Missing voices (on left) in North Carolina vote

The general consensus in the press this morning was that the North Carolina marriage amendment vote was all about religion. This is certainly the theme that emerges in some of the stories and photographs featured in The Politico email round-up.

LOCAL COVERAGE HIGLIGHTS RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS AS AMENDMENT ONE PASSES: The lead centerpiece photo on the front of the Raleigh News and Observer is an African-American pastor cheering the returns showing a ban on gay marriage over the sub-headline: “State to become 31st to Constitutionally forbid same-sex marriage”: http://bit.ly/JvJ9v9. The lead image on the front of the Shelby Star is a Baptist pastor holding a sign supporting the ban as cars drive by under the headline “Voters say ‘I do’”: http://bit.ly/L9UtOX. The Wilmington Star-News headline is “Marriage defined” with a photo of a Methodist Church sign in front of a polling place that says “A true marriage is male and female and God”: http://bit.ly/Jd98ft. The two-column banner headline in the Fayetteville Observer is “Amendment One sails to easy passage” with pictures of cheering religious women: http://bit.ly/IKptHx.

United Methodists? Yes, in the Bible Belt there were even United Methodist congregations that backed the amendment. That said, I would think the odds are good that this was either an African-American congregation, a heavily evangelical congregation or “both/and.”

Which brings us to the wrap-up that ran in The Charlotte Observer, the state’s most powerful newsroom. Starting with the lede, the Observer‘s editorial team did a good job of jumping right on the big idea that this was a vote that crossed all kinds of political, racial and cultural lines — in large part because of religion. Here’s the top of the story:

Riding a Bible-influenced coalition that cut across political and racial lines, the marriage amendment stormed to approval Tuesday, making North Carolina the latest state to put stronger legal barricades before same-sex unions.

With 90 percent of the counties reporting, the constitutional amendment to make marriage between a man and a woman the “only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized,” won resoundingly, 61 percent to 39 percent.

It goes into effect Jan. 1. North Carolina has had a law banning same-sex marriages for 16 years. Turnout, fueled largely by the marriage debate, was the largest for a primary in decades, election officials said.

The story, as you would expect, contains quite a few religious voices and that’s one of its strengths, kind of.

However, speaking as the former religion-beat guy at the Observer, back in the early-to-mid ’80s, I thought the voices featured in this report were a bit too predictable. In particular, the story didn’t do enough to show the variety of voices on the religious left that opposed this amendment. Charlotte is a very complex town, when it comes to religion and this story was, on religion, a bit too simple.

The first person quoted, naturally enough in the Bible Belt, was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, a leader in the drive to pass the amendment. No surprise there. A few paragraphs later, readers heard from leaders on the other side of the church aisle.

The Rev. Robin Tanner of Charlotte, a leader in the effort to defeat the amendment, looked beyond Tuesday’s loss.

“Hope lives on in this place we all call home,” the pastor of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church said in a prepared statement. “Hope is our promised companion, and equality for all our promised land.”

Added the Rev. Murdoch Smith, pastor of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church: “The goal is not destroyed, just delayed for the moment.”

Now, raise your cyper-hands if you are surprised that the local Unitarians and (most of the) Episcopalians opposed the amendment.

What was I looking for? The story does a great job of showing how this issue divided people in unpredictable ways in terms of politics — quoting Republicans who opposed the amendment and Democrats who supported it. But things became much more predictable when the focus was on religion.

For example, I know from experience that Charlotte has many powerful, powerful “moderate” Baptist churches in which this amendment would have inspired fierce debates. There are even Baptist churches (my wife and I sort of got run out of one long ago) that can, on matters theological, accurately be described as “liberal.”

This is also a city and region in which the entire alphabet soup of Presbyterian life (PCUSA, PCA, EPC, ARPC, OPC, etc., etc.) is represented. When I moved to Charlotte in 1982, it was the only Southern city in which there were more Presbyterians than Baptists. Many of these churches would have been opposed the amendment, while many others would have been in favor.

And then there are the previously mentioned divides within United Methodism in the Carolinas.

