‘Mad and Scared’: The Religious Shift in U.S., Mississippi Politics | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

‘Mad and Scared’: The Religious Shift in U.S., Mississippi Politics

Gov. Phil Bryant opposes abortion even if it would save the mother’s life. He supports Donald Trump, who pledges to criminalize it.

Gov. Phil Bryant opposes abortion even if it would save the mother’s life. He supports Donald Trump, who pledges to criminalize it. Photo by Arielle Dreher.

— Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says no one has seen a presidential election like this one in his lifetime, at least. Speaking at the Mississippi Economic Council's Hob Nob event last week, Barbour said Americans are "mad and scared" because America has experienced a weak post-recession recovery and see little economic growth in their day-to-day lives.

Donald J. Trump, Barbour said, is a manifestation of many people's fear and anger.

"Millions of Republicans, Democrats and independents, wanted to shoot Washington the bird, and they thought Donald Trump was the greatest, most magnificent middle finger they could imagine," the former chairman of the Republican National Committee said at the Hob Nob.

Amid all this fear and rage of the American people, "the issues" and where candidates actually stand on them have faded to the background of the election coverage, Barbour said, but insisted that Clinton is not the choice if change is what voters want.

"Hillary Clinton being the candidate of change would be like me being the spokesman for Weight Watchers—no credibility whatsoever," Barbour said referencing comments Clinton made back in the primaries that indicated she would continue much of what President Barack Obama started.

Burns Strider, a Grenada, Miss., native and the faith and values director in the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign for president, said that as a political insider, Clinton could find the way out.

"She would say as an insider, which she doesn't deny, that being president would allow (her) the opportunity to achieve the goals of the working people, and because 'I'm an insider, I know the way out,'" Strider said on the panel alongside Barbour at Hob Nob.

Both Mississippi political-party chairmen expressed disappointment in what the climate of the election has done to minimize discussions of actual policy and issues. Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef said the presidential election has not been about policy, although he wished it was.

"Here's the bottom line: We feel confident that we can easily point out that if Hillary Clinton gets elected, she's going to be against what the majority of Mississippians are for in almost every case," Nosef said last week. "It doesn't matter what you're talking about: taxes, regulation, religious freedom, it doesn't matter. I'm not saying that I think we're right, but the bottom line is this: As far as Mississippians who elected the supermajority in the Legislature, they are going to be for everything that she's against."

Trump leads polls in Mississippi, although not as much as he leads in neighboring states Louisiana and Alabama. Data from both Google and SurveyMonkey polls show that if just women voted in this election, even states like Mississippi could be toss-up states. And while Mississippi may not go blue itself, state Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak said his party is watching the turnout because elections are not just about the current one but the next one as well.

Moak and the other panelists called for political unity at the end of a very divisive election.

"Through the years we've worked together politically, and we've been apart on issues, but at the end of the day we all came together and worked together for something for the good of our communities and our state, and that's what needs to happen at the end of this election," Moak said.

Return to the 'City on a Hill'

In a state like Mississippi, where the governor hosts the Heritage Foundation—a national right-wing conservative organization—at his mansion, this election means more than just a new president. Researchers and some religious leaders have pointed to this election cycle as the potential end of the religious right, signaled by apocalyptic-type terms used this campaign season.

At a Women for Trump rally hosted by the Mississippi Federation of Republican Women held at the Capitol last week, Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she prays every day for her country because America is at a crossroads. Pointing to Clinton's potential U.S. Supreme Court appointments and her stances on immigration, Currie encouraged women to vote for Trump, who is strongly anti-immigrant.

"On Nov. 8 we have to have our own Brexit, it's time to do it," she said. "I believe Nov. 8, 2016, is going to be America's new Independence Day."

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, spoke after Currie, citing Clinton's stances on Obamacare and abortion rights as reasons to vote for Trump.

"I will never support a woman, I don't care who she is, that stands at a presidential debate and in front of God and the country and defends partial-birth abortion," Hill said, to perhaps the biggest cheers of the whole rally.

In the third presidential debate, Clinton said that Roe v. Wade allows regulations on abortion as long as the life and health of the mother are taken into account.

"I have met with women who have, toward the end of their pregnancy, get the worst news one could get: that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term," Clinton said on Oct. 20. "I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions. So you can regulate if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account."

Gov. Phil Bryant appealed to the crowd's religious beliefs, claiming that Democrats do not care about their religious freedom.

"They just don't understand—they can't comprehend your faith and your beliefs, but we're gonna show 'em," Bryant told the crowd. Bryant was the co-chairman of the Personhood Mississippi vote against abortion rights that voters rejected in 2011, and a primary backer of this year's House Bill 1523, which attempted to give businesses and others the right to discriminate against LGBT citizens, although a federal judge has blocked the law. Bryant follows a hard-right agenda on nearly every issue, including immigration, and is an outspoken Trump backer.

