God, Tennessee, culture and that (ironic) red-flannel shirt

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Once again, the oh-so-bookish politician cloaked in that red plaid shirt is touring the complex state of Tennessee, trying to walk the complicated line between the populism of the old Democratic South and today’s modern Republican realities. One of the major problems faced by Sen. Lamar Alexander remains the same: He is the kind of Republican that, every now and then, when the mood strikes them, mainstream journalists are willing to describe as “moderate” — especially in contrast with tea-party people and, well, you know who.

As a former taxpayer in that unique region called East Tennessee (and someone who will return there soon), I have seen my share of political advertisements and debates in that region and I know where some of the fault lines can be found. The three “states” of Tennessee (see the stars on the flag) are unique and very different regions and cultures. The state, as a whole, is the kind of place where some Democrats remain culturally conservative and many old-guard Republicans have close, defining ties to country clubs as well as churches.

So, what are the hurdles facing Alexander as he runs for another term? Folks at The Washington Post, GetReligion readers will be shocked to learn, are a bit tone deaf to the cultural, moral and religious elements of this drama. It’s all just politics.

Yes, the ties between Alexander and the late Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., one of the good-guy Republicans of the Watergate era, are at the heart of this story and they should be. Trust me, I get that.

Like Baker, Alexander (R-Tenn.) has had an exemplary career in public service. He was elected to two terms as governor of Tennessee and later served as president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary. Twice he sought his party’s nomination for president, though, like Baker, he was unsuccessful. In 2002, he won election to the Senate.

Throughout his career, Alexander has embodied Baker’s style of consensus-building politics — and largely for that reason he is now, at 74, facing tea party opposition in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. But the tea party activists are competing against more than just one sitting senator and a Republican establishment lined up behind him. They are running against Baker’s legacy — a culture of Republican politics that has married conservative principles with pragmatic attitudes about governing.

For half a century, Tennessee voters have elected a succession of Republicans to statewide office who are more problem-solvers than ideologues, consensus-seekers rather than rabble-rousers. The current trio — Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam — all embody in one way or another the Baker tradition.

“They don’t want big government, but they do want government to work,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist and former Tennessee Republican Party chairman, said of the three, “There’s not a hard edge to them.”

Friends and neighbors, there is more to the current ballot-box tensions between Alexander and state lawmaker Joe Carr than mere tea-party stuff. That “hard edge” quote? That is largely a matter of culture and, in the three states of Tennessee, it’s hard to talk about culture without mentioning religion.

But the Post team sure tries to ignore religion and culture in this story. Like I said, we’re talking tone deaf. Some of the clashes between pragmatism and populism are linked to moral, cultural, educational and religious issues. We are talking about two or three different kinds of conservatism.

Read between the lines in this Alexander quote:

Alexander believes Baker’s approach is as vital today as ever. Every Republican in the Senate, he said, is a conservative. “It’s like saying, ‘Who’s the skinniest offensive tackle?’ They’re all over 300 pounds, so what’s the difference?”

He argued that governing a complex country in difficult times requires developing relationships and finding consensus across party lines. The real conflict inside the Republican Party is not conservatives vs. moderates, he said, but rather “between conservatives who think their job is finished when they make a speech and conservatives who want to govern.”

And part of the reality in consensus building is a willingness to get along with politicians from more culturally liberal parts of the nation. Thus, read between the lines in this passage late in the story — the only hint the Post grants to issues outside tea-party battles.

Bill Purcell, the Democratic former mayor of Nashville, said, “In general, it’s been a state that sits in the middle — in the middle of the South, in the middle of the battles that raged around it — and tended to think the high middle ground was the place to be.”

Alexander, Corker and Haslam all come from East Tennessee. Carr’s base is around Nashville, in the collar counties where social conservatives have more influence and where the tea party has taken root. … It probably is the region where Alexander’s vote count will be lowest.

So can you say Common Core? Yes, immigration is a hot-button topic, but where do the candidate differ on issues linked to health care and religious liberty? As a potential look into that issue, surf the following material about Carr and right-to-life issues.

If I were covering this race, I would try to find out — I will keep trying, myself — how Carr answers one of the first questions people will ask each other in small-town and suburban Tennessee, which is his base: Where do you go to church?

Alexander, meanwhile, is actually an elder in (wait for it) the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), linked to a historic, prestigious and very culturally connected congregation. Does this make him a liberal? No way, in this part of the world. Does this mean that — along with his Vanderbilt University and New York University Law School degrees — Alexander is not a natural when it comes to hanging out with Pentecostals, Baptists and other megachurch evangelicals?

This is why some Tennesseans tend to doubt the sincerity of the candidate’s trademark red-flannel shirt. Note this interesting section of his online biography:

He is a classical and country pianist and the author of seven books, including Six Months Off, the story of his family’s life in Australia after he was governor.

Lamar Alexander and Honey Buhler were married in 1969. They have four children and six grandchildren. He is a Presbyterian elder.

Love the piano riff.

So, Post team, there’s more to culture in Tennessee than tea parties, literal or metaphorical. Ask a few religion and cultural questions and you’ll find other fault lines in this tense and symbolic primary race.

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.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    tmatt, question about the Submit button – sorry to use the combox this way, but you can delete the comment! – The Submit page and also your Contact page at tmatt.net do not seem to be loading or functioning properly. I wanted to submit something, not sure if it went through. Just letting you know.

    • tmatt

      Hang on. Four days to GetReligion 4.0

  • Daniel Merriman

    I don’t get a sense that this is at all a “tense” race. Looks more like the national media is looking for something to write about, but I sit in East Tennessee where there is no visible sign of any traction for Carr. Maybe something is brewing in the other parts of the state, but here in ET we tend to follow our leaders. I guess the angle you are looking for is missing from the coverage, but if its a nothing burger to start with, who cares?


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