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.

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Pod people: Local vs. national press on religious liberty

Proposed religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors — such as bakers, florists and photographers — opposed to same-sex marriage keep making headlines.

Here at GetReligion, we’ve highlighted recent media coverage of a ballot initiative in Oregon and legislation in Kansas (where the Senate, for now, has killed a controversial measure). The Tennessean reported this week on a similar bill failing in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research released results of a national survey today. LifeWay’s Bob Smietana has the story:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Americans have always had mixed feelings about religious liberty. Most say it’s important, but they don’t always agree how much liberty is enough or too much.

That’s the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also say Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Of course, social media such as Twitter are the modern-day water cooler, and the religious liberty issue inspired an interesting discussion Wednesday between two of Religion News Service’s national correspondents: Sarah Pulliam Bailey (of former GetReligionista fame) and Cathy Grossman (who has blogged on the “values tug-of-war”).

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Yet another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story

Over the weekend, I did a post titled “Another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story.”

I complained, not for the first time, that The Associated Press seems to have decided that stories about same-sex marriage need to include only one side: the side excited about same-sex marriage.

My post prompted this comment from a gay-rights advocate who identified himself as Scott L:

Sounds like the AP is behaving like a responsible organization in 2013. Marriage equality is a reality in much of the country. Accept it.

I spiked that comment and a few others that railed against the gay-rights movement because they fell outside our policy for reader feedback:

Engage the contents of the post. This is a journalism weblog. Please strive to comment on journalism issues, not your opinions of the doctrinal or political beliefs of other people.

In a nutshell, as we’ve explained many times, GetReligion is a website that focuses on journalism and media coverage issues. We advocate for fair and accurate news reporting and identify ghosts in religion news coverage. But Scott L took to Twitter to accuse me of bias:

After I encouraged Scott to make his point with a clear journalistic focus, another reader (with whom I have had a few personal and professional ties over the years) chimed in:

I replied:

But as I explained, I couldn’t have a serious discussion in 140-character bits on Twitter. And also, I was on deadline with my real job yesterday.

So here we are … so I’ll attempt to answer the questions.

First, on the notion that pro-gay comments get moderated or deleted. Yes, that’s right. And so do anti-gay comments that have nothing do with journalism. This is not a site to advocate one side or the other. It’s a site to discuss journalism. If you want to suggest that journalism needs to tell only one side of the story, do that and explain why in terms that make it clear you’re not simply arguing the doctrinal or political issues.

Second, on Greg’s question of whether it’s disingenuous to require both sides of every story. There’s nothing disingenuous at all about my contention that fair, responsible journalism should include voices on both (or all) sides of big, important public debates.

Do we ask the KKK to comment on NAACP stories? Not necessarily. But if you’re writing about a KKK rally, yes, try to get a comment from the KKK. Sorry, folks, but that’s journalism. Sometimes, we quote people with whom we vehemently disagree.

I’ve written 450-plus posts for GetReligion since 2010. I’d invite Scott or Greg or anyone else to send me any links to my posts that were advocacy on either side of an important issue and not advocacy for quality journalism.

For Scott and Greg, the debate over same-sex marriage may be over, and they may have strong opinions on which side is correct, which is certainly their right in a free country. But from a journalistic perspective, a responsible reporter can’t make that determination.

The latest example that I’ll use comes from Tennessee, where AP again seems to have decided to tell only one side of the story:

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A Messiah was born … in Tennessee

Let’s face it: Some parents give their babies weird names.

Years ago, as a features writer for The Oklahoman, my wife, Tamie, wrote about a teenager named Cocaine — er, Kokain:

Kokain Mothershed thinks his father must have been on drugs when he named him.

Check his birth certificate, and you’ll find only that first and last name. Ouch. It’s real, all right.

But why in the world would anyone name their child after an illegal substance?

“Well, that’s a real good question,” the 17-year-old from Oklahoma City said. “I’m just glad (my dad’s) in recovery now.”