To end his riled-up speech, the governor said, "We will return to be the shining city on the hill and make America great again."

That "city on a hill" remark was originally coined in the Bible by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. In American history, Puritan John Winthrop in the 1600s is said to have claimed that his new colony would be a "city upon a hill."

More recently in American politics, former President Ronald Reagan used the phrase in speeches he gave before he was elected to the presidency in 1980 and as he was leaving office. For Bryant, Trump represents the preservation of the religious right, but research has shown the cultural phenomenon may be on its way out.

End of 'White Christian' U.S.?

Robert Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, has studied the nation's data on religion and politics for decades. In his new book "The End of White Christian America," the Jackson native paints the narrative of how the religious right rose and now is declining based on the number of Americans who strongly identify with a race-based approach to religion.

Jones said that in 2008, 54 percent of the country identified as white and Christian. His most recent data show that number dropped to 43 percent. The rapid shift, Jones said, is part demographic, part religious. A growing number of (largely millennial) Americans do not affiliate with a particular religion, and young people are leaving the church in droves.

Demographically, the Census Bureau has predicted that America will no longer be a majority-white country in the coming years. By 2060, the bureau has forecasted that 36 percent of children will be "single-race non-Hispanic white." Plus, it turns out that Americans who identify as Christian are also decreasing in number.

"It's always hard to read the future, but I think what we're seeing is a for-real last gasp as people are realizing the demographic realities around them," Jones told the Jackson Free Press.

In the 1980s and '90s, the "moral majority" was a reality, Jones said, in addition to a political movement led by Jerry Falwell. Politicians who believed in or played to the religious-right tropes had data and power in numbers behind them, he said.

The majority of Americans back then disapproved of same-sex marriage, for instance. Today, data from PRRI show that over 60 percent of Americans approve of the right. The swing has led to outcries or, as Jones puts it in his book, and even caused Christian communities (evangelical and otherwise) to be introspective—and go into a grieving process. The first stages of grief are denial and anger, according to Elisabeth Kuebler Ross' model.

Back in April, almost a year after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally and a few days after Gov. Bryant signed House Bill 1523 into law, Franklin Graham held a rally that drew upwards of 6,000 people at the Capitol. Crowds spilled all over the south lawn as the renowned evangelist and son of Billy Graham took the stage.

Graham told reporters afterward that Christians have the right to live out their faith in public. When asked about his stance against the rights of LGBT citizens, he said: "It's God's stance, OK? I have nothing against the gays and lesbians. They're involved politically; why can't we Christians have our candidates?"

Franklin continued: "I want the world to know that God loves them and cares for them, but God is going to judge all sin, and the gay lifestyle is a sin. Now don't get mad at me; I didn't make the rules, God makes the rules. ... [There are consequences, and there is a heaven and there's a hell."

Jones, the author, attributes such comments as Graham's to those in the religious right who understand that they have lost the public-opinion war but are not going down without a fight. Graham did not endorse a particular candidate at his rally, but invoked Christians to put Christians in power, encouraging members of the crowd to run for office.

Other religious leaders acknowledge that the 2016 election signals the end of an era for the religious right. Russell Moore, a Mississippi native and president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, admitted this in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

"Some of the very people who warned us about moral relativism and situational ethics now ask us to become moral relativists for the sake of an election," Moore writes. "And when some dissent, they are labeled as liberals or accused of moral preening or sitting comfortably on the sidelines."

Moore, who told The New York Times Magazine that he will not vote for Trump or Clinton, called the religious right "old-school" and called for "younger, multi-ethnic, gospel-centered Christians" to head up a new evangelical movement, following the election. Moore is also on record for wanting to change the Mississippi flag and acknowledging how the white church, Baptist and others, both supported slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

That is a sea change of a position in a nation and state where Barbour and other Republicans have led a party that appealed explicitly to white conservative Christians through use of the "southern strategy," which long included support of Confederate symbols such as the flag, as well as anti-"welfare queen" rhetoric and other coded race language.

Jones sees the shift for voters in the 2016 election in more narrow terms.

"What's happened to evangelicals in this election cycle is that they've been converted from values voters to being nostalgia voters," he said.

"If you feel like you're on the losing end of a bunch of cultural trends, somebody who can shake things up at the end stage of this game becomes a pretty important trait in a candidate."

Correction: The print version of this story listed Robert Jones as the director, not the CEO, of PRRI. It additionally said "trade and a candidate" instead of "trait in a candidate" in his final quote above. We apologize for the inconvenience or confusion this may have caused.

Read more election coverage at jfp.ms/2016elections. Email reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected].

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