(CNSNews.com) – A standing ovation greeted preacher Franklin Graham as he took the podium at the National Day of Prayer on Capitol Hill on Thursday to give the keynote address.
Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, did not back down from criticism that he had disparaged Muslims, telling the crowd that he is a Christian minister who preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In an interview with CNSNews.com, Graham turned on its head the controversy sparked by a federal judge’s ruling that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional by praising the judge’s decision.
Graham said that U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb’s decision had put the National Day of Prayer in the spotlight and prompted even more Americans to rally to the cause this year.
“God bless her,” Graham said. “I want to give her a hug and a kiss right now.”
Graham said until the ruling on the suit – filed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion group claiming the U.S. law that authorized the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional – organizers were looking for ways to get people excited about the tradition.
The National Day of Prayer dates back to 1952 when the proclamation was passed with unanimous consent by Congress and signed into law by President Harry Truman.
“God had a plan,” Graham said. “I don’t think (Crabb) realized that God used her to accomplish his purposes.”
Graham said he believes that the National Day of Prayer is not only constitutional, but that Christians are uniquely called to pray for their leaders.
“The Bible commands – it’s the only religion in the world that commands its followers to pray for those who are in authority,” Graham said. “Regardless of whether we agree with the president or his policy, whether a person votes for him or doesn’t vote for him, we are commanded by God to pray.
“I just thank God that as a nation we have this opportunity publicly like this today to pray for those who are in authority over us,” Graham said.
Franklin also spoke with CNSNews.com about the controversy surrounding the cancellation of his planned speech for Thursday at the Pentagon – where he showed up nonetheless before his Capitol Hill appearance – to pray for U.S. troops.
“I’m a Christian,” Graham said. “I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. I do not believe that there is any other way to God except through Him.
“I respect the Muslims, but I disagree with them,” Graham said. “They disagree with me. I disagree with them. And that’s okay.
“But I don’t think that I should be prohibited from sharing my faith because I disagree with them,” Graham said.
The caucus room in the Cannon Office Building room was filled to capacity as members of Congress and regular Americans from across the country gathered to pray for the nation and its leaders at the 59th annual National Day of Prayer.
Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, shared master of ceremony duties with her husband, James Dobson.
Prayers were said for all branches of government by a range of speakers, including Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein, Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl, and Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate.
Deidra Baker came from Maryland to attend the event because she said prayer is an important right in America.
“I want to pray for our nation, pray for families,” Baker told CNSNews.com. “Because it’s very important to me that God blesses this country.
“I think our Constitution gives us the right to express ourselves, and this is part of that expression, and we should have the right to do that,” Baker said.
Franklin warned that people of faith need to stand up for religious liberty.
“I think people realize – many Christians – how we are losing our religious freedoms a little bit every day,” he said, “and if we don’t stand up and exercise the freedoms God has given us in this country, we will lose them.”