‘No’ gets no religion coverage

jesse helmsIn the many news articles on the death of former North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms, little is said outright of the social conservative politician’s religious faith. There are certainly hints of it, but even in the Baptist senator‘s home state newspapers, most reporters failed to mention anything of note regarding religion.

Over the weekend, I conducted a rather informal survey of the state’s major newspapers and will include in this post links to most of the news articles I found. Please forgive me if I missed an article or a newspaper’s coverage somewhere. I will certainly note my oversight if that is the case.

In The Charlotte Observer, the largest newspaper in terms of circulation in North and South Carolina, an article on Helms’ roots notes his Baptist upbringing, but nothing is said about how this impacted his youth or his later views:

Helms was born in October 1921, son of Ethel Mae and Jesse Sr. — whom he admiringly would refer to as the “real Jesse Helms.” His mother was active at First Baptist Church, which Helms attended. “Everybody was poor, but nobody realized it,” McLeod said. “Everybody went to church on Sunday morning. The environment had as much to do with him as anything.”

Jesse Sr. was Monroe’s fire chief — and for a short while police chief — and among the son’s strongest memories was his father’s generosity. Jesse Jr. sometimes woke to his mother making breakfast for hobos that Jesse Sr. had rounded up and offered a place to sleep for the night.

Much is said of the senator’s steadfast beliefs, but little is said of those beliefs’ source or origin. The simple question that remains unanswered is how did Helms’ Baptist faith impact his political career and politics?

For some insight, check out the blog “The Big Daddy Weave,” which reports that Helms’ funeral was held at “a decidedly moderate Baptist congregation.”

It’s quite interesting that a true political fundamentalist/purist like Helms known best for his utter disdain for “liberals” and his inability to “agree to disagree” chose to remain a faithful member of a moderate Baptist church that understands quite well the importance of “agreeing to disagree” and supports with its time and money organizations that have been characterized by many (if not most) of his fellow conservative cohorts from the Christian Right as liberal at best and not-Christian at worst!

Quite interesting indeed. As a commenter on the blog notes, perhaps Helms’ personal faith was more complicated than reporters are telling us and/or perhaps moderate Baptists are more diverse than people generally assume.

The Asheville Citizen-Times is unfortunately vague about the senator’s faith, although a book reference about Helmes suggests that at least someone has commented on the role of religion in his life.

Helms is famously known for the “Hands” campaign ad televised during his 1992 race against Harvey Gantt, an African-American and former mayor of Charlotte. The TV spot show a pair of white hands crumpling a piece of paper that indicated the man’s job had gone to a person of color.

He staked out his position on race and civil rights early in his career, when five-minute
Viewpoint” editorials on WRAL-TV made him well known throughout eastern North Carolina. In his book “Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism,” University of Florida history professor William Link said Helms used “Viewpoint” as a soapbox against what he considered as an intrusive federal government bent on racial equality. Helms considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be a blow to states’ rights, Link wrote.

What exactly was “righteous” about the senator’s wars? Also, at the very end of the article, the reporter cites a series of individuals praising Helms. In addition to quoting career politicians and the president of the Jesse Helms Center Foundation, the article quotes two evangelists praising Helms: North Carolina residents Billy and Franklin Graham.

The News & Observer, which is based in based in Raleigh, N.C., points out that Helms was key in making Southern states a Republican stronghold that exists even to this day. Part of this involved bringing together “social conservatives” that helped elect President Reagan, but is “social conservatives all we get to define this movement?

Much is also made in nearly every story about Helms’ support, late in his career, for funding AIDS relief in Africa. Apparently Bono played a role in convincing Helms that saving people’s lives was a cause worth his time. Was the role of religion discussed at all in that conversation?

There’s a deeper story here that North Carolina newspapers are not covering about the role of faith in the life of Senator Helms. Hopefully someone has told it and I’ve overlooked the article, or it will be written soon.

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  • Thomas

    People of serious faith are not known for the sort of bigotry and lack of compassion Jesse Helms exhibited throughout his life. (I pulled some quotes, but will not put them here. They would defile the thread.) Therefore, it’s possible that the reporting on this does not discuss the role of faith in his life because of irreconcilable differences.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Much is also made in nearly every story about Helms’ support, late in his career, for funding AIDS relief in Africa.”

    A case, surely, of trying to find something, anything, nice to say about this intolerant, hateful man.

  • Greg Perreault

    When Helm’s passed away, NPR immediately began replaying controversial remarks he’d made concerning homosexuals, followed by scathing commentary.

    Whatever your belief, I didn’t find it to be the most positive coverage.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    With someone like Helms, it is tough to find positive aspects on which to report. I would be curious though to know whether his faith, whatever it is, informed his views, if at all.

  • Claude

    I am afraid that much of Helms’s bigotry and ignorance are definitely attributable to his faith. I also grew up as a Southern Baptist. The positions that he championed are prevalent among members of his Church. I agree that that should have been prominent in the coverage of his death.

