Remembering an eyewitness to Billy Graham history

Written by Peter Smith on .


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When I met Bob Leidy three years ago, I wrote that at age 88, he was "weathered but vigorous and full-haired," a retired school custodian who kept busy tending backyard greenhouses and, as always, with church activities.

From his youth, Mr. Leidy had been involved in evangelical revival services as a singer and later a songleader in and around Altoona. And it was in that capacity that he served as a valuable eyewitness for the story I wrote on one of the more intriguing footnotes of Billy Graham's evangelistic career -- the 1949 Altoona crusade that, as Billy Graham and his associates always told it, nearly sank the evangelist's career just months before Graham skyrocketed to fame in Los Angeles.

I just learned from the family that Mr. Leidy died this September at age 91.

What I'll remember most was how Mr. Leidy visited Altoona's Jaffa Shrine with a PG photographer and me. He stood on the same stage where he sang in the crusade choir during Rev. Graham's services and sang out to the empty rows of wooden folding chairs that remained amid the auditorium's ornamental Arabic lettering and Moorish trim.

I wrote then:

Despite the distance of the years, the old-time gospel music still came back easily for Mr. Leidy.

"Christ -- for -- me, yes it's Christ -- for -- me," Mr. Leidy sang. "He's my savior, my Lord and king; I'm so happy I shout and sing."

Mr. Leidy had positive views of the Altoona crusade. He confirmed news accounts of the time that reported significant numbers of converts going forward. But he also learned afterward that Rev. Graham faced strong opposition from some clergy, both local and from the outside, and dissension among Altoona clergy.

The event doesn't seem to have been the disaster that it is remembered as in Graham lore. But this was also a time when Graham was going through his painful break with fellow evangelist Charles Templeton, a star preacher increasing in doubt about the Christian faith he would later abandon. 

Here's a link to the story I did at the time.

And here's a link to the video of Mr. Leidy singing.

And here's a link to his obituary, which also tells of his work on behalf of historic preservation at the Lakemont Park amusement park.







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Massively divided

Written by Peter Smith on .

More than half of Republicans and Democrats each think the other party's policies are "so misguided they pose a threat to the country," according to the latest survey of the Public Religion Research Institute.

One after another, the survey shows how deep and wide the wounds are in the nation's divisions.

"The story is less about who loves their own party than who hates the other party," says PRRI's Robert Jones. 

The research says:

"Donald Trump gets low marks from the public on his job performance as president. About four in ten (41%) Americans approve of the job he is doing, while a majority (54%) disapprove."

In fact, nearly half of Americans not only disapprove of Trump but consider his policies a danger to the country.

Yet Republicans remain loyal. "Among those who approve of Trump’s job performance, nearly four in ten (37%) say there is almost nothing the president could do to lose their approval."

He has a particularly loyal constituency in white evangelicals: "Clearly white evangelical Protestants still strongly in the president's corner."

Full report here. 


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Francis Effect? A numbers check

Written by Peter Smith on .

ocdsmOK, now can we measure a "Francis Effect"?

It takes a while for statistics to roll in, but as we approach the five-year point in Pope Francis' tenure in March, we're beginning to see what church statistics look like in his era.

The pope remains widely popular, even though he faces criticism and doubts from some on the right. But as for American church participation, it appears that the long-time trend that spans all or part of three papacies -- decline -- has continued.

The latest "Official Catholic Directory" from "Anno Domini 2017," recently arrived on my desk. It arrived with a thud, as usual, at nearly 2,000 pages. It's choc full of statistics.

Because there's a two-year lag between the collection of stats and their publication, the 2017 volume actually has numbers from 2015, the third year Francis was in office and the year he took Philadelphia and other U.S. cities by storm. Of course, even if he took America by storm in September of that year, that wouldn't have affected confirmations in the spring. But still.

So, in short, according to its own numbers, the church in the United States continues the strange trend in which it counts more Catholics than ever, but they're doing fewer Catholic things.

Total U.S. Catholics are at a record high of more than 71 million, according to the church's numbers. 

But compared to 2013, when Francis first took office, the church two years later saw 5 percent fewer infant baptisms, 4 percent fewer first communions, 1 percent fewer confirmations, 2 percent fewer marriages and 4 percent fewer elementary students in Catholic parochial schools.

Before you draw any conclusions about the Francis Effect, consider the following.

Caveat number one: The U.S. Catholic Church is a big church, and expecting him to make a statistical turnaround in two years would be like expecting to see an aircraft carrier spinning on a dime. For example, if you wanted to register 1 percent more infant baptisms since 2013, you'd have to find as many kids to baptize, plus another 70,800 -- at a time when the church has had long-running declines in baptisms. 

Caveat number two: The United States may have one of the world's largest Catholic populations, and it's probably the loudest and wealthiest, but it's only one. More than 90 percent of the world's billion Catholics live elsewhere. Francis' impact can't be measured American terms alone, even if we considered short-term measures to be valid (see Caveat number one).

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Bishops, messaging and optics

Written by Peter Smith on .

We're often cautioned not to use the liberal-conservative terminology of American politics to judge the actions of a religious body like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Still, it's hard not to do so in regard to the actions of the hierarchs this week in Baltimore.