Please know that I realize that the Observer team did not — on election night — have the time and space to dedicate an entire story to the role of religion in this vote. The odds are quite good, I would imagine, that precisely that kind of story will hit the newspaper’s front page on Sunday. Nevertheless, I think that, in this case, the newspaper left readers with the impression that this vote came down to, well, Billy Graham and the Baptists vs. the Unitarians and Episcopalians.

That’s too simplistic, especially on the religious left. The situation on the ground was much more complex than that and the story needed a few more voices — especially in terms of capturing the divisions among Baptists and Presbyterians.

For example, consider this quote toward the end of the story:

Charlotte area voters didn’t necessarily follow party affiliations in taking sides on the amendment.

At the Forest Hill Church precinct in south Charlotte, Democrat Don Hawley, 57, voted in favor. “I don’t know that we need to start protecting another class of citizens,” he said.

Mary Settlemyre, 49, a Republican, voted no. “My understanding of the Republican Party is it’s limited in your personal life,” she said. “That (intrudes) in the parts of your personal life they need not be in.”

That “Forest Hill Church” precinct reference brought back some memories for me. I would predict that this is the church formerly known as Forest Hill Presbyterian Church, a large congregation that left the oldline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) way back in the mid-1980s. And what were the issues way back then that led to the church’s departure from the PCUSA? Let’s just say that, when push came to legal shove, there were three of them and many GetReligion readers would consider them very old news.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping that the Observer team — after talking to the usual suspects — dedicates some coverage to some of the less obvious voices on the left side of the Charlotte scene, especially the Baptists, and also on the right side, especially the various brands of Presbyterians and those United Methodist folks, too.

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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.

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com BDW

    The more liberal national Baptist groups were involved: Alliance of Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship, Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists. Many outspoken Baptist voices coming out of Winston-Salem too.

    But there were quite a few moderate-to-conservative Baptist pastors involved in other efforts including Pastors Against Amendment One (which included liberal Baptists as well).

    A law professor at Campbell U. joined other family law experts from North Carolina in opposing Amendment One. Meanwhile, two law professors from Campbell penned a legal brief in support of Amendment One (and refuting the analysis of a brief authored by UNC law profs.

    Thomas Roberts of MSNBC interviewed the other week Rev. Ricky Woods of FBC-West in Charlotte. Woods opposed the amendment. Woods has been involved in the National Baptist Convention USA (which is interesting since many you’re more likely to see pro-gay rights Black Baptists associated with the Progressive National Baptist Convention).

    And of course on the other side of the aisle in support of A1, Southeastern Baptist Seminary was very involved, several Southern Baptist megachurch pastors spoke out and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina appeared very mobilized.

    Many voices that could be covered…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So much for reader interest in the media missing valid stories on the left side of the sanctuary aisle.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Once again, you had me riveted throughout this post, tmatt. But there was nothing to discuss at the end. I had nothing wothwhile to contribute to a discussion flowing from your post.

    I mean, I could have done something snarky and said something like, “See GetReligion isn’t trying to push a conservative line under the guise of fighting for good traditional journalism – they complain when the religious left isn’t reported well just as they do when the right isn’t”, but that would have (and now has) taken away from what you did.

    Lack of comments does not mean lack of interest.

  • http://www.twitter.com/BeliefBeat Nicole Neroulias

    It’s a valid point, one that I’m working to address in the Washington state gay marriage debate this year.

    (As for the lack of comments, I suspect most of the readers who would have appreciated this kind of GetReligion post have been scared off by now.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Why? GetReligion has been calling for improved, expanded coverage of the religious left — as a RELIGIOUS expression, not political — since Day 1.

    There is nothing really new about this post.

  • sari


    Many of the recent topics have trended to the right (religious freedom, misrepresentation of the Catholic Church, Santorum and Romney, Church of P.P.) where your more conservative readers took heavy sticks to those with whom they disagreed. Their attacks were tolerated, even when they had nothing to do with media coverage or with expanding others’ knowledge base on the topic, while y’all moderated away the other side.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    We spike roughly 25 to 50 percent of comments on some threads (at least I do) and easily spike as many on the right as left. There are some real MSM haters out there.