Both men faced rows of loved ones still wrapped in grief after shocking tragedies.
Both men quoted the Psalms. Both concluded with visions of eternal life and heavenly reunions. Both referred to familiar songs that offered comfort.
Facing those gathered in Beckley, W.Va., to mourn the loss of 29 miners, President Barack Obama asked them to remember a rhythm and blues classic — “Lean on Me” — that had its roots in coal country life.
Songwriter Bill Withers wrote: “Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. … Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
The Rev. Billy Graham was more daring at the 1995 prayer service for the 168 victims of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The world’s most famous evangelist even quoted an explicitly Christian hymn.
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose I will not, I will not desert to its foes,” claims “How Firm a Foundation,” in its final verse. “That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!”
There is no way to know if Obama and Graham talked about heaven, hell and eulogies when they held their first face-to-face meeting, just a few hours before the president traveled to West Virginia.
Reporters were not allowed to witness the 30-minute session, the kind of confidential meeting that Graham has held with every president since Harry Truman. Obama was the first to meet with the evangelical statesman at his log home on a mountainside above Montreat, N.C.
Graham’s career has been defined as much by these moments of civil religion as by the decades of crusades in which he preached to millions. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters that Graham is a “treasure to our country” and that, while the 91-year-old preacher has “some of the creaks that come with advancing age,” he remains as “sharp as he ever was.”
Some details of the meeting were relayed to the Associated Press by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the outspoken heir to his father’s ministry. Billy Graham gave Obama two Bibles, one for him and one for First Lady Michelle Obama. The evangelist prayed for America and for wisdom for the president. Obama offered a prayer thanking God for Graham’s life and ministry.
When they discussed the Pentagon’s approach to religion, Franklin Graham said that Obama promised “he would look into it.”
That’s the kind of theological terrain that presidents strive to avoid. Thus, Obama remained safely vague when using God language in West Virginia. If there is comfort in the wake of the mine tragedy, he said, “it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds, a God who mends our broken hearts, a God who eases our mourning souls.”
Obama concluded with an appeal for safer mines, blending spiritual concerns into the politics of rock and coal.
“We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now,” he said. “Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy; to do what must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. … We have to lean on one another, and look out for one another, and love one another, and pray for one another.”
In Oklahoma City, Graham had closed with an openly evangelistic appeal, the kind of spiritual warning he has urgently voiced for decades.
“This event,” he said, “reminds us of the brevity and uncertainty of life. It reminds us that we never know when we are going to be taken. I doubt if even one of those who went to that building to work or to go to the children’s place ever dreamed that that was their last day on earth. That is why we each need to face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God.”