Red-state American in her natural habitat

I gotta admit: Just a few sentences into this Washington Post feature on post-election Red America and I was already worried.

I just knew that this was going to be one of those sarcastic, elite-reporter-gets-to-know-ignorant-people-in-the-sticks kind of stories (i.e., see the pretty zoo animals with “Mitt Romney” campaign buttons):

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — She arrived early to take apart the campaign office piece by piece, just as she felt so many other things about her life were being dismantled. Beth Cox wore a Mitt Romney T-shirt, a cross around her neck and fresh eyeliner, even though she had been crying on and off and knew her makeup was likely to run. A day after the election, she tuned the radio to Glenn Beck and began pulling posters and American flags off the wall.

Her calendar read “Victory Day!!” and she had planned to celebrate in the office by hosting a dance party and selling Romney souvenirs. But instead she was packing those souvenirs into boxes, which would be donated to a charity that sent clothes to South America. Instead a moving company was en route to close down the office in the next 48 hours, and her friends were calling every few minutes to see how she was doing.

“I will be okay,” she told one caller. “I just don’t think we will be okay.”

Next comes the nut graf:

Here in the heart of Red America, Cox and many others spent last week grieving not only for themselves and their candidate but also for a country they now believe has gone wildly off track. The days after Barack Obama’s reelection gave birth to a saying in Central Tennessee: Once was a slip, but twice is a sign.

(An aside before we move on: Central Tennessee? Is there such a place outside of a Beltway newspaper page? Folks familiar at all with Tennessee know that it has three grand divisions: East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee.)

As I kept reading, I kept seeing signposts indicating a strong religion angle to this 1,800-word, front-page feature. “Values and beliefs” were referenced. The Romney supporter was described as “prayerful.” Her causes were “at the heart of her faith.” She counseled young married families “at church.”

I started marking up my printout of the story, prepared to point out the holy ghosts.

But then something strange happened: I actually began to like the story — and the flair with which the writer revealed important details all along the way. My initial concern that this would be a cardboard-cutout portrayal of a mindless social conservative mostly disappeared. Instead, the focus on a single voter allowed the writer adequate space to intertwine nuggets of nuance:

She blamed some of the divisiveness on Republicans. The party had gotten “way too white,” she said, and she hoped it would never again run a presidential ticket without including a woman or a minority. The tea party was an extremist movement that needed to be “neutralized,” she said, and Romney’s campaign had suffered irreparable damage when high-profile Republicans spoke about “crazy immigration talk and legitimate rape.”

But many other aspects of the division seemed fundamental and harder to solve. There was the America of increased secularism that legalized marijuana. And there was her America, where her two teenage daughters are not allowed to read “Harry Potter” or “Twilight,” and where one of them wrote in a school paper: “God is the center and the main foundation of my family.”

There was the America of gay marriage and the America of her Southern Baptist church, where 7,000 came to listen on Sundays, and where church literature described marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman.”

That reference to church literature strikes me as a bit awkward because I suspect that the church would attribute that belief to a different source.

Later in the story, the reporter follows the woman to a small-group prayer meeting at the church and backs out of the way (letting the dialogue itself tell the story):

“The world will tell you to be so many things,” she advised them, and on this night she talked to them about the importance of preserving life, the sanctity of marriage, the advantages of raising children at home and the importance of “relying on family, and on your core values, and not on the government.”

“It’s not an easy road to be a Christian, and if it was, everybody would be on it,” she said. She passed out blank white note cards and asked each woman to write down a worry to surrender to God. Then, before closing, she asked what they wanted to pray for.

“Our president,” said one, and the women in the group nodded.

“Our values,” said another.

“All people in our country who are lost.”

“The soul of America.”

“Amen,” Cox said.

This is not a perfect narrative, and some questions go unanswered (such as the name of the church and the specific role of Cox’s vaguely referenced pastor husband).

But all in all, this piece converted me. Mark me down as a believer in this particular Post story.

Broken heart image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Chris Bolinger

    You should have stuck with your first instinct, Bobby. This piece is rife with problems, a primary one being that it portrays Beth Cox as representing not just her town or county or region or even the entire state of Tennessee but all of the “GOP’s Red America”. That’s overreaching, to put it mildly. Maybe Saslow thinks that by omitting details about Cox he can homogenize her but, as you noted, the tactic works against him. Typical WaPost.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    I can see your point, Chris.

    I think the piece does attempt to capture the essence of red state America by focusing on one individual. Obviously, no one individual can epitomize everyone. But I thought this piece did a reasonably effective job of portraying one typical red state American.

    Was there an aspect of the story that unfairly portrayed red state Americans, in your opinion? I felt most of what I read about this woman rang true as far as the conservative Republicans I know. And as I pointed out, the story provided some nuance where this woman departed from the standard line.

    I would welcome any specific critiques related to the reporting and journalism.

    • Chris Bolinger

      Cox is a “typical red state American”? How do you know? Have you done exhaustive research? No. Your perspective is based on people you know.

      The primary problem in the piece is not the quality of the reporting or the accuracy of the portrayal of Cox. It’s that the piece overreaches to prove a flawed premise, that there is an “essence of red state America”.

  • Steve

    I concur with Bobby. It is one of the more respectful articles about southern, Christian people – treating Mrs. Cox’s life and beliefs with dignity. Living in the state of “Honey Boo Boo” has conditioned me to be very skeptical of any article about our region.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The media is certainly spinning the election as a giant loss for conservatives and Republicans and those Catholics and Evangelicals interested in traditional values. And also propagandizing for the Republican Party to become as liberal as the Democratic Left.
    But wait a minute: Obama’s victory was fairly narrow for an incumbent president. And where were his coattails that winning presidential candidates usually have???–Non-existent!!! Republicans in the Senate lost only two seats, mostly caused by 2 inept, virtually moronic candidates that the media smeared all Republicans with (interesting that the smear apparently didn’t work in other states or districts).
    As for the House (traditionally considered the real mirror of the people because Reps have to stand for re-election every 2 years–not 4 or 6— and they have much smaller districts.) But the Republicans overall lost not a seat and maintained their landslide level from 2 years ago. One wonders what the election results would have looked like if the media hadn’t been so pro-Obama and anti-Romney.

  • Ken Mott

    Deacon: Before you get too carried away with your ideas about the House districts being “closer to the people,” you might want to note that nationally, many more people (about 2 million) voted Democratic than Republican in the various House races. In short, what saved the House majority for the GOP was not the popularity of its agenda, but rather good old gerrymandering. The closest thing to the voters are their votes.

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