Religion & race in Bible Belt voting

Back during the 2008 campaign, I was invited to take part in an excellent gathering organized by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that focused on candidate Barack Obama and the Democratic Party’s attempts to reach out to evangelicals and, in general, highly devoted religious believers of all kinds.

During the discussion period, I had the following exchange with E.J. Dionne Jr., of the Washington Post, etc. Please click on over there to see the wider context of Dionne’s response.

MATTINGLY: … Is Mike Huckabee really just a pre-Roe Southern Democrat? That’s image No. 1. Image No. 2: While running for the Senate, Al Gore held up a picture of an unborn child from the cover of Life and defended his 85-90 percent pro-life voting record by saying, my children know that’s a baby. Could you picture Obama doing the same thing today?

DIONNE: Maybe the answer is yes and no. … There’s just something very unsatisfactory about the way we discuss abortion in political campaigns and especially because I think there is a very substantial body of opinion in the United States that is deeply troubled by abortion, that on the one hand believes that there is such a thing — that does not deny that fetal life is either human life or something that’s a precursor to it that one trifles with at one’s peril, on the other hand, is very uneasy with the government making abortion illegal and, therefore, threatening the health and perhaps lives of many women who will choose to have abortions anyway, you know, the fact that a great many abortions are performed in countries where abortion is illegal.

These are two — it is not impossible to believe both of those things at the same time, but it is impossible to express that view ever in public in politics. It’s virtually impossible now to have any sort of nuanced view that perhaps it’s plausible to keep abortion legal in the first trimester but that it becomes more morally troublesome once you get beyond that — partly because of Roe. No, I don’t deny that. I know a lot of liberals who privately think Roe was a mistake for liberalism and hurt liberalism.

So I think our abortion politics is just unsatisfactory, so I think — and we can cite examples in both parties. Your first question, I thought much the same thing, that, in many ways, Mike Huckabee is a classic conservative — a classic Southern Democrat, including his love of public works. (Laughter.) I thought one of the most revealing moments of the Huckabee campaign is when he wanted to widen 95 going from Florida to New England. That sure sounded like the position of a good old-fashioned Southern Democrat.

Now, with that in mind, please read the New York Times news feature that ran under the headline, “White Democrats Lose More Ground in South.” This seems, to me, to be a brilliant attempt to avoid some obvious subjects in Bible Belt politics over the past 30 or 40 years.

Please hear me say that only a blind and, well, stupid person would ignore the role of race in all of this. Yet, in the post-Roe world it is also impossible to ignore to role of social, cultural and, yes, religious issues in the GOP march through the Southern Democrats.

Let’s see, who do you think is more likely to get the vote of megachurch evangelicals these days, a white politician who voted for the final version of health-care reform, with all of its overtones about what the late Pope John Paul II would call “Culture of Life” issues, or a culturally conservative African-American candidate in either party who didn’t? How about a white candidate who is in favor of changing her or his state’s definition of marriage or an African-American candidate who opposes that kind of judicial decision? There are other issues that get connected to these elections, too, but many are in fact cultural and moral in nature.

This article does an excellent job of covering half the history, half of the equation that is at work in Bible Belt politics. Why ignore — almost completely — the religious-moral-cultural side?

Near the end, there is this simple passage. You see, not all of the Southern Democrats crashed at the polls in this election cycle:

There are other signs that the realignment might not be permanent. Growing Latino populations in Florida and Texas, and in Georgia and South Carolina, could rearrange the political map again before too long. And then there is the curious case of North Carolina. While Republicans racked up historic victories in state races on Tuesday, seven of the state’s eight Democratic congressmen survived challenges, including Heath Shuler, a young Blue Dog elected in 2006.

Now, let’s see. What are some of the key differences between Shuler and almost all of the other Blue Dogs who lost? What issues are lurking in this simple statement of fact?

I bet Huckabee would know. Sadly, and I say this as a Democrat, so would Rep. Bart Stupak.

Again, here is the essential journalistic point: Where is the other half of the story? The question of race must be covered. But there are other issues that deserve attention, too. By the way, this is part of the big, big, big 2010 story in the Midwest. You think?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bram

    If half of the story of the Southern white vote against the Democrats is race, then why did South Carolina — maybe the Deepest and most Southern Deep South state and the most conservative and most Republican state — just elect a non-white woman as its governor? Nikki Haley is, after all, twice as non-white as Barack Obama is. Maybe the missing story here, in addition to religion, is the ongoing (willful?) stupidity of The New York Times and Northern liberals in general where the South is concerned, and especially where race in the South is concerned. The idea that all white Southerners are racist is their “precious,” it’s their “ring of power,” and they just won’t give it up, no matter what — no even when their bitter clinging to the ring has cost them the House of Representatives for at least the next 10 years.

