Singing their way to the ballot box

I woke up this morning to the sounds of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” as NPR informed me what I had already expected, that Roy Moore had defeated barely-incumbent Senator Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. That Moore won was not surprising, but his supporters’ rendition of an old Christian hymn did give me a sense of deja vu. While veteran monitors of Judge Moore and his past embrace of Christian nationalism were probably already familiar with the use of Christian hymnody at his rallies, I was struck by the similarity to southern white evangelical Christians who dabbled in politics over a century ago.

As I wrote in my first book, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South, white evangelicals in southern states were some of the first to jump on the temperance and prohibition bandwagon. When Alabama’s neighbor, Georgia, passed a statewide prohibition measure in 1907, the New York Times reported that the legislators and observers spontaneously broke into a rendition of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” also known as the Long Meter Doxology.

Such displays of religious piety are possible only when the involved group is religiously homogeneous. It assumes that all members know the tune and the words. If you start singing a song that’s not call and response and your fellow singers don’t know it, the whole effect is quickly lost. But for Judge Moore’s supporters, the common bond is white interpretations of evangelical Protestant Christianity, and that bond supplies them with a both a common message and a common playlist.

The Georgia legislators who enacted statewide prohibition over a century ago were largely evangelical Protestants and white. Like Moore, they were reacting to perceived threats, many of which still resonate with Alabama Republicans. In the early 20th century south, white state governments feared African American enfranchisement and rights, an influx of religiously different immigrants coming to the country (waves of Catholics and Jews then), and the changing social standards brought on by new technologies. Moore has voiced his doubts that President Barack Obama was born in the United States (a dog whistle for white supremacists, among others), argued that Islam is a “false religion,” and repeatedly attacked LGBTQ rights.

So for political pundits who are trying to make sense of Judge Moore’s religious and political beliefs, look to the past, and you’ll see the parallels.


Image credit:  By AuburnPilot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who lives, who dies, who reads your story?

When I was writing my second book, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars, I wrote with a pretty specific audience in mind. Perhaps selling myself a bit short and surely with a fair bit of white and academic privilege, I thought that the only people who would want to read about black evangelicals and their encounter with fundamentalism in the early twentieth century would be those historians who, like me, study fundamentalism and evangelicalism in American history. We’re not a big group. Heck, Katie Lofton managed to get pretty much all of us around a single conference table back in 2013. But much to my surprise, the book has found other audiences, and it’s thanks to them that it has sold so well in its first six months since publication.

Continue reading “Who lives, who dies, who reads your story?”

Jesus wants my vote?

Yesterday (Sunday, November 6th) was a beautiful day to be outside in my neighborhood, which probably explains why I missed Mike Huckabee‘s call. According to my voice mail, he (or his robo recording) called at 2:34 in the afternoon. In a very brief message, Huckabee asked me to vote on Tuesday (“or earlier, by mail or absentee ballot”) and noted that Jesus had told Christians to “render unto Caesar what was his and unto God what was God’s.” This quote from the Gospel of Matthew led Huckabee into a claim of religious kinship with me (“we as Christians are called to be the salt and the light of society”) and he urged me to vote for candidates who support “life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel.” According to the Southern Baptist pastor and former governor of Arkansas, I should also remind my friends and family to vote as well. The message included a call back number and the statement that it had been paid for by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group started by Ralph Reed. I tried calling the phone number listed today, but I could only leave a message unless I knew the extension of the party I wished to reach.

The fours “issues” Governor Huckabee thinks I should be weighing when voting for candidates, according to this FFC-funded effort. “Life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel” are words that many evangelical voters would immediately recognize as clarion calls to arms. “Life” for FFC means opposition to abortion, “marriage” means heterosexual unions, “religious freedom” means passing laws to stop transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice (and asking President Obama “to stop putting our children in danger”) and “Israel” means supporting Israel’s right to exist and defending it against enemies in the international arena. FFC’s website is pretty heavily saturated right now with clickable items in the “religious freedom” category, with only a smattering of stories or petitions about “life,” “marriage,” and “Israel.” Be that as it may, the site clearly reflects a group that is both conservative in its evangelicalism and fairly media-savvy (with Twitter and Instagram accounts, but no Snapchat or Tumblr). Its voter guide for my state casts Trump in a more favorable light than Clinton.

While Governor Huckabee never mentioned a candidate by name, the only national candidates I could vote for this year are the President of the United States (actually, here in Virginia we vote for the electors for the candidate, not the candidate per se) and my House of Representatives member. His organization assumes that the folks who hear this message speak the same language they do, and will be inspired to vote. Indeed, this may substitute for the usual Republican GOTV effort, as the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee don’t seem to be playing together very nicely recently.

I’m not really sure why my home phone number was on this call list. I live in a state that has been blue for the last several elections and boasts the vice presidential nominee for the Democrats as one of its U.S. Senators. There are decidedly red areas of this state, but not near my house. I’ve never donated to Huckabee or the FFC. All of this means I could have an interpretation of “life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel” that means something very different.

“Life” by itself could be a call to respect human dignity in all people, whether they are young or old, racially different than me or similar to me, opposed to my politics or in solidarity with me. I think I’ll interpret this one as respect for all of the people I meet between now and tomorrow (election day) and beyond–regardless of their politics.

“Marriage” could mean same-sex marriage, no marriage, or marriage when two people feel like it’s appropriate. Because same-sex marriage is the law of the land now, I’m going to take a leap and say that voting for marriage is really not what I need my candidates to do now.

“Religious freedom” is a catchy term and one that’s clearly on the minds of evangelicals who oppose the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirements and transgender bathroom laws. But in light of a recent anti-Semitic ad by one of the candidates I could have voted for, and in light of the escalating Islamophobia, I will consider religious freedom to mean the right for any American to practice her or his religion peacefully without fear of interference from the state or hate groups.

So what else could “Israel” mean? Well, for Jews, Israel means multiple things: the promised land, the people of God, or God’s promise for the future. In fact, in my Abrahamic Religions course, we spend quite a bit of time talking about how the notion of Israel (as part of G-d–Torah–Israel) is a key component of Judaism but that its meaning has changed over time and for different Jews in different ways. Israel as hope for the future of humanity is a particularly important concept to embrace in this troubled election cycle.

Mike Huckabee might read this (although I doubt it) and conclude that the sower’s seeds (Mark 4) fell on a rocky place when the call came to my voice mail. Or his organization could have done its homework better and realize that he caught me too late and that I had already voted “absentee¬† in person” on the final day Virginia permitted me to do so–the day before his call. FFC might not have known about Virginia’s election laws, but I did, and I’m betting that, if Jesus wanted my vote, He knew the deadline too.