Hymns for an old Democrat

One would have to conclude, after reading the latest Washington Post hymn to the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, that we are witnessing the end of an era in which old Southern Democrats walked the earth like complex, even troubled, men of the people. There is so much religion in this funeral piece and all of the references are positive. Surely this breaks some kind of percentage-of-Godtalk record for a Post report about a political leader. Here's the opening:

When Sen. Robert C. Byrd's niece began to sing "On the Wings of a Snow White Dove" at his funeral Tuesday, she faltered.

Jassowyn Sale Hurd said she had never gotten the chance to sing with the late statesman, and now, as she stood before his polished brown casket in an Arlington church, she briefly forgot the tune. She apologized. "Let me try this again," she said, and as she did, the congregation assembled to bid the lawmaker a last farewell on a broiling summer day began to softly sing along:

When troubles surround us, when evils come, the body grows weak, the spirit grows numb.

It was a moment that might have made the Democrat from West Virginia smile: the sweet melody, the evocative refrain:

On the wings of a snow-white dove, He sends His pure sweet love.

I thought for a moment that the Post was going to let that reference to "He" -- with a big divine H -- pass without any kind of follow up remarks that punched home the faith content. But the Beltway paper of reference immediately labeled Byrd a "proud son of Appalachian Bible country" who was remembered amid the "strains of the music he loved and the words of the Scripture he revered."

Wow. A big "S" on scripture, even though that isn't the rule in the Associated Press Stylebook (please correct me if I'm wrong on that).

Byrd was, of course, a complex man with some some big political sins in his past, most summed up in the letters KKK. None of that made it into this story, however, although we are not told what was said in the funeral sermon. The old South was a complex place in the time when Byrd came to power and lots of folks veered from side to side trying to please a wide variety of voters. Note, for example, his complex history on right-to-life issues.

I found myself wanting to know more about how Byrd actually got along with his Bible Belt supporters and opponents, as his party headed to the moral and cultural left. He was a Baptist, for example. What kind? The story does tell us this:

Byrd was elected to nine terms in the Senate, starting in 1958, and served for almost a quarter of the country's history. He wrote a history of the Senate, was twice majority leader and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee. Yet his funeral was rich in plain, old-time hymns and readings from Scripture, both of which mourners said the senator would have loved.

The Rev. William H. Smith, the church's retired pastor, reminded those in attendance of how well Byrd knew the Bible. Smith recalled that once, when he had preached on a certain part of Scripture, Byrd approached him after the service, put his arm around him and recited from memory the 10 verses before and the 10 verses after the section cited.

"He described himself to me as a born-again, old-time-religion, Bible-based Christian," Smith said. "He was baptized along with Mrs. Byrd at age 19 in the Crab Orchard Baptist Church."

Smith recalled that one of Byrd's favorite sections of Scripture was John 11, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus emerges from the tomb bound in burial cloth. "Loose him," Jesus says, "and let him go." Smith said that phrase is carved on the tombstone at the grave where Byrd and his wife are buried.

Now that's strong stuff and this is a fine, simple story, in its own way.

Still, I want to point out one interesting word near the start of that long passage -- "yet."

Why the need for that raised eyebrow of a word between the facts of the senator's long tenure in public life and the Bible Belt details of his Baptist funeral? A contrast between the facts of power and the lowliness and simplicity of this other part of his life? An ironic nod to the common touch?

Maybe. Byrd was a giant in public servant, YET his funeral included old-fashioned hymns and Bible readings. Y.E.T.

Read the whole report and as you do so, meditate on how much the Democratic Party has changed in the American heartland. Times have indeed changed.

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