The Southern Tradition Of Prayer And Politics

Michael Bitzer

In the South, prayers and politics are as sacrosanct as tea and sugar.  A couple of news items that I came across speak to the current blending of religion and politics.

Locally, a meeting of Rowan County Board of Commissioners had the feeling of a church revival, where the board chair opened the meeting “in Jesus’ name,” to a collective “Amen” by the assembled crowd.  It was in direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court affirming a lower court’s ruling that Forsyth County commissioners had impermissibly used prayers “invoking the name of Jesus Christ” to open their public meetings.

Then, Franklin Graham, son of North Carolina’s Billy Graham, appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and went through, at times, a terse exchange about whether the president is a Christian, and whether Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a Christian as well.

In publicly professing their religious beliefs, Rowan County commissioners and Rev. Graham demonstrate the importance of religion in the Southern way of life, and that importance extends to its political behavior.  Most notably, the largest percentage of evangelicals are found in the South, with their belief, as Rev. Graham would define it, of personal, and often public, acceptance of Jesus Christ as the only means to salvation.

Thus, when pressed if President Obama or Mitt Romney were Christians, Rev. Graham took to his evangelical definition of Christianity to frame his answer.

Scholars who study Southern politics have long recognized the invaluable role of religion in the region’s political landscape and culture.  And within the region, Christian religious beliefs can be considered in two distinct ways: evangelical and mainline Protestants.

Evangelical voters came into their true political power when Reagan molded the modern GOP coalition of fiscal and national security conservatives with an untapped voting bloc: that of social, evangelical conservatives. With the South realigning itself into a critical component of the Republican base, evangelical Southerners believed that spreading their gospel — of both the pulpit and ballot box — were important to their core beliefs.

One sees this faith-based influence on voting most profoundly when comparing white evangelical voters against all others. In 2008, John McCain received 74 percent of white born-again/evangelical votes, compared to just 24 percent for Obama.  Among all other voters, Obama won 62 percent to 36 percent for McCain.

If one were to divide the 2008 national exit poll into regions, one could see a Southern distinctiveness of religion.  Of those who said they attended church at least once a week, Southerners led with 34 percent, followed by Midwesterners at 25 percent, the Northeast at 17 percent and the Pacific Coast at 16 percent.

Southerners made up nearly 40 percent of all nation-wide self-identified evangelicals who voted in 2008, and they voted for McCain 80 percent to 18 percent for Obama.

In North Carolina, white born-again/evangelical voters made up 44 percent of the 2008 electorate, and cast 74 percent of their vote for John McCain.

Religion has always been a powerful influence on the nation’s politics, and one can understand how Southern evangelicalism provides a sacred base to today’s GOP party.

The only thing that provokes Southern religious fervor equal to politics is collegiate sports. And since we’re entering the high holy season of March Madness, it might be best to say a little prayer for all of us.

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