Forty percent of Republicans tell pollsters they go to church weekly. On the other hand, 53 percent of Democrats tell Gallup and other pollsters they rarely or never go to church.
The presence of church-going GOP voters as the heart of today’s Republican Party emerged with the rise of the Christian right’s identity as a pillar of conservative politics. GOP opposition to abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and pornography are bright lines of division in today’s polarized politics. Every one of those issues comes from the Christian conservative political agenda.
Those divisive issues have taken flight in American politics over the last fifty years as religious conservatives have demanded more influence over American culture, judges, and politicians. Their goal is to defend church doctrine and cultural traditions in the face of the rising secular liberal politics of single women, racial minorities, and gays. The leaders behind this phenomenon remain household names — Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson.
To me, Billy Graham stands above the others. Graham blazed a new path in politics by winning friends among the rich and influential and getting politicians to recognize the power of appealing to the religious community for their vote. He also awakened evangelicals to the enormous clout they had in picking which politicians to bless with their friendship and votes. President George H. W. Bush crowned him with the title “America’s Pastor.” Graham took the mix of politics and religion mainstream, lighting the way for other religious leaders to follow.
Graham’s life was changed when he was a teenager by a controversial preacher named Mordecai Ham. Born in 1918, Graham grew up on a quiet, out-of-the-way North Carolina dairy farm on the rural outskirts of what was then a very small city, Charlotte. Ham held a revival there after years of struggling through the Great Depression as a traveling salesman. His shouting, stomping, preaching, and tears at the controversial revival jolted, scared, and unsettled the sixteen-year-old Graham, making him suddenly aware of the possibility of a larger life beyond the farm, and beyond the hardscrabble isolation of the South.
But Graham wanted something grander and more meaningful than the schlock of a traveling tent show. He wanted to expose people to Christianity’s inspiring power beyond mere Sunday church services. He saw himself leading people to a larger purpose. He wanted to stir people in small towns and rural communities like his own North Carolina town. Graham saw his future as a faith leader able to call on Christians to hold the cross high every day, not just in church on Sunday — to shape the world.
“I was spellbound,” Graham wrote in his autobiography, Just as I Am, describing the experience of being a teenager inside Ham’s tent revival. The book’s title came from the signature phrase Graham used to invite people at his revivals to come forward and commit to a Christian life. “In some indefinable way, he was getting through to me. I was hearing another voice . . . the voice of the Holy Spirit,” Graham wrote about watching Ham. Graham described walking to the front of one of Ham’s tent revivals to commit himself to Christ as a moment prompted less by the Holy Spirit than by his own decision to lead a more purposeful life. “No bells went off inside me,” he recalled. “No signs flashed . . . No physical palpitations made me tremble. I wondered . . . if I was a hypocrite, not to be weeping or something. I simply felt at peace. Quiet, not delirious. Happy and peaceful.”
Graham, raised by his mother as a Presbyterian, decided after Ham’s revival to become a preacher and a Southern Baptist. He attended fundamentalist Baptist and evangelical colleges. By 1947 he began preaching at his own tent revivals. His almost instant success in attracting crowds and press coverage led him to quickly become sought after as a spiritual guide to celebrities, the powerful, and then a line of U.S. presidents.
Religious leaders have emerged in every era of American history. What sets Graham and the modern religious right wing apart is their lasting influence. After World War II the religious right found a new place as leaders in the nation’s fight against what they saw as godless communists. They resisted challenges to the status quo of race relations from black civil rights activists and their liberal Jewish supporters; they took pride in defying women’s rights groups promoting abortion rights, birth control, and sexual liberation. They helped create the “Moral Majority,” the unprecedented conservative revolution that anointed President Reagan in 1980 and ended the postwar “Liberal Consensus.” This movement was made up of white evangelical southern Christians who wanted to see their values reflected in the nation’s government, its laws, and its culture. The Christian Right has set the terms for the last forty years of debates over contraception, abortion, and school curricula. It has led the fight against violent and sexually explicit content in movies and video games. On a more local level, the new political clout held by the evangelicals motivated President Reagan to proclaim 1983 the “Year of the Bible.”
Writing in USA Today, Susan Page reported that prior to the 1972 election, churchgoers split their vote between Democrats and Republicans. They did not vote differently from people who stayed away from church. If anything, they were less likely to go to the polls. “But after the tumultuous 1960s, President Nixon appealed to the traditionalist views of the nation’s ‘silent majority,’ ” Page wrote. “A significant gap, 10 percentage points, opened in the 1972 election.”
Much of the gap resulted from President Nixon’s success in using a religion-based appeal to attract white southerners. Since the Civil War and their defeat at the hands of the Union Army and a Republican president, white southerners had voted for Democrats. In the wake of the Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal programs kept Democrats in control of the South.
Republican Richard Nixon changed that pattern by forming an alliance with Graham and aiming a direct appeal at Graham’s older white church-going voters concentrated in the South and Midwest. Those voters—many of whom disapproved of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ending legal racial segregation—wanted to keep the world they knew. They did not want the rapid societal change of the 1950s and 1960s that included the Supreme Court–ordered school integration, the civil rights movement, and the rising political power of black people, as well as the social unrest brought on by protests against the Vietnam War, recreational drug use, and a women’s movement that championed sexual liberation and the increasing use of birth control pills.
Church leaders and President Nixon found a powerful point of agreement in their opposition to abortion, which became a key wedge issue for Nixon to win over older white Democrats concerned about the “culture war” that they saw eroding family values, respect for the church, and community traditions.
Reprinted from WE THE PEOPLE: THE MODERN-DAY FIGURES WHO HAVE RESHAPED AND DEFINED THE FOUNDING FATHERS’ VISION OF AMERICA Copyright © 2016 by Juan Williams. Published by Crown publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.