Republicans honor Billy Graham as the evangelical movement's clout threatens to wane in a changing America

Republicans honor Billy Graham as the evangelical movement's clout threatens to wane in a changing America
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pay their respects Wednesday at the casket of the late evangelist Billy Graham in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. (Aaron P. Bernstein / Associated Press)

A casket bearing the body of Billy Graham lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday, but it signaled more than the death of a religious leader who had befriended and counseled presidents for decades.

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


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

Pastors were key to President Trump's victory in 2016, helping him withstand personal scandals that swirled through his campaign almost from the start.

Yet demographic shifts are looming. National surveys conducted 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 honoring Graham, who died on Feb. 21 at the age of 99, illustrated both the benefit of the alliance between party and religion, and the dangers ahead.

Speaking near Graham's simple wooden casket were a Republican president, a Republican Senate majority leader and a Republican speaker of the House.

The audience was a sea of older members of Congress, most of them gray-haired men, who like the 71-year-old president had fond personal memories of Graham not likely shared by younger Americans.

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

What has maintained the power of the evangelical base, and its ability to propel Trump and other Republicans to victory in state after state, is that its voters turn out more reliably than those who eventually will replace them — younger Americans less connected to religion of any sort.

"The demographic time machine," as Jones put it, lags by two election cycles, suggesting that even though Trump has benefited from evangelical support, future Republican candidates may have a less potent force at their backs.

Evangelicals also have shifted their political strategies in ways that may limit their popularity among younger Americans.

Graham made a public habit of embracing presidents of both parties, even if his most notable alliance, and one he later came to regret to some extent, was with Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace.

Graham was wildly popular in his heyday, selling out Yankee Stadium, crowding more than 100,000 people into Times Square and filling Madison Square Garden more than 100 times — to cite only his 1950s appearances in New York City, hardly a hotbed of religiosity.

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

"It's basically not possible to narrate the story of the Christian right without referencing Billy Graham," said Steven P. Miller, the author of books on evangelicalism and on Graham.


But where Graham was biblically centered, he was tonally different from the culture warriors who followed him — including his evangelist son, Franklin Graham.

If Billy Graham only suggested his Republican leanings, his son has made his politics overt, questioning whether President Obama was a citizen and campaigning freely for Trump, whom he stood beside on Wednesday. The younger Graham's vociferous 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 views of the world. Trump has delivered on key promises to evangelicals, including conservative judicial appointments and his decision to move the U.S. 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 worried about Muslim extremism in the world, and 69% worried about it in the United States. Those findings exceeded the views of other American groups by more than 20 percentage points.

When Trump issued his controversial ban on migration from seven mostly 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 stalled for months in court challenges.

The shared notions have made for noteworthy alliances: not only have 4 in 5 white evangelicals supported Trump, the same proportion also backed U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, despite accusations that the Alabama Republican had preyed on teenagers years ago.

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

A 2017 PRRI report entitled "America's Changing Religious Identity" found that 8 in 10 Republicans age 65 and older said they were white Christians, and 42% identified themselves as white evangelicals. Among Republicans under age 30, fewer than 6 in 10 were white Christians and a quarter said they were white evangelicals.

Politically speaking, that may make them less adherent to the Republican Party in the future — or, at minimum, less concerned about the sorts of issues that have drawn evangelicals to embrace Republican candidates.

More and more, younger voters express no religious alliance at all, a cultural shift that may put them out of reach of a party used to cultural cues honed in Billy Graham's day. The political implications will play out in future elections.

Twitter: @cathleendecker