In the many news articles on the death of former North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms, little is said outright of the social conservative politician's religious faith. There are certainly hints of it, but even in the Baptist senator's home state newspapers, most reporters failed to mention anything of note regarding religion. Over the weekend, I conducted a rather informal survey of the state's major newspapers and will include in this post links to most of the news articles I found. Please forgive me if I missed an article or a newspaper's coverage somewhere. I will certainly note my oversight if that is the case.
In The Charlotte Observer, the largest newspaper in terms of circulation in North and South Carolina, an article on Helms' roots notes his Baptist upbringing, but nothing is said about how this impacted his youth or his later views:
Helms was born in October 1921, son of Ethel Mae and Jesse Sr. -- whom he admiringly would refer to as the "real Jesse Helms." His mother was active at First Baptist Church, which Helms attended. "Everybody was poor, but nobody realized it," McLeod said. "Everybody went to church on Sunday morning. The environment had as much to do with him as anything."
Jesse Sr. was Monroe's fire chief -- and for a short while police chief -- and among the son's strongest memories was his father's generosity. Jesse Jr. sometimes woke to his mother making breakfast for hobos that Jesse Sr. had rounded up and offered a place to sleep for the night.
Much is said of the senator's steadfast beliefs, but little is said of those beliefs' source or origin. The simple question that remains unanswered is how did Helms' Baptist faith impact his political career and politics?
For some insight, check out the blog "The Big Daddy Weave," which reports that Helms' funeral was held at "a decidedly moderate Baptist congregation."
It's quite interesting that a true political fundamentalist/purist like Helms known best for his utter disdain for "liberals" and his inability to "agree to disagree" chose to remain a faithful member of a moderate Baptist church that understands quite well the importance of "agreeing to disagree" and supports with its time and money organizations that have been characterized by many (if not most) of his fellow conservative cohorts from the Christian Right as liberal at best and not-Christian at worst!
Quite interesting indeed. As a commenter on the blog notes, perhaps Helms' personal faith was more complicated than reporters are telling us and/or perhaps moderate Baptists are more diverse than people generally assume.
The Asheville Citizen-Times is unfortunately vague about the senator's faith, although a book reference about Helmes suggests that at least someone has commented on the role of religion in his life.
Helms is famously known for the "Hands" campaign ad televised during his 1992 race against Harvey Gantt, an African-American and former mayor of Charlotte. The TV spot show a pair of white hands crumpling a piece of paper that indicated the man's job had gone to a person of color.
He staked out his position on race and civil rights early in his career, when five-minute Viewpoint" editorials on WRAL-TV made him well known throughout eastern North Carolina. In his book "Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism," University of Florida history professor William Link said Helms used "Viewpoint" as a soapbox against what he considered as an intrusive federal government bent on racial equality. Helms considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be a blow to states' rights, Link wrote.
What exactly was "righteous" about the senator's wars? Also, at the very end of the article, the reporter cites a series of individuals praising Helms. In addition to quoting career politicians and the president of the Jesse Helms Center Foundation, the article quotes two evangelists praising Helms: North Carolina residents Billy and Franklin Graham.
The News & Observer, which is based in based in Raleigh, N.C., points out that Helms was key in making Southern states a Republican stronghold that exists even to this day. Part of this involved bringing together "social conservatives" that helped elect President Reagan, but is "social conservatives all we get to define this movement?
Much is also made in nearly every story about Helms' support, late in his career, for funding AIDS relief in Africa. Apparently Bono played a role in convincing Helms that saving people's lives was a cause worth his time. Was the role of religion discussed at all in that conversation?
There's a deeper story here that North Carolina newspapers are not covering about the role of faith in the life of Senator Helms. Hopefully someone has told it and I've overlooked the article, or it will be written soon.