Southern politics is not solely bound up with race and religion, but almost every issue or controversy has some racial or religious element beneath the surface. The dual power of race and religion in southern politics will make it extraordinarily difficult for Democrats to recapture the South.
In chapter 3, entitled “Blacklash and the Heavenly Chorus,” author Thomas F. Schaller looks at the twin issues of race and religion and their effect on Southern politics.
The chapter opens with Election Day 2005 in Virginia and a discussion with former governor and current Richmond mayor Doug Wilder, who, at the time the book was written, was the nation’s first and only black governor.Wilder offers the opinion that the reason another black governor had yet to be elected was because the candidates were “running to make history,” and suggest that instead, candidates shouldn’t talk about race and history, focusing instead on issues that people care about. Schaller believes removing race is difficult, if not impossible, for any Democratic candidate, whether white or black.
According to Schaller, race has been a part of southern politics for 400 years, although today it is much more subtle. Mentioning again that almost half of all blacks live in the South, Schaller points out that the majority of local, state and national black elected officials are from the South and for the most part, are Democrats. Nevertheless, only a third of black members of Congress are from the South. Why?
Conventional wisdom says that blacks are not voting. Schaller says this is not true and offers proof in the form of this table:
2004 African-American Percentage of Southern Population, Eligible
Voters, Registrants, and Voters (Table 3.1)
State Population Age 18+ Registered Voted Alabama 26.4 24.0 24.1 24.8 Arkansas 15.8 14.7 14.2 12.7 Florida 15.7 13.9 11.7 11.1 Georgia 29.6 26.6 27.4 27.6 Louisiana 33.0 29.8 28.7 29.3 Mississippi 36.8 33.5 35.2 36.9 North Carolina 21.8 19.9 20.4 21.5 South Carolina 29.4 27.3 26.6 26.2 Tennessee 16.8 14.8 15.2 14.4 Texas 11.7 10.6 11.8 11.7 Virginia 19.9 17.9 16.0 15.2 South 19.8 17.9 18.0 17.9 Non-South 9.7 8.8 8.4 8.4
Schaller says another factor in the lack of black governors and senators is that few are nominated, a point on which he says “Democratic leaders have some explaining to do.” In their defense, though, Schaller says that it is an uphill battle:
All of the noble and earnest efforts to register and mobilize African Americans in the South during the four decades since the Voting Rights Act cannot overcome the reality that too many white southerners simply refuse to vote for black candidates.
Black voters are simply outnumbered. Look at Mississippi, for example. Black voters constitute nearly 37% of the electorate but even if all of them vote for a given candidate, the candidate cannot win without white support. And the white vote is overwhelmingly Republican.
At the national level, Schaller says that presidential candidates of both parties have used racial imagery. He points to Jack Kennedy, who, in the 1960 race, distributed photos in Virginia’s white communities showing pictures of Richard Nixon smiling with black leaders, “noting that he’d been an ‘NAACP member for over 10 years!'” In 1964, Barry Goldwater defended states’ rights, echoing the Dixiecrats’ Strom Thurmond’s candidacy from 16 years earlier. The evolution of the politics of race continued, unabated, through the current day.
Another issue that Schaller brings up is that of majority-minority districts, which he calls an “unholy alliance” between black politicians and Republicans, both of whom benefit from their existence.
One-seventh of the black members ever elected to Congress were part of the 1992 freshman class; almost as if on cue, the next freshman class gave the Republicans their first House majority since the 1952 elections.
Racial gerrymandering – the packing of as many blacks into as few districts as possible – has aided the cause of Republicans as they have taken over state legislative seats and majorities throughout the South. As the result, Schaller says, only two types of Democratic legislators remain: conservative whites who distance themselves from the national party and young minorities elected from the majority-minority districts.
Because of racial gerrymandering, the southern delegations are now comprised of white Democrats who survive by denigrating the national party and black Democrats who often complain that they are marginalized by the national party. Why should Republicans bother to vilify Democrats when Democrats will do this dirty chore for them?
Racial attitudes. more than anything else, predict Republican voting of southern whites, even more than attitudes on abortion or national defense. Schaller provides data that shows southerners harbor more racist attitudes than those outside the south, with those in the five Deep South states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) having more than those in six Outer South states (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia). The effect of these racist attitudes has been that the South has become increasingly Republican. While the Outer South states went Republican first – because they were more party-competitive – the change in the Deep South was more profound. He demonstrates this by comparing the Republican presidential support in the 1960 election to that of the 1988 election. Mississippi, for example, voted about 25% for the Republican presidential candidate in 1960; in 1988, the figure was almost 60%, a relative increase of almost 143%. By comparison, in 1960, about 52% of the vote in Virginia went to the Republican presidential candidate, while the figure in 1988 was about 60%, a relative increase of about 14%.
