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The stone is engraved with the Ten Commandments, and it instructs: “They are to be used as a historical reference and model to enrich the knowledge of our citizens to an early origin of law from past generations so that they will serve as a historical guide for future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