Dear Abby’s Unfortunate Blend of Bible and Politics

“So, what should I do?”

All of us have had that moment when a friend looks desperately in our eyes and asks for advice. There’s something very intimate and powerful about two friends sitting together trying to figure out life’s problems.

Perhaps that’s why Pauline Phillips — known to the world as “Dear Abby” — was so beloved. She doled out advice for years after her first column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956 and became a household name. Though we didn’t know her, we felt like she cared about the people who wrote in with questions about infidelity, love, workplace drama, and a myriad of other issues.

As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of her. Every day, I began at the back of the newspaper and worked my way forward — from Beetle Bailey, to Dagwood, to her advice column. After all, nothing is more interesting than other people’s problems. In my mind, she was a worldly June Cleaver — a feisty, yet kind maternal figure who gave wisdom freely.

But what kind of advice did she give?

In the 1950s, she advised against divorce and warned against premarital sex. But over the course of her life, she liberalized her views. The Wall Street Journal records her evolution: “In 1970, she published a reader’s letter asking whether homosexuality was a disease — as the American Psychiatric Association said at the time. ‘It is the inability to love at all which I consider an emotional illness,’ she replied.” In 1984, she referred a distraught parent of a child who claimed to be gay to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. In 1998, she addressed concerns about her advice to gay people. “Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy and other parts of the Bible to me. It doesn’t bother me.” By the time her daughter Jeanne took over her column in 2002, Abby believed divorce was perhaps a better option than letting the kids feel the acrimony between their parents in the home. Her daughter Jeanne pushed the moral envelope even further, by saying “it’s okay to be gay,” receiving an honor from the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, advocating for same-sex marriage, and encouraging pregnant teens to visit Planned Parenthood.

In other words, “Dear Abby”’s advice was always charming, winsome, and breezy, but it morphed to reflect the current mores of the nation. At the height of her popularity, her daily readership reached 100 million people making her influence incalculable. Funny how a column can hold such sway over so many people’s views.

When Ms. Phillips began writing, she chose to go by a pen name. (Her twin sister, who also had a popular advice column, went by Ann Landers.) The first part of her pen name — Abby — came from the Biblical passage: “Then David said to Abigail ‘Blessed is your advice and blessed are you.’” She borrowed the last name — Van Buren — from the 19th-century American president. In a way, her alias — and its two-part inspiration — painted a picture of the type of advice she would give over the years. Abigail Van Buren’s name — and her column — was part Bible, part politics.

Sadly, the politics won out.

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This article first appeared at National Review Online. 

About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.

  • RAnn

    The thing I find most amusing about most advice columnists today is that the overwhelming majority of the questions they answer would not have to be asked if folks obeyed traditional moral strictures. Can you imagine an advice column today that did not advise live-ins about whether it was likely their partner would ever want marriage? One that did not deal with unwed parenthood, or co-parenting after divorce? What the sexual rules are?

    • Nancy French

      Yes…. one would think that the answers would be obvious, but they — sadly aren’t. Interestingly, Dear Abby’s very first column dealt with a secretary having an affair with her boss. In 1957, Abby suggested she stop that affair.

      But with the ever-changing morals, who knows….

  • Angel

    I used to enjoy reading her columns as a teen. I am saddened to know that lately she had been advising pregnant teens to visit Planned Parenthood for advice. I wonder if she truly felt that this is what teens ought to do or gave the advice that would have been palatable to the majority.

    • Nancy French

      I think her opinions did actually change over time. Her daughter Jeanne, who is the one who advised the Planned Parenthood route, is very very serious about her liberal viewpoints.

  • Rozann

    I stopped reading Abbey and Ann a long time ago. I didn’t want to feel the stress of anger rising up at their totally bad advice. I prefer Dr. Laura, who seems to stick to the “old-fashioned” morals and Biblical teachings. Much more of which is needed today. You are right about the fact that if people obeyed the commandments they wouldn’t have so many problems. “Wickedness never was happiness.”

  • Gina Sender

    Are you aware that studies show that the majority of young people who were raised in the evangelical faiths turn away from them when they become adults? They change religions or become a “none”. It’s easy to see why.

  • Agkcrbs

    Did she change the nation, or did the nation change her? Maybe both? It doesn’t matter. Each of us must choose whether to believe in our loving Creator, or hail the jungle as our supreme law-giver; rise in pursuit of a divine nature, or kneel in submission to an animal one; accept the offer of salvation, or turn it down. Enough individuals freely rejecting religious verities cause a country to drift away from religious values, but it has never hurt the soul who defended his or her faith, and has only threatened the waverer who is still unsure of their own commitment. We create society by what we accept or reject from it; it doesn’t create us. “Ever-changing morals” seem to consume many, and are a worrisome trial, a fork in the road for us, our children, and all men, but that lifetime choice is our very purpose here, proving what we are. Between gold and dross, which fears the refining fire?

    • Rozann

      Thank you for your eloquent response!

  • Zoey

    Yes, “Dear Abby” changed over time. She moved from judgementalism to acceptance and tolerance of others’ points of view. Unfortunately, most of the posters on this site have not taken that journey yet. The mere suggestion that “Not-a-doctor” Laura upholds traditional values is laughable when you look at the mess that she made of her own life and her relationship with her daughter and mother, for instance.

  • Craig

    The French Revolution blog is part Bible, part politics, and lot of poor reasoning. Sadly, the poor reasoning almost always wins out.