Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

God's Own Party:

A Democrat in Sheep's Clothing
by Charles Reagan Wilson

The 2007 Mississippi gubernatorial race was a campaign that would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago—a Bible-thumping Democratic candidate versus a Republican incumbent who tried to separate religion from politics. 

But back in April, the Washington Post’s Dan Gilgoff anticipated that the race would have national significance as “the next step in the Democratic Party’s plan for making inroads among evangelicals and other serious churchgoers.” In no place has that been more important to Democratic hopes than in the South, the once solid Democratic region that became overwhelmingly Republican in the 1990s. George W. Bush won every southern state in both 2000 and 2004. In the latter year, churchgoing Southern evangelicals marched as never before as the foot soldiers of the GOP, going to the polls in unprecedented numbers and replacing five retiring southern Democratic senators with Republicans. Before 2007, however, it had been many years since religion figured prominently in an important Mississippi election.

Haley Barbour, the incumbent governor, was a nationally prominent political operative who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee in the early 1990s, when Republican strategists worked to establish the GOP as God’s Only Party. Barbour then became a powerful Washington lobbyist, representing tobacco, oil, and insurance companies among others.

In his first term, he dominated state politics, introducing an unprecedented level of party discipline into the Mississippi legislature and putting together a winning coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans in the state House of Representatives to go along with a Republican-controlled state Senate. He cut the state’s debt, opposed new taxes (including a popular proposal to increase Mississippi’s cigarette tax while reducing its high sales tax), and successfully recruited new businesses, including a Toyota factory in northeast Mississippi. He also won kudos for his leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Mississippi coast.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was funneling tens of millions of dollars to southern states in hopes of building a competitive political infrastructure. In 2006, DNC Chairman Howard Dean hired four new staff members to work with the Mississippi Democratic Party, preparing for the 2007 gubernatorial race. The Democratic nominee, John Arthur Eaves Jr., devised a strategy that made his pronounced personal religiosity the foundation of his campaign.

“His momma read him Bible stories at bed time and rocked him to sleep singing the old hymn ‘In the Garden,’” read the text on Eaves’ campaign website. It also told that “he gave his life to Christ at age 8” and years later took three of his sons to Israel and watched as they were baptized in the Jordan River. “He is pro-life, pro-prayer, pro-Bible literacy and pro-guns,” the website said. Not leaving anything in doubt, it added that Eaves was “a Southern Baptist running for office.”

Such open religiosity is not, of course, that startling in the Bible Belt, but recent Democratic candidates even there have rarely been as aggressive as Republicans at putting their faith to work on the stump. Eaves constantly repeated a question at rallies and in advertisements: “Who’s on Jesus’ side in Mississippi?” His television ads pictured him leaning on a farm fence holding a Bible, a powerful image in one of the nation’s most rural states and one in which evangelicals, by some estimates, represent half of the electorate.

Eaves’ campaign literature was full of biblical imagery. In one TV ad, he portrayed the race as David versus Goliath. Another had him holding a Bible and saying, “Jesus ministered to the least and the lost, and he threw the moneychangers out of the temple.” He later directly linked Barbour, the wealthy lobbyist for big business, to the “moneychangers” that Jesus attacked in the Temple.

Eaves coupled this overt appeal to Christian voters with an overall populist program that emphasized improved health care, education, and job creation. Jesus, Eaves said, healed the sick, taught the truth, and helped the poor. He claimed the Good Samaritan ideal and evoked a popular Southern Baptist leadership model, that of servant leadership, when he said the “greatest form of service is to serve your neighbor.”

By creating a platform overtly based on Christ’s ministry, Eaves clearly targeted white working class voters who had deserted the Democratic Party in the red states as the GOP effectively used the Religious Right’s moral agenda to deflect Democratic appeals to their economic interests.

For his part, Barbour pitched his campaign on his successes at economic development and his image as a strong leader after Hurricane Katrina. In televised debates, he was visibly annoyed at Eaves’ religious references.

In one debate, Eaves, referring to the fact that Barbour had placed profits from his lobbying business in a blind trust but had not authorized release of its details, declared (in the words of Matthew and Luke), “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be, also.”

“My opponent loves to quote the Bible,” Barbour irritably responded. “I’ll spare you the sanctimony.”

Barbour went on to say that the election should not be about one’s personal faith, straying from the conventional GOP strategy in the South by suggesting that religion did not have a role in politics. Albeit a deacon in his Yazoo City Presbyterian church, he does not come out of the Falwell-Robertson wing of the Republican Party.

For all his years in Washington, Barbour is rooted in the South’s small town, male-oriented folk culture—a world of hunting, fishing, storytelling, and drinking. After he instituted budget-slashing measures in his first years in office, the story in the state was that everything in state government had been cut except the governor’s budget for Maker’s Mark.

Both candidates were in fact thoroughly Mississippi establishment. Both went to Ole Miss, and where one is a wealthy former lobbyist, the other is a wealthy trial lawyer. Eaves’ father ran twice unsuccessfully for governor (making use of his faith in his campaigns decades ago).

As the race came to a head last fall, the state and national press played closer attention to Eaves’ “walk of faith,” as he referred to his campaign. AP reporter Emily Wagster Pettus noted in an October 29 story that in Mississippi “the ballot box and the old rugged cross are intertwined.”

In another October article, veteran Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter wrote that many of Mississippi’s liberal Democrats were “blasting Eaves for pandering because of his religious stances.” Characterizing Eaves’ campaign as an expression of  “the Book of John Arthur Eaves, Jr.,” Salter called it “a paper-thin book” because there were no realistic public policy proposals to go with the religious rhetoric.

Just prior to the election, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal suggested that many Mississippians saw Eaves’ Bible-waving not as “an honest profession of belief but as a calculated attempt to exploit religious faith for political gain.” Pointing to the Republican Party’s frequent use of moralistic politics, the paper suggested that candidates of faith in both parties “must resist the temptation to play the ‘God card’ as a political strategy.”

As a popular incumbent, Barbour had been expected to win in a landslide with well over 60 percent of the vote. Two days before Mississippians went to the polls, State Senator Hillman Frazier, an African American from Jackson, told the Clarion Ledger that Eaves’ strategy had forced Barbour to focus more on his own race, instead of campaigning for Republican candidates in legislative races. “He’s been that pesky mosquito that won’t go away,” Frazier said. 

In the end, Barbour did win easily, but with 58 percent of the vote fell below expectations. And in a result that threatened his ability to have his way with the legislature during his second term, the Democrats regained control of the state Senate.

In fact, Eaves was not much of a campaigner, and critics took him to task for having a less than impressive grasp of many of the policy issues facing the state. He also failed to win the support of of Mississippi’s African- American leaders, many of whom gave their endorsements to Barbour.

But Eaves’ ability to unsettle a powerful GOP incumbent by combining staunch support for evangelical social issues with economic populism seemed a sign of things to come—and not only Democrats seeking to play the faith card. Indeed, hardly were the Mississippi returns in than the usually smooth Republican presidential primary waters were being roiled by a former Republican governor from the other side of the Mississippi using the same potent combination.


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