The Rev. Billy Graham worked hard to avoid political questions, at least in public.
But there was one fact about his life that, for decades, he didn't hide. Graham was a registered Democrat.
In other words, the world's most famous evangelist grew up in the old South, pre-Roe vs. Wade, and he didn't grow up rich. Thus, he was a Southern Democrat. Most evangelicals were. Culturally conservative Democrats didn't become an endangered species until quite late in Billy Graham's adult life.
I thought of that fact the day Graham died. I sat down early that morning with an "On Religion" column already finished. All I had left to do was a quick edit and then ship it in. But first, I opened Twitter and there was the news that many religion writers had been expecting for years.
I knew what I was going to write when Graham died, as a sidebar to the major coverage across mainstream media. But I hadn't written it. Thus, I was on a hard deadline for the first time in many years. That column focused on Graham's sermon at civic memorial service for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (click here to read it).
It was hard not to think about the current state of American politics, and evangelicalism, while writing that column.
But what about the column that I had already written? It ran this week and, amazingly enough, it focuses on some very similar themes -- looking back to the crucial years when the Democratic Party began cutting it's ties to traditional religious groups.
The key figure in this column was Jeffrey Bell, a political strategist who died on Feb. 10. Bell was a Republican, but he also was known for his work to create a presidential campaign for the late Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, an old-school Catholic Democrat who was also vocally pro-life and pro-religious liberty.
Why did Bell think that conservative evangelicals and Catholics needed the option of backing a Democrat? That question is at the heart of this "think piece" collection for this weekend. In the early 1990s, Bell was already thinking about life after Bill and Hillary Clinton, an age when it would not be as easy for Republicans to force religious believers to vote AGAINST a candidate, rather than for one.
Watching the Donald Trump campaign must have caused great pain for Bell. Here is the end of my column:
Back in 1995, Bell was already citing a Newsweek report defining “evangelicals” in terms of their Republican loyalty, rather than their religious beliefs. This didn’t make sense, he said, since a New York Times-CBS poll about that time found that social-issues conservatives were “just as likely to be Democrats as Republicans.”
One thing was clear: Polls kept showing a strong tie between how Americans vote and how often they attend, or do not attend, worship services. Insiders started calling this a “pew gap.”
When facing hard political choices, Bell said, Republican leaders seemed to be convinced they could “waffle” on social issues -- like abortion -- because the alternatives for religious conservatives were always worse on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Someday, he stressed, the Clintons would be gone. What would happen then?
It was crucial that religious conservatives work to create more options inside America’s two-party system or in whatever political structures are “going to take shape in the future,” he said.
“I’m no longer interested in knowing how pro-life people or morally conservative people are going to profit from their association with the GOP. We’re one more betrayal from all of that spinning apart.”
Has that process shifted into a higher gear?
That brings me to the Michael Gerson column this past week: "American politics is turning into Starbucks." This is a column that journalists -- religion-beat pros and folks who cover politics -- really need to think about.
Think about this statistic. There are, apparently, three pro-life Democrats left in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, not the Senate -- but THE HOUSE. There were 100 or so in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were even pro-life Democrats nominated to serve as vice president.
Gerson's point: Try to find pro-life Democrats running for the House or Senate, even though that would help Democrats compete in many districts and states. Try to find conservative Democrats -- period.
Here is the sobering conclusion of the Gerson essay:
The Democrats’ solidification as a pro-choice party is, in the end, a function of the ideological polarization of both parties. At one point, the GOP and the Democratic Party both had liberal and conservative wings. Now they generally each flap wildly with one. The geographic sorting of the parties also figures heavily. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who learned to win elections in relatively conservative border states, wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.” With the effective collapse of the Democratic Party in such places, fewer rising Democratic officials gain office through moderation on cultural issues. ...
This trend also narrows the ideological range of American politics. The absence of a pro-life option in the Democratic Party leaves some compassionate and reform conservatives utterly homeless as they wait on the recovery of GOP sanity. And it leaves no place for many Catholics wishing to be consistently faithful to their church’s social teaching -- pro-life and pro-poor, against euthanasia and against the dehumanization of migrants. It is not a small thing that neither party cares to accommodate the social agenda of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.
Meanwhile, the partisans count another achievement: making American politics more generic and bitter. Enjoy your political Starbucks.
One more angle: How has this affected unity among evangelicals?
Read the Jeffrey Bell quotes again. See the connections?