As the nation's top politicians gathered May 2 in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to laud Billy Graham, the evangelist used the occasion to make a prophetic call to stop the nation's "descent into new depths of crime, oppression, sexual immorality, and evil."

With an audience that included 170 congressional representatives, Graham warned that problems such as racial tension, crime, poverty, illegal drugs, and teenage pregnancy threaten to rip the country apart. "We have confused liberty with license--and we are paying the awful price," Graham said. "We are a society poised on the brink of self-destruction."

Graham and his wife, Ruth, received a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, for "outstanding and lasting contributions to morality, racial equality, family, philanthropy, and religion." House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and Vice President Al Gore all praised Graham's ministry during an invitation-only afternoon ceremony attended by evangelical, political, and entertainment dignitaries, as well as by many long-time Graham employees and 30 relatives. At an evening dinner, President Clinton paid tribute to the evangelist.

Gingrich, master of ceremonies of the afternoon event, held on the National Day of Prayer, called Graham "one of the great civic leaders of the twentieth century." To Ruth Graham, the Speaker said, "I can't tell you how much you've been in our prayers."

Both Billy, 77, and Ruth, 76, have had recent serious health problems. Ruth had been out of the hospital less than a month with bacterial spinal meningitis when the ceremony took place. Gore lifted a chair to the podium for a tiring Ruth Graham as she stood during the medal presentation. She did not attend the evening function.

Graham repeatedly said he did not deserve such an honor. But he used the opportunity to preach a sermon.

"There are a lot more people here today than there were at Pentecost, and they changed the world," Graham exhorted. "We can change the world."

Attendees filling the 700 seats included Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, Campus Crusade president Bill Bright, Focus on the Family executive director James Dobson, Urban Alternative president Tony Evans, talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford, singer Pat Boone, Sen. Strom Thurmond, and Sen. Jesse Helms.

Dole noted that the Grahams had achieved the rarity of unanimous bipartisan respect from both chambers of Congress in awarding the medal. "They are shining role models for those seeking to live a Christian life," Dole, the GOP presidential nominee, read from a prepared speech before a largely friendly constituency.

PRESIDENTIAL RESPECT: Clinton, on the other hand, at the evening function where many disagreed with his policies, spoke effortlessly without notes, and even quoted Scripture. Clinton called the Grahams "two of the world's greatest human resources."

"I hardly go anywhere in the world where Billy Graham hasn't been before me," Clinton said. "As private people, they are what they seem to be in public." The President and Graham prayed together at the White House the day before the event.

Clinton recalled how Graham defused racial tensions in a 1959 crusade in Little Rock, Arkansas. Clinton said that when he was 12 he began sending a part of his allowance to Graham's ministry.

"As a citizen and as a Christian, I am profoundly grateful," Clinton said in congratulating the Grahams for their ministry. Clinton, who signed the gold medal resolution in February, gave Graham the pen he had used and a framed proclamation.

Graham said the President had "been a friend and a brother for years." But the evangelist left most of the evening speaking to son Franklin, who joined in the commendation. "We honor them because of their faithfulness to Almighty God and his son, Jesus Christ," he said of his parents.

Franklin Graham followed his father's afternoon pattern, preaching a salvation message to the overwhelmingly Christian crowd and leading the sinner's prayer from the platform. About 700 people paid $500 a plate for the fundraiser to launch an endowment for an Asheville, North Carolina, hospital that will treat poor children. They included Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, evangelism ministry leader Leighton Ford, pastor E. V. Hill, and evangelist Greg Laurie.

Originally, Senate Chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie had invited Graham to address a joint session of Congress. But church-state separatists became alarmed because no minister had ever been so honored.

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