Ghosts in blue-state — er, red-state — West Virginia?

There’s a lot to digest in the Washington Post’s nearly 4,000-word political road trip to West Virginia, headlined “A blue state’s road to red.” Even at that word count — mammoth for a newspaper — it’s a definite challenge to boil down an entire state, its people and their attitudes and way of life into a single story.

Does the Post provide an accurate portrayal? Or does it traffic in stereotypes and condescension? Since I don’t live in West Virginia, I’m not sure I’m qualified to provide a definitive analysis on those questions.

But I will take a shot at critiquing the religion angle, which figures somewhat prominently in the Post’s report, starting at the top:

PINEVILLE, W.Va. — Those old enough to remember still tell visitors how this mountain town helped make history on April 26, 1960. That was the day 600 people showed up in front of the Wyoming County courthouse to hear a patrician senator with a Boston accent make his case to be their next president.

The electricity that afternoon in Pineville foreshadowed bigger things to come for the struggling candidate. Two weeks later, John F. Kennedy won more than 60 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary, a victory that helped move the country past the presumption that a Catholic could never be elected to the White House.

In late June of this year, another expression of Pineville’s values appeared on the terraced lawn of the old courthouse. There was no fanfare around the installation of the new stone monument, but like that Kennedy rally more than half a century ago, it was a way of saying how the town felt about where the nation is headed.

The stone is engraved with the Ten Commandments, and it instructs: “They are to be used as a historical reference and model to enrich the knowledge of our citizens to an early origin of law from past generations so that they will serve as a historical guide for future generations to come.”

Interestingly, the Post isn’t the only major newspaper giving the JFK/West Virginia connection prominent ink this week. USA Today had a front-page story recounting when the state’s 1960 Democratic primary ensured Kennedy’s nomination and smashed “the myth that Bible Belt Protestants wouldn’t vote for a Roman Catholic.”

But while the Post story contains a fair amount of religion, the actual insight into West Virginia’s faith — and its role in the political shift — seems pretty shallow.

Concerning the Ten Commandments monument, the Post reports:

The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that this is an encroachment of church on state, and an affront to religious minorities. A headline on the front page of the Charleston Gazette on July 4 asked: “Constitutional showdown in the making?”

But most here seem to agree with Melissa Mitchell, a stay-at-home mom who was getting things organized for a midsummer church picnic at a park near the courthouse.

“We love it, and we will fight for it,” she said of the stone marker.

Why? “Honestly, because everybody in this county hates Barack Obama. That is the biggest reason,” Mitchell said.

Animosity toward President Obama runs high here. He lost Wyoming County by nearly 56 percentage points last year, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1.

But as Mitchell and her friends talked more about it, their conversation turned to fears and anxieties that had little to do with party or politics. They discussed the well-paying jobs that had vanished with the coal industry; the crime and drugs that followed: the changing culture that mocks what they hold sacred.

“This county has seen the need for God. We can’t control what’s going on out there in the world, but on this small little corner of our small little town, we can,” said one woman, who gave her name only as Megan.

Maybe this is nitpicking, but I’d prefer a little deeper reporting — and religious insight — than a quote from a woman “who gave her name only as Megan.”

Then again, the Post seems willing to make all kinds of broad generalizations without any named sources at all:

Racism also may play a role in the changing political dynamic of a state where 94 percent of the population is white. Here as elsewhere, people traffic in false rumors that the nation’s first black president is a Muslim and that he was born in Africa.

But even assuming prejudice roils beneath the surface, it cannot explain the tectonic shift in West Virginia’s political allegiances. Race was not a reason voters rejected Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004, or why Obama’s Election Day total slid seven percentage points from 2008 to 2012.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d love a source on the “people traffic in false rumors” statement. Where did the Post get the information? Did actual West Virginia residents tell the Post that they believe that or have been told that by neighbors? If so, why not quote them and give the information some credibility?

Later in the story, there’s this religious anecdote — again without many details to put it into context:

On the evening of July 3, the Christ Temple Church in Huntington was rocking with patriotic hymns. One, written by members of the church, was titled, “God Save Our Country Once Again.”

Mayor Steve Williams strode onstage with a Bible in his right hand, and a bound copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the other.

“Our independence day is on Easter Sunday,” he said, and held the Bible aloft. “This is our Declaration of Independence.”

In West Virginia, Democratic politicians feel comfortable saying things like that.

What is the religious makeup of West Virginia? How does the faith of West Virginia residents play into the changing political landscape? Both good questions, if you ask me, but the Post addresses both only casually, allowing ghosts to haunt its long, winding political road trip.

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.

  • Kevin Spencer

    A meta-question not answered by the Kennedy reference is why the notion of a Catholic president in 1960 was considered improbable. As a new Catholic a few years ago, still digesting Christian history and U.S. history, I reached an epiphany: America was built on Protestant Christianity. Today, while the Catholic Church in the States has the highest membership numbers, the combined non-Catholic faiths are far larger. The story makes a presumption of national religious history, neglecting the point that 1 in every 6 humans is Catholic, per statistical and parish sources.

    • n_coast

      You could go back to Al Smith’s 1928 campaign (vs. Herbert Hoover). You could go farther back to the 17th century when dominant Puritans outlawed Catholicism and Anglicanism in Maryland.

      • JoFro

        Maryland – the state created to give Catholics a refuge among the Protestant sea they existed in. Ah, the irony!

        • n_coast

          The colony, actually.

          • JoFro

            Ah, but still!


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