Politics

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Unity was the theme during the 1992 Democratic Convention, with nominee Bill Clinton, and his wife Hillary, joining hands with delegates as they sang an anthem called "Circle of Friends."

But there was a problem in the Pennsylvania delegation, where two-term Gov. Robert Casey was feeling excluded. An old-school Catholic Democrat, Casey had been denied a speaking slot during platform debates. On the convention floor, delegates were selling buttons showing him dressed as the pope -- since he opposed abortion.

Months later, a coalition formed to explore whether Casey should challenge President Clinton in 1996, running on progressive economics and cultural conservatism. Pro-life Democrats like Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver were involved, but Republican Jeffrey Bell -- Ronald Reagan's first full-time campaign staffer in 1976 -- emerged as a team leader.

Why would a Catholic Republican back a Democrat? In a 1995 interview, Bell told me that he was worried many religious voters -- especially evangelicals and Catholics -- had already decided they had no choice but to support GOP nominees.

"Republicans, unfortunately, have good reason to feel complacent," said Bell, after Casey's failing health prevented a White House run. As for evangelicals and traditional Catholics, Republican leaders "pat them on the head," and "buy them off easy," because cultural conservatives have few political alternatives.

"Why do Republicans have to address the concerns of moral conservatives? They have Bill Clinton. They have Hillary Clinton," he said. "They're right here in Washington, working full-time to make sure they have someone to vote against. …

"Someday, this is going to cause BIG problems for evangelicals and conservative Catholics."

Casey died in 2000, after major heart problems closed his career.

Bell died in February, after a career in which he ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey -- in 1978 and 2014 -- but was better known for work behind the scenes helping others, following beliefs that escaped easy political labels.

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Oklahoma was shrouded in grief after the deaths of 168 people -- including 19 children -- in a homegrown terrorism attack at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.

President Bill Clinton spoke at the memorial service. So did Gov. Frank Keating. But everyone knew who would deliver the sermon and face the hard questions.

That was a job for the Rev. Billy Graham.

"The Bible says … there is a devil, that Satan is very real and he has great power," said Graham, focusing on the 9,000 mourners in the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds Arena. "It also tells us that evil is real and that the human heart is capable of almost limitless evil when it is cut off from God and from the moral law.

 "The prophet Jeremiah said, 'The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?' That is your heart and my heart without God. … I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God even if we cannot understand.  It is better to face something like this with God than without Him."

Graham didn't end those 1995 remarks with an "altar call," urging sinners to come forward and make a profession of faith. But he could have -- even with the president of the United States in the front row.

Then again, Clinton was from the South and attended Graham's 1959 crusade in Little Rock, Ark. The young Clinton was so impressed by the preacher's message, and his refusal to bow to segregationists, that he began sending part of his weekly allowance to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In the wake of his death this week, at age 99, diplomats, scholars and journalists will struggle to describe Graham's impact via preaching, television, radio, books and other writings. It's hard enough to do the math when discussing his 417 crusades in 185 countries, along with countless other gatherings ranging from presidential inaugurations to tiny youth rallies after his 1938 ordination as a Southern Baptist preacher.

To be blunt, it can be argued that Graham spoke -- in person -- to more people than any other leader in world history.

Friendship trumps partisan politics at 2018 National Prayer Breakfast

Friendship trumps partisan politics at 2018 National Prayer Breakfast

In the world of "woke" Twitter, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana is a white supremacist, fundamentalist, homophobic, NRA lackey who has tested God's patience by opposing gun control.

Comedy writer Marcella Arguello was blunt, responding to breaking news when Scalise was seriously wounded in an attack on the GOP baseball team. She tweeted that if a few old "conservative white men have to die in order to get the gun control issue discussed then I'm willing to take that risk." She later deleted the tweet.

The mood could not have been more different at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, when Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans offered an affectionate introduction before Scalise -- still on crutches -- rose to speak.

People keep asking, said Richmond, how they can be such close friends. One leads the Congressional Black Caucus. The other once led the conservative House Republican Study Committee. They disagree, Richmond conceded, on about "80 percent" of the issues facing America.

The key, he said, is to understand that faith can transcend politics.

"We don't differ on the end goals -- helping the needy and protecting our citizens and caring for our elders," said Richmond. "We don't disagree on where we want to end up. Most times, we disagree on how to get there. …

"Faith allows us to put purpose first. We put purpose over politics, we put purpose over profit, because at the end of the day we know that we're here on earth to fulfill a purpose -- to make this world a better place, and make this country a more perfect union."

The two men met in the Louisiana House of Representatives and came together, from opposite sides of the aisle, to help their state recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. To this day, said Richmond, they are united in the belief that "we are all created in the likeness of God, no matter what country, no matter what state, no matter what city, no matter what zip code, no matter what block."

Evangelicals For Life: Taking a more complex view of 'life issues' in tense times

Evangelicals For Life: Taking a more complex view of 'life issues' in tense times

Back in his days as a youth pastor, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma spent lots of time begging church members to teach Sunday school.

After hearing this plea over and over, one woman pulled him aside and quietly shared her painful reason for declining, said Lankford, at last week's Evangelicals For Life conference, which coincided with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.

The woman told him: "James, I had an abortion years ago. I cannot be used by God." After apologizing for "pounding on her" to volunteer, Lankford said he responded: "Is there any action that God cannot forgive?"

Lankford said the woman's response was unforgettable: "I'm not sure yet."

Debates about the dignity of human life take place in all kinds of settings, from Capitol Hill and the U.S. Supreme Court to church fellowship halls and streets packed with marchers. Arguments about abortion create headlines, fuel fundraising letters and rattle politicos on left and right.

Just before this year's march -- marking the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- the U.S. House of Representatives voted 241-183 to pass the Born-alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which protects children that survive abortion procedures.

