Religion & race in Bible Belt voting

Back during the 2008 campaign, I was invited to take part in an excellent gathering organized by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that focused on candidate Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's attempts to reach out to evangelicals and, in general, highly devoted religious believers of all kinds. During the discussion period, I had the following exchange with E.J. Dionne Jr., of the Washington Post, etc. Please click on over there to see the wider context of Dionne's response.

MATTINGLY: ... Is Mike Huckabee really just a pre-Roe Southern Democrat? That's image No. 1. Image No. 2: While running for the Senate, Al Gore held up a picture of an unborn child from the cover of Life and defended his 85-90 percent pro-life voting record by saying, my children know that's a baby. Could you picture Obama doing the same thing today?

DIONNE: Maybe the answer is yes and no. ... There's just something very unsatisfactory about the way we discuss abortion in political campaigns and especially because I think there is a very substantial body of opinion in the United States that is deeply troubled by abortion, that on the one hand believes that there is such a thing -- that does not deny that fetal life is either human life or something that's a precursor to it that one trifles with at one's peril, on the other hand, is very uneasy with the government making abortion illegal and, therefore, threatening the health and perhaps lives of many women who will choose to have abortions anyway, you know, the fact that a great many abortions are performed in countries where abortion is illegal.

These are two -- it is not impossible to believe both of those things at the same time, but it is impossible to express that view ever in public in politics. It's virtually impossible now to have any sort of nuanced view that perhaps it's plausible to keep abortion legal in the first trimester but that it becomes more morally troublesome once you get beyond that -- partly because of Roe. No, I don't deny that. I know a lot of liberals who privately think Roe was a mistake for liberalism and hurt liberalism.

So I think our abortion politics is just unsatisfactory, so I think -- and we can cite examples in both parties. Your first question, I thought much the same thing, that, in many ways, Mike Huckabee is a classic conservative -- a classic Southern Democrat, including his love of public works. (Laughter.) I thought one of the most revealing moments of the Huckabee campaign is when he wanted to widen 95 going from Florida to New England. That sure sounded like the position of a good old-fashioned Southern Democrat.

Now, with that in mind, please read the New York Times news feature that ran under the headline, "White Democrats Lose More Ground in South." This seems, to me, to be a brilliant attempt to avoid some obvious subjects in Bible Belt politics over the past 30 or 40 years.

Please hear me say that only a blind and, well, stupid person would ignore the role of race in all of this. Yet, in the post-Roe world it is also impossible to ignore to role of social, cultural and, yes, religious issues in the GOP march through the Southern Democrats.

Let's see, who do you think is more likely to get the vote of megachurch evangelicals these days, a white politician who voted for the final version of health-care reform, with all of its overtones about what the late Pope John Paul II would call "Culture of Life" issues, or a culturally conservative African-American candidate in either party who didn't? How about a white candidate who is in favor of changing her or his state's definition of marriage or an African-American candidate who opposes that kind of judicial decision? There are other issues that get connected to these elections, too, but many are in fact cultural and moral in nature.

This article does an excellent job of covering half the history, half of the equation that is at work in Bible Belt politics. Why ignore -- almost completely -- the religious-moral-cultural side?

Near the end, there is this simple passage. You see, not all of the Southern Democrats crashed at the polls in this election cycle:

There are other signs that the realignment might not be permanent. Growing Latino populations in Florida and Texas, and in Georgia and South Carolina, could rearrange the political map again before too long. And then there is the curious case of North Carolina. While Republicans racked up historic victories in state races on Tuesday, seven of the state's eight Democratic congressmen survived challenges, including Heath Shuler, a young Blue Dog elected in 2006.

Now, let's see. What are some of the key differences between Shuler and almost all of the other Blue Dogs who lost? What issues are lurking in this simple statement of fact?

I bet Huckabee would know. Sadly, and I say this as a Democrat, so would Rep. Bart Stupak.

Again, here is the essential journalistic point: Where is the other half of the story? The question of race must be covered. But there are other issues that deserve attention, too. By the way, this is part of the big, big, big 2010 story in the Midwest. You think?

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