and then remained over for Nixon’s first night. Graham is a rare evangelical who has been in National Cathedral’s pulpit many times.
“We come together today to affirm our conviction that God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religious or political background may be,” he opened his sermon at National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. In typical fashion, he would in his sermon offer a Gospel appeal while also inclusively speaking to all Americans: “The Bible says that He is ‘the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles.’" And unlike other religious figures of our era, Graham never shied away from patriotism even while himself always an international preacher who has filled stadiums on every continent. “Today we say to those who masterminded this cruel plot, and to those who carried it out, that the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes,” he declared. “Someday those responsible will be brought to justice, as President Bush and our Congress have so forcefully stated.”
But Graham in his National Cathedral sermon stayed away from politics and focused on the spiritual. He spoke of the “mystery of iniquity and evil.” He spoke of national unity exemplified in the response to 9/11: “A tragedy like this could have torn this country apart, but instead it has united us and we have become a family.” And he spoke of hope for the future “because of God’s promises.” Carefully observing that “many of those people who died this past week are in heaven right now and they wouldn’t want to come back,” Graham offered hope to all who turned in faith to God.
“Here in this majestic National Cathedral we see all around us the symbols of the Cross,” Graham observed. “The story does not end with the Cross, for Easter points us beyond the tragedy of the Cross to the empty tomb that tells us that there is hope for eternal life, for Christ has conquered evil and death, and hell. Yes, there is hope.” Graham recalled: “I’ve become an old man now and I’ve preached all over the world and the older I get the more I cling to that hope that I started with many years ago and proclaimed it in many languages in many parts of the world.”
And Graham pointed at the choice before America, “whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation—or, whether we choose to become stronger through all of this struggle—to rebuild on a solid foundation,” which is “trust in God.” He noted that the World Trade Center had exemplified the “prosperity and creativity of America.” Even in collapse, there lay beneath a foundation not destroyed. Graham then recited the words from the old hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” which was a favorite to Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Teddy Roosevelt.
Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
Graham concluded with his prayer that the “loving arms of God [are] wrapped around us,” that God would give “wisdom and courage and strength to the President and those around him, and that “this is going to be a day that we will remember as a day of victory.”
This weekend’s “A Call to Compassion” hosted by National Cathedral will not likely cite “victory” or sturdy faith in the God of the Bible. And its more politically correct commemoration of 9/11 will not likely stir the hearts as did its momentous service on September 14, 2001. But the Graham sermon and other messages of that day, including President Bush’s, are not forgotten.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.