Schaller then provides examples of race-baiting employed by the Republicans in the South. He points to the 2003 elections in Mississippi, in which the issue of the state flag, containing the Confederate Stars and Bars, was raised. He gives a great rundown on the career of recently deceased North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, of whom Schaller says “embodied the tradition of steadfast southern resistance to racial equality.”
Apologists can claim otherwise, but the Republican national chairman has already conceded the point: The GOP manipulated racial attitudes to win the South. Race provided the electoral turnkey Republicans used to unlock the South and become the majority party nationally.
The South is America’s most religious region. “According to 2004 presidential exit polls, 51 percent of southerners attend church at least once per week, compared to just 38 percent of Americans in the rest of the country,” Schaller says. The Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are both southern creations, and the South is home to more evangelicals than any other region: 58% of Deep-state southerners and 49% of Outer-state southerners consider themselves evangelical or born-again Christians, compared with less than a third of all Americans.
Schaller uses the work of sociologist Mark Shibley in pointing to two events that created the strong following of evangelism in the South: the Civil War and the “fundamentalist-modernist dispute” within Protestantism in the 1920s. The former resulted in the replacement of the political dream of a cohesive Southern people with a cultural one, with religion at the heart of it. The latter is best epitomized by the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, in which John Scopes, a 24-year old science teacher, challenged the Tennessee state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools.
Southerners are, according to Schaller, “exceptionally religious.” A strong determinant of religious attitudes is social class, “and the evangelical ranks are filled disproportionately by Americans of lower socioeconomic status.”
They are more likely to affiliate with charismatic or Pentecostal churches, to believe the Bible to be literally true, and foresee a period of glorious Christian rule followed by the rapture.
Typically, the younger generation is less conservative than the older generation on such issues as abortion, school prayer, homosexuality, women working and premarital sex. However, in the South, religious-based conservatism is non-generational. Young (under age 40) evangelicals in the South are more conservative than older (aged 40+) evangelicals in the rest of the country on nearly every issue save one: premarital sex.
Abortion has become the issue of the Christian Right. As a region, the South is pro-choice by a margin of 50% to 44%, but that statistic is misleading. In five southern states – Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee – those who are pro-life exceed those who are pro-choice. In Louisiana, the difference is 21 points, with 36% being pro-choice and 57% being pro-life. Outside of the South, 58% are pro-choice, while 36% are pro-life, almost the exact opposite of Louisiana. It is this little fact that prompted the Christian Coalition, who, in following the lead of the national Republican Party, came up with its Contract with the American Family, to tone down its language on abortion.
More and more, clergy in the South are using their pulpits as a place to discuss politics.
Southern clergy have become to the Republican Party what labor leaders are to the Democrats: opinion leaders, political gatekeepers, and supervisors of a formidable retail voter and volunteer delivery machine.
It is this southern voting bloc that elected George Bush. Excepting Florida, the evangelical vote gave Bush large enough margins to allow resources to be directed elsewhere. But will it last? As the U.S. becomes more secularlized, some Republicans have become concerned that the party has become the “political arm of conservative Christians.” And they hope that the transformation will not be permanent. Some with the Republican Party think that they can just ignore the fundamentalists within their ranks. But this is difficult as the South has become the “anointed region within the Republicans’ governing coalition.”
By encouraging religious conservatives to disregard their historical aversions to political activity, the GOP set into motion their capture of its party by its southern wing. The South’s religious conservatives now make demands on their party and the federal government, make them publicly, and quickly grow impatient when their demands are unmet.
In other words, they created a monster. Schaller says, though, that there is an opportunity here for Democrats. With control of Congress in the hands of Democrats, they can force Republicans to vote on controversial issues, like a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. In effect, Democrats can force Republicans to choose – between the religious conservatives who monitor every move and the more moderate constituents who elect them.
The South’s version of Christianity isn’t very Christian at all; Schaller refers to Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics in which Wallis points out that there are more than 3,000 calls in the Bible to support the poor yet the South, through its support of Republican policies, ignores this. Other areas of the country embrace the Christian-based progressivism and provide Democrats “a far better opportunity to recapture the mantle of faith through their deeds, not words.”
The effect of race and religion on politics in the South make it an inhospitable place for Democrats.