The Tennessean surveys a deep-red state: Might religion play big role in its political divides?

So here I am in New York City on Election Day, typing away at my desk at The King's College near the corner of Broadway and Wall Street -- which means I'm about two blocks from a Trump tower in Lower Manhattan.

I imagine that things will get pretty wild in some corners of New York City tonight. However, my mind is very much on the past, present and future in the hills of East Tennessee. In other words, I'm thinking about politics and religious folks.

You see, East Tennessee is about as old-school Republican as you can get. Forget Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. East Tennessee's Republican roots go all the way back to the Civil War era (see this New York Times piece on "The Switzerland of America").

But there are at least two other Tennessees, symbolized by the other two stars on the flag. The hills are one thing, while Nashville and Memphis are radically different cultures.

Once upon a time, Tennessee voted for Bill Clinton. Soon after that, it turned its back on native son Al Gore. While the mountains are historically Republican, the political story in the rest of the state centers on the decline of old-guard Southern Democrats and the now dead Democratic Party coalition that included Bible Belt farmers and laborers, as well as urban elites.

Donald Trump will carry Tennessee with ease tonight, I imagine, but I have met very few old-school Republicans in the hills who are happy about that. I have, however, wondered about the deep-red tint of the rest of the state, other than blue patches in the big urban zones.

Thus, I read with great interest the Tennessean piece that ran with this headline: "Tennessee politics: State increasingly split along urban-rural lines." That headline tells you what editors in Nashville think. Here is a key block of summary material:

In this year’s election, as in other recent electoral contests, the political views of Tennesseans are shaped not just by party and ideology but also by geography. To some extent, where you live may determine who you vote for in Tuesday’s presidential race.

Clinton is expected to win easily in the state’s two biggest urban centers, Nashville and Memphis.

Trump will almost certainly dominate in the state’s northeastern corner as well as in other suburban and rural areas, where Trump/Pence campaign signs are as much a part of the landscape as rolling green fields. His strength in those areas probably will help him carry the state. Polls give him a double-digit lead in Tennessee.

Interesting. I am not seeing lots of Trump yard signs on rural East Tennessee, and I've been looking for them. My friends and neighbors in the area have made similar comments. Lots of folks will bite their lips and vote for Trump, but they are not happy about it.

So why is that? My theory is that many of the region's many, many religious believers simply have not bought into Trump.

The Tennessean team, meanwhile, seems convinced that the biggest keys to Tennessee politics are education and race. In other words, factors linked to that urban-rural divide. Thus, readers are told:

... The lingering fallout from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also has played a role. ... The law removed obstacles that prevented African-Americans from exercising their right to vote but caused many Southerners to change their party allegiance from Democrat to Republican.

I do not deny that this is a factor for many, but I think that is not the only key to the puzzle. It's significant that -- when this story features the voices of real people -- another issue keeps coming up. What other earthquake hit American culture in, oh, 1973 or thereabouts? Let's listen in:

The urban-rural split is reflected not only in election returns, but in the issues voters say they care about most. Jobs and the economy remain a concern across the state. But in rural areas, voters are more likely to list social issues such as abortion among their top priorities. In large cities, social issues take a back seat to crime, law enforcement and criminal justice.

It would be nice to know what other "social issues" are in play. Later on there is this, again:

Behind the counter at the Greyhound bus terminal in Jackson, ticket agent Doris Hollowell isn’t crazy about Trump or Clinton. But she will vote for Trump, she said, because she’s a Christian who disagrees with Clinton’s support for abortion rights.

“I think he is the lesser of two evils,” the soft-spoken 82-year-old said. “He probably has more good in him than she does.”

Also this:

Bob Hicks, a farmer and a handyman in Bristol. Hicks, 68, doesn’t like Trump or Clinton. But he probably will vote for Trump, he said.

The reason?

“Abortion -- more than any other thing,” the Vietnam War veteran said.

See any trends there?

It's highly symbolic that the story's only real treatment of religious freedom is linked -- validly so, I must stress -- to the views of a Muslim woman who fears Trump and, thus, decided to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Zulfat Suara, a Nigerian-born immigrant, lives in Bolivar in West Tennessee but works in Nashville as a CPA. She finds the rhetoric from Trump divisive and offensive, particularly as a Muslim woman.

“There’s always been comments, but you don’t want it from the person that’s supposed to be the leader of the free world,” Suara said. “As an American-Muslim, I don’t want a president thinking like that.”

So what is my main journalism point here? I think that the deep-red culture of Tennessee has as much to do, these days, with issues of religion and culture as it does with race and education.

To be blunt, the Tennessean team (writing for the whole Gannet newspaper network in the state) looked at the state and saw precisely the factors that secular progressives would stress, as in divides based on race, education and a cultural divide between new cities and old towns. Thus, white, non-urban, less educated folks are supposed to love Trump with all of their simple little hearts and souls.

But is that what readers actually see in this story? Is that what the real people say? Read the whole story.

Friends and neighbors, it's hard to miss religion when it comes to the building blocks of life in Tennessee, but the Tennessean team appears to have done its best to do precisely that. Why?

Haunted? You betcha.

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