  • Jerry

    Your circles around the Northern and Southern “Bible belts” are weird. California has a higher number than Florida and New York & Massachusetts has as high a number as any state. So when are we going to get our valued membership in Jesusland?

    More seriously, there seems to be a significant story that the media has totally ignored because it does not fit the stereotypes that the coasts are secular. So what about all those people in the “Bible Belt” in New York etc who vote Democratic? …

  • Passing By

    Dallas, notable for conservative politics and religion, has had a black mayor, and currently has a black DA (just re-elected) and a Latina sheriff (a lesbian, in fact). Granted, those offices don’t directly speak to “Culture of Life” issues, but the point is that racial politics (particularly intense in Dallas) are not always the determinative factors.

    On Huckabee: during his presidential campaign, some pundits tagged him a “social democrat”, which is pretty much the Texas Democratic Party of my youth (and my family). Yes, that would be pre-Roe.

  • tmatt


    Race is a major part of the Bible Belt story over the past four decades, as I said. At the moment, religious/cultural issues seem to be dominant.


    I didn’t draw the circles. I assume that is upstate New York in the group’s scopes. The MIDWEST is what I referred to in my post.

  • Bram


    Race is nowhere remotely near as deciding a factor in the Southern white switch from the Democratic to the Republican parties the last 40 years as Northern liberals at The New York Times and elsewhere continue to imply. I refer you and everyone else to the work of David Paul Kuhn — a Northern liberal himself — whose extensive empirical work on this subject has debunked that myth in a substantive and thus-far-uncontested way. Even if the myth had held true forty years ago, why are you and The New York Times changing the subject from what happened last week to what happened forty years ago, if not to keep hold of the “precious” ring of power that is losing more and more of its luster — and power — with each passing day? …

  • tmatt


    In the future, please provide URLs for these kinds of claims.

    I assume this is what you are talking about, in the Huffington Post and elsewhere:

    Meanwhile, read my post again. Calm down and stop bashing away at the straw men you see in the press.

  • Bram


    No, actually, I’m talking about a full-length book Kuhn has written on the subject:

    Kuhn is also a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics. He has a piece up today discussing the plight within the Democratic Party of that nefarious Southern racist Jim Webb.

    As for straw men, I’m responding to the same tripe-laden piece of partisan hack-work in The New York Times that you are responding to yourself — an actual tripe-laden piece written by an actual partisan hack, and not an imaginary piece written by a straw man who exists nowhere else but in my mind.

  • Jeffrey

    My guess is that the NYT didn’t follow your approach because your analysis is deeply flawed. They probably know that Shuler was the exception, and that most pro-life Democrats who opposed the health care bill lost. That list includes Bright (AL), Skelton (Mo), Davis (TN), Taylor (MS), Marshall (GA). IOW, pro-life Democrats who voted against health care for whatever reason were much more likely to lose than win and Shuler seems to be the odd exception. The Stupak gang–targeted by the pro-life movement/GOP–also lost. The common denominator appeared to be being a pro-life Democrat, which likely cost you a seat.

    As for your anecdotes about racial politics, they are so theoretical that it’s impossible to know if they have any real basis. White voters are much more racially polarized than non-white voters and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that white cultural conservatives cross racial lines to vote for cultural cohorts.

  • Hayley

    Jeffrey – Your observation is deeply flawed. Pro-choice Democrats lost, pro-choice Republicans lost and pro-life Republicans lost as well. The reason pro-life Democrats whom voted against the bill lost is because some voters prefered supporting the Republican party more. The only way social issues played a factor in this cycle is if they were extreme like say outlaw abortion (even in cases of incest and when the mother’s life is in danger) or wanted abortion in the 3rd term and other things. Marco Rubio for example is personally against abortion but believes in state’s rights and he won. Same thing with Rand Paul.

  • Hayley

    Or it could be that some people wanted to support Democrats that voted for the health-care bill and that’s why the Democrats that voted against it lost as well.

  • Bob Smietana

    Lincoln Davis- a pro-life, blue dog Democrat lost here in TN.

  • Julia

    Can I ask a dumb question about the map at the top?

    What is a “denominational adherent”?

  • Julia

    Is there a particular denomination being depicted?

  • C. Wingate

    It’s probably a little late to get on board here, but there’s a pretty strong bias built into the presentation of the graphic: it presents irreligion as the normal state and strong adherence as the exception, when one could probably more accurately paint the USA as being a strongly religious nation with streaks of diminished belief in the far NE, the midwest, and the Rocky Mountain states.