Republicans honor Billy Graham as evangelical movement’s influence threatens to wane in a changing America

A coffin bearing Billy Graham’s body was in honor in the United States Capitol rotunda on Wednesday, but it signaled more than the death of a religious leader who had befriended and advised presidents during decades.

It also marked two historic passages: the political activism of white evangelicals that redefined the Republican Party, and the threat to that power as their numbers dwindle in a changing America.

For memory :

2:05 p.m. March 6, 2018An earlier version of this article misspelled author Steven P. Miller’s name as Stephen.

More than ever, the Republican Party is today the party of white evangelical Christians. They make up by far the largest portion of Republican membership and their views have carried enormous weight in the Trump administration.

Pastors played a key role in President Trump’s victory in 2016, helping him weather the personal scandals that plagued his campaign almost from the start.

However, demographic changes are looming. National surveys by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, show the percentage of white Americans who call themselves evangelicals has plummeted in recent years, raising the question of how long they can remain the bulwark of a successful political party.

The ceremony in honor of Graham, who died on February 21 at the age of 99, illustrated both the benefits of the alliance between party and religion, and the dangers ahead.

Speaking near Graham’s simple wooden coffin were a Republican President, a Republican Senate Majority Leader and a Republican House Speaker.

The audience was a sea of ​​older members of Congress, mostly gray-haired men, who, like the 71-year-old president, had fond personal memories of Graham that younger Americans likely didn’t share.

“The Democratic Party has followed the racial and ethnic shifts in the country, whereas the Republican Party is really centered on white Christian identity,” said Robert Jones, PRRI chief executive and author of “The End of America white Christian.

What has maintained the power of the evangelical base and its ability to propel Trump and other Republicans to state-to-state victory is that his voters are running more reliably than those who will eventually replace them – young Americans less tied to religion of any kind.

“The demographic time machine,” as Jones put it, is two election cycles behind, suggesting that while Trump has had evangelical support, future Republican candidates may have a less powerful force behind them. .

Evangelicals have also changed their political strategies in ways that may limit their popularity among young Americans.

Graham made a public habit of kissing presidents of both parties, though his most notable alliance, and one he later regretted to some extent, was with Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace .

Graham was wildly popular in his heyday, selling out Yankee Stadium, rallying more than 100,000 people to Times Square and filling Madison Square Garden more than 100 times – to name just his appearances in 1950s New York City, barely a focus of religiosity.

He spoke to tens of millions of followers around the world, attracting both leaders and ordinary residents. He brought evangelical Christianity to the masses, paving the way for its political prominence.

“It’s basically not possible to tell the story of the Christian right without referring to Billy Graham,” said Steven P. Miller, the author of books on evangelism and on Graham.

But where Graham was Bible-centric, he was starkly different from the culture warriors who followed him, including his evangelist son, Franklin Graham.

While Billy Graham only hinted at his Republican leanings, his son made his politics open, questioning whether President Obama was a citizen and campaigning freely for Trump, whom he rubbed shoulders with on Wednesday. Young Graham’s vocal support in 2016 had matched the angry tone of the Trump campaign.

The alliance between Trump and evangelicals is striking given the president’s acknowledged personal behavior, but it is rooted in similar goals and worldviews. Trump has delivered on key promises to evangelicals, including conservative judicial appointments and his decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Polls show evangelicals also share Trump’s criticism of Muslims. In a 2017 poll by Pew Research, 75% of white evangelical voters said they worry about Muslim extremism around the world, and 69% worry about it in the United States. These findings outpaced the opinions of other US groups by more than 20 percentage points.

When Trump issued his controversial ban on migration from seven predominantly Muslim countries in his first week in office, 76% of white evangelicals said they supported the order. Among all Americans, fewer than 4 in 10 voters shared that view, and it stagnated for months in legal challenges.

Shared notions made for remarkable alliances: Not only did 4 in 5 white evangelicals back Trump, but the same proportion also backed US Senate candidate Roy Moore, despite accusations that the Alabama Republican attacked teenagers years ago.

According to public polls, up to three-quarters of Republicans identify as white and Christian. But the numbers vary widely by age.

A 2017 PRRI report titled “America’s Changing Religious Identity” found that 8 in 10 Republicans ages 65 and older said they were white Christians, and 42 percent identified as white evangelicals. Among Republicans under 30, less than 6 in 10 were white Christians and a quarter said they were white evangelicals.

Politically, it could make them less Republican Party supporters in the future — or, at the very least, less concerned about the kinds of issues that have caused evangelicals to embrace Republican candidates.

Increasingly, young voters are expressing no religious affiliation, a cultural shift that may put them beyond the reach of a party accustomed to cultural cues sharpened in the Billy Graham era. The political implications will play out in the next election.

Read more about Cathleen Decker’s politics »

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Twitter: @cathleendecker

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