Unity was the theme during the 1992 Democratic National 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 Shriver and his wife, 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.
“He had no interest in the politics of personal advancement,” wrote journalist Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard. “And there was always a moral element to his campaigns. ... He opposed abortion and same-sex marriage and said so.”
Bell wrote a letter in 2014 admitting that he didn’t feel driven to win elective office. He simply saw “no other way” to fight for his convictions. Barnes added: “How many candidates could honestly say they had no desire to hold office? I can think of only one.”
Meanwhile, Bell lived to see New York billionaire Donald Trump stun Hillary Clinton and take the White House, amid hurricanes of Bill Clinton-style news exposes about Trump’s ethics and not-so-private affairs.
These news reports consistently stress that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, no matter what mainstream and tabloid newsrooms reported about him. However, a pre-election Pew Research Center survey found that 45 percent of white evangelicals said they would vote against Hillary Clinton, not in favor of Trump.
The bottom line: These voters felt that they had no choice. A recent Pew survey found that after Trump’s first year in office, white evangelical support of his conduct had declined to 61 percent.
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.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.