They called for reform allowing those who immigrated illegally to get legal, particularly the Dreamer kids. They called for gun control -- by name, using a term that's become politically radioactive even when children are getting targeted yet again in mass shootings in churches and most recently at a California school Their president called for some scaling back of the continent's nuclear stockpiles. They denounced racism, fiercely and unreservedly -- something that would have been banal just a couple of years ago, but which took on new urgency in an era when the president of the United States says there are good people in a white supremacist march.

All of this happened on Monday. Which might have been called Message-to-Trump Monday. One archbishop even said: "“You don’t make America great by making America mean.”

Then, in what looked like a a spectacular backflip to everyone but maybe themselves, the bishops had Message-to-Francis Tuesday.

Maybe other considerations were at play, like a desire for a "culture of life" emphasis rather than a "consistent ethic of life" strain. Those are two schools of thought that are easier to know when you see them to describe, but the former is more strictly focused on abortion and the latter equally anti-abortion but more broadly applicable to other things that end life prematurely, such as gun violence and environmental poison. But consider this: Pope Francis in 2014 plucked Bishop Blaise Cupich from a small-town diocese and made him archbishop of Chicago, one of the nation's largest archdioceses. Then Francis made him a cardinal and a member of a crucial Vatican congregation that recommends new appointments of bishops.

But if Pope Francis has given Cupich a coat of many ecclesiastical colors, his brother bishops were not going to add to the palette.

Cupich was on the ballot Tuesday to become chair of the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities. The bishops always used to choose a cardinal to have that role, because the red hat symbolized the uttermost importance they place on opposing abortion etc.

By voting him down, it's hard not to see a fair amount of sympathy in the room for those taking issue with Pope Francis, those who see his approach as confusion when it comes to communion for the divorced-and-remarried. And one of the bishops' own consultants left under dramatic fashion, criticizing among other things Francis' choice of, well, bishops.

OK, let's assume for the moment that this vote wasn't intended to be about Francis. That the bishops just preferred Archbishop Naumann for this particular position. Still, one wonders if they consider it a positive optic, or one of indifference, that the narrative is as follows: The bishops rejected the American point man of Pope Francis, one of the most popular people below heaven for his pastoral outreach to the needy of all types. Instead they elected someone who has engaged in public battles over yoga and the Girl Scouts and has told pro-choice Catholic politicians not to present themselves at the communion rail.

Next summer, it will be Archbishop Naumann leading the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that formalized the prohibition of birth control. Most Catholics believe that's a personal decision rather than one left to the bishops' moral authority, a new survey confirms, and they put that belief into practice, if Catholic family size is any indication. Switching from optical to auditory metaphors, it will be interesting to see if the anniversary commemorations show an ear for this skeptical audience.


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The needle budged, but that's it

Written by Peter Smith on .

Not to diminish the significance of the Virginia election results this week, but consider:

If you were hoping that something, anything would help take the edge off our raging polarization, the results were not your sign. Instead, they showed that in Virginia, a state that already bucked the Southern tide in 2016 in voting for Hillary Clinton, a near-year of President Donald Trump left Virginians only slightly bluer than before.

Trump, whether because of or despite his words and actions which have so regularly polarized us racially, has maintained as strong a support among whites as ever. And as strong a revulsion among the rest. It seems like the election results look like a matter of muscle more than anything -- who gets more voters out to the polls.

It's just that there are more blue than red people in Virginia, whereas in those special congressional elections earlier this year, it was the other way around. And everyone stayed with their tribe.

So let's look at the charts. Here's the 2017 exit poll. Here's the 2016 exit poll.

Ed Gillespie won 57 percent of white voters. That's only marginally lower than Trump won among Virginian whites last year, 59 percent. Ralph Northam won 42 percent. up 7 percent from Clinton's 35 percent. This lends credence to the idea that a Democrat with fewer negatives might have won more NeverTrump-NeverHillary voters, perhaps. I'm guessing, only guessing, that this accounts for at least some of the much-touted suburban shift toward Democrats.

Eighty percent of non-white voters went for Northam, virtually the same as went for Clinton. 

Four-fifths of white evangelical Christians went for both Trump and Gillespie. The numbers are identical. Nothing Trump did in the past year, nor that Gillespie did in taking from his anti-immigrant playbook, gave second thoughts to anyone.

It's hard not to conclude that those who were repulsed by Trump from the moment he descended the escalator and opened his mouth at Trump Tower in 2015, still are. And those who were electrified by his words then, still are. 

Elsewhere we see that in Cambria County, which made that remarkable surge toward Trump in 2016, remains anecdotally steadfast in his camp.

All this tells me that if people are reliably in their corners, then even scandalous news about Roy Moore won't affect him in Alabama.

This isn't a matter of much persuasion anymore, sadly. It's a matter of who can get out more of the vote. In 2008 and 2012, Obama did so with his coalition of a majority of the minorities and a minority of the majority. In 2016, Trump did with the opposite coalition. In 2018 and 2020, things may come down to a few swing districts and states. Let's pray we can live with the results.



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