Two months before the election, Peale met with 150 Protestant leaders at the Mayflower Hotel. Among the conveners of the group were Billy Graham and his notoriously anti-Catholic father-in law L. Nelson Bell (“The antagonism of the Roman Church to Communism is in part because of similar methods,” he quipped.) The group prepared a 2,000 word manifesto and had the relatively mainstream Peale present it at a subsequent press conference.
As in today’s debates over immigration, American identity was at stake. The manifesto asked whether any Catholic could lead the nation when Rome had shown such “determined efforts . . . to breach the wall of separation of church and state.” Peale’s role in this infuriated liberal Protestant leaders, who had long tolerated Peale and expected his loyalty in return. Reinhold Niebuhr and Union Theological Seminary’s John Bennett accused him of “blind prejudice.” Graham, whose role in the meeting had not been publicized, declined to come to Peale’s defense. Shunned and shamed, Peale fell into depression, issued an apology, and resigned his pulpit (his resignation was refused). Graham, meanwhile, began his ascent to become the unofficial chaplain to the White House.
There is a lesson in this. Whether the year is 1960 or 2016, principled conservatives are more than happy to gain the support of unsteady allies like Peale (a theological liberal) or Trump (a Clinton donor) because the interventions of these outsiders give conservative views mainstream credibility. When the interventions from these outsiders are ill-considered or undisciplined, they can even enable more cunning conservative to present themselves as relatively mainstream.