  • http://notabibliothecae.blogspot.com Chris M.

    For some insight, check out the blog “The Big Daddy Weave,” which reports that Helms’ funeral was held at “a decidedly moderate Baptist congregation.”

    The irony mentioned within that post is pretty significant: Helms remained a member of an SBC moderate church, even though his take-no-prisoners political approach was arguably a big influence upon the denomination’s conservative resurgance.

    This article from Baptist Press raises another point of interest concerning Richard Land’s remarks. As Barry Hankins notes in his book Uneasy in Babylon:

    Richard Land became executive director of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission [in 1989] committed to doing something on the race issue [in the denomination]. It even appears that he made the freedom to move forward on this a condition of his appointment.

    Land thus became a key figure in ensuring denomination’s 1995 racial reconciliation resolution. While that doesn’t really make him a progressive on the issue, he has Helms beat by a cold country mile. But since Helms and Land were on the same side of the culture war, Land is having to twist like a pretzel, denouncing Helms’ opposition to the Martin Luther King Holiday while (disingenuously) claiming that he “was not personally a racist.” Like Thomas mentions, there’s a variety of quotes from throughout Helm’s career that clearly demonstrate his bigotry (and homophobia).

  • Jimmy Mac

    Thr role of faith! in HIS life?

  • Maureen

    I guess y’all belong to churches full of nobody but non-sinners, spotless from birth. How nice for you. However, Mr. Helms (though not necessarily a person you wanted on your side) did in fact take at least as many good Christian positions as he did bad ones. He did not spend his entire career saying stupid stuff about black people, as it will no doubt have occurred to you that there are 24 hours in a day.

    So it would have been very interesting to read a real story about which positions he’d changed over the years, which churches he’d attended and how they’d changed or not, and basically some reflections on Old vs New South and old vs new SBC and evangelicalism. Lots of material there.

    If you were a reporter. If you believed in research and interviews and facts. If you actually liked news.

  • Claude

    Well, Maureen, we will soon hear what a nice, loving person Helms really was, all due to his life-long faith. I heard Bob Dole on CNN speak about what a kind person Jesse was and how much visitors to the Senate loved him. (Surprisingly, however, this really has not been borne out in terms of media coverage and public mourning. Unlike Strom Thurmond, who was a more complex figure and actually was loved by many, Helms was pretty one-dimensional, and seemed sincerely filled with hatred. I don’t think even many of his partisans actually liked him very much.) In any case, I am sure there will be lots of stories in the future that will try to distort his record and make him a more presentable figure than he was. The fact remains that Senator NO was a race-baiting homophobe who expressed the very sentiments of the majority of his Southern Baptist fellow-believers. Who do you think repeatedly elected him to the U.S. Senate?

  • Chris Bolinger

    The fact remains that Senator NO was a race-baiting homophobe who expressed the very sentiments of the majority of his Southern Baptist fellow-believers.

    Maybe Claude is a reporter. Wouldn’t shock me. After all, making sweeping generalizations about a large group of people based on one or two interviews (or a personal experience) is standard operating procedure for many reporters, including those who work at the mighty NY Times, as shown in several stories cited here in the past month.

  • Dave

    Maureen said:

    [...I]t would have been very interesting to read a real story about which positions he’d changed over the years

    Very interesting indeed. The late-in-life reversals by George Wallace and Lee Atwater were riveting.

    But, to mangle Stein, is there any “there” there for Helms?

  • Claude

    I just came across a story about a North Carolina state employee, the director of the North Carolina Standards Laboratory (which calibrates weight measurements) who has retired rather than lower the flag in honor of Helms.

    ”I don’t see how anybody could celebrate his career,” the 51-year-old said
in an interview, noting Helms’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and
the filibuster to stall the effort to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday
a national holiday. ”Everything he did was such a disservice to this
state.”


    Here is a link to the whole story: http://www.advocate.com/news_detail_ektid57463.asp

    Chris, I am not a reporter, but I certainly remember the overwhelming support Helms received from religious folk in his various campaigns.

    I find it very strange that conservative religious people don’t take responsibility for what they have done. They now try to pretend they never heard of Jesse Helms or George Bush.

  • Dave

    I find it very strange that conservative religious people don’t take responsibility for what they have done. They now try to pretend they never heard of Jesse Helms or George Bush.

    Claude, the conservative religious people that I think you’re talking about — who are a subset of “conservative religious people” at large — have a strong feeling of Christianity being besieged in this country. They vote for someone like Helms or Dubya in the belief that this person, once in power, will relieve the siege. That, in their view, never happens. They don’t focus on stuff that did happen; if they blame themselves for their vote, it’s because it didn’t work, and they go looking for the next man on a white horse.

    Of course, that sense of siege is artfully cultivated by those who want these folks to vote for them.


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