What happens in courts and legislatures is important, said Lankford, echoing a theme heard during many sessions at the conference hosted by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family. However, he said the most important discussions of right-to-life issues occur during personal encounters with ordinary people wrestling with hard questions in real life.

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

No one has to tell Marcia Nelson about America's rising number of "nones" -- people claiming zero ties to a religious tradition -- because she meets them day after day while working as a hospital chaplain in Chicago.

"Lots of people want you to pray with them, but they'll also make comments that let you know they really don't like the institutional church," said Nelson. "They want you to pray, but they don't want traditional religious language. ... When you're in that situation, what you have to do is try to pray like Oprah."

America had another Oprah Winfrey moment the other day, when the 63-year-old billionaire media maven delivered a Golden Globes sermon that created rapture in Hollywood and a heady buzz among journalists and politicos.

NBC gushed on Twitter: "Nothing but respect for OUR future president."

During her remarks, Winfrey pushed many buttons that have defined her career, noted Nelson, author of the 2005 book, "The Gospel According to Oprah." Surrounded by a media storm about sexual abuse of women, Winfrey also offered praise for journalists, appeals for social justice and criticism of corrupt tyrants. She didn't need to mention the former talk-show host in the White House.

It was a secular speech, noted Nelson, but had the "pastoral touch" that the young Winfrey displayed in services at the Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where other girls called her "Miss Jesus."

"Oprah has always had a gift for reading what's on people's minds and this was one of those times," said Nelson.

Winfrey raced from the birth of the Civil Rights Moment to today's headlines, while focusing on the pains and triumphs of abused women.

The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

While there was nothing new about someone entering a religious sanctuary and gunning down the faithful, the bloodshed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was truly historic.

Was that 2017's most important religion story?

What about Myanmar troops forcing half a million Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh, with reports of children being beheaded and people burned alive? What about the #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse, which turned into #ChurchToo, with women describing soul-wracking private tragedies.

For me, the year's biggest story took place in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacist marchers shouted anti-Semitic curses and claimed God was on their side. Meanwhile, clergy prayed and sang hymns in counter-protests. Southern Baptists and other believers proclaimed the alt-right was working for Satan.

But that wasn't the top story, either, according to journalists voting in the Religion News Association poll for 2017. No, once again this was a year dominated by Donald Trump and armies of evangelicals who, in myriad mainstream news reports, marched in lockstep support behind his political agenda.

Trump was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, after "his inauguration triggered upheaval across a number of religious fronts, among them the role of evangelical support of his administration; fierce debates over Islam, race and religious liberty; the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; and executive orders relating to immigration and terrorism," said the RNA announcement.

Meanwhile, in a variety of public debates, bitter Trump-era rifts among Christian conservatives kept getting deeper and wider. This was perfectly captured in a New York Times forum after the Alabama defeat of old Religious Right hero Roy Moore.

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family's log-home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world's most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word "evangelical."

However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word "evangelical" means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?

The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham's son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.

Disputes about the meaning of "evangelical" are so sharp that "several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are 'Christians,' let alone 'evangelicals' as defined by any set of core doctrines," said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.

Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to "some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both," as opposed to "leading successful churches or Christian organizations. … I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that's about it."

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

When Jimmy Meeks reached Sutherland Springs, Texas, the First Baptist Church was screened off as a crime scene as experts investigated the Sunday morning massacre that claimed 26 lives. 

As a retired police officer, and a Baptist preacher, Meeks didn't need to enter the ravaged sanctuary. As a church-security consultant, he paid special attention to the church's parking lot and the surrounding area.

When the gunman arrived, he parked across the street. He had to cover lots of ground to reach the church.

"It's just a simple little building," said Meeks, who is part of a "Sheepdog Seminars" team, training church leaders how to protect biblical "sheep" from "wolves."

"There are churches like this one all over the country -- there always have been and there always will be. ... So many churches don't have someone outside in the parking lot, standing watch. They don't see the danger coming."

Church-security issues are back in the news, as America faces renewed debates about safety, faith and the Second Amendment.

But some church leaders, like Meeks, have been studiously paying attention to church-security issues ever since the night of Sept. 15, 1999, when an angry outsider entered Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and killed seven during a youth-group prayer rally.

Since 1999, at least 800 people have died in church attacks across America, said Meeks, who has 35 years of police experience, including 11 years when he led a Fort Worth church while serving as an officer in nearby Hurst. Two of his areas of expertise are hostage negotiations and crime-prevention techniques.

So far, 108 people have been killed in churches during 2017. The previous record was 77 in one year.

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

With an Oval Office-endorsed pastor chatting with a Fox News star, no wonder the evangelical scribes at The Babylon Bee saw last week's rites at First Baptist Church in Dallas as must-see television for Donald Trump supporters.

The Bee headline proclaimed: "Sean Hannity Leads First Baptist Dallas In Sincere Prayer To Donald Trump."

The satire website pretended that Hannity prayed: "We just ask, Father Trump, that you would just, just use this place to advance the good news of right-wing politics, that you would spread your message far and wide. … Amen!"

That's fake news, of course.

The reality was more complex than that. While there were Trumpian overtones, this Sunday service demonstrated how many evangelicals have fused talk-show media, faith and politics to create a unique American niche culture, said a conservative church-state scholar at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.

"It struck me how different this kind of evangelicalism is, compared with what we've known in the past," said Francis Beckwith, after watching the "America At The Crossroads" event online.

"Evangelicals have always tried to reach out to unbelievers, trying to win them over. … But no outsider is ever going to be persuaded by this. The whole purpose was to rally their base, the people they already have. … Maybe they realize that there's no persuading going on in America, right now. People are just preaching to their choirs."