The Douglass High School junior quarterback is as quick on his feet as he is in the pocket. He’s already looking at colleges and wants to study computer science.

And he hasn’t let the drug connection ruin his life, he said, even though he can’t escape the image.

“I’ve got a cousin. Her name is Marijuana,” Kokain said. “But I don’t see her much. She’s locked up now.”

Strange, huh?

But this is the United States, land of the free, so parents have the right to name their offspring whatever they want — no matter how Strange.

Or maybe not.

An Associated Press story out of Tennessee reported earlier this week:

NEWPORT, Tenn. (AP) — A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.”

Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ordered the name change last week, according to WBIR-TV (http://on.wbir.com/1cDOeTY).The boy’s parents were in court because they could not agree on the child’s last name, but when the judge heard the boy’s first name, she ordered it changed, too.

“It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is,” Ballew said.

Um, only in America. Or something like that.

The first AP story, referenced above, hit the quick high points, but I wondered if the wire service would give the case more serious attention than a gee-whiz bright. I was pleased to see a slightly more in-depth report last night.

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Strangely faith-free story about ministry to feed the poor

For the past two decades, I have spent quite a bit of time driving the back roads of the Southern Highlands, which is one of the many names that locals use to describe the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

One of my very favorite East Tennessee roads runs from the back of Johnson City — where my family lived during our Milligan College years — down the Nolichucky River into the back side of Greeneville. The mountains there are high, lonesome and as beautiful as any in the region. They are almost completely free of development, especially when it comes to tourists.

But as any local knows, there are mountain people up in there and their lives are very hard. The word “Appalachian” has many meanings and extreme poverty is part of the picture.

The Washington Post ran a fine, but haunted, news feature the other day about a rolling food-bank project to fight hunger among the shattered families along those mountain roads above the Nolichucky. Please read it all, because it’s well worth the time.

If you look carefully at the photo that ran with the piece, you learn that this particular anti-hunger project has a name, a name that is not mentioned in the article for some reason. However, readers do find out quite a bit about the bus driver and the people he feeds.

The driver’s name was Rick Bible, and his 66-mile route through the hills of Greene County marked the government’s latest attempt to solve a rise in childhood hunger that had been worsening for seven consecutive years.

Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.

So, earlier this year, a food bank in Tennessee came up with a plan to reverse the model. Instead of relying on children to find their own transportation to summer meal sites, it would bring food to children. The food bank bought four used school buses for $4,000 each and designed routes that snake through some of the most destitute land in the country, where poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.

Good stuff.

However, as a former resident of the region, my religion-ghost alarm went off immediately when I saw — in that photo, not in the story text — that the name of the food bank was Second Harvest. As it turns out, this charity is linked to Greeneville Community Ministries.

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Democrats, Jesus and deer hunting in the GOP Sunbelt

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For starters, as a culturally conservative Democrat who loved his years in Tennessee (and plans to return to the Volunteer state someday), let me be the first to say that reading a Washington Post Style section piece about the anti-U.S. Senate campaign of Mark Clayton was kind of a guilty pleasure. It was like sort of like watching a figure-eight track stock car race in slow motion.

Whatever Clayton is — I lean toward the theory that he is a closeted Republican mocking the state’s now-feeble Democrats — it’s clear that, as a candidate, he is more than a few tacos short of a combination platter. The dude’s elevator is not stopping on all the floors, in other words, as the Style-section journalism gods delight in making clear.

Every election, of course, is crowded with losers: the sacrificial lambs, the one-issue zealots, the novelty name-changers (Thomas Jefferson, of Kansas, is running for Congress. Santa Claus, of Nevada, is running for president). But Clayton stands out. Nobody who has the opportunity he has — a major-party nomination for the Senate in a nail-biter election in which every Senate race has outsize importance — has so little chance of taking advantage of it.

In Wyoming, Democratic challenger Tim Chesnut is a long shot; his actual slogan is “Chesnut is the best nut for Senate.” But he at least has his party behind him. In Washington, Republican challenger Michael Baumgartner recently told a reporter to “go [expletive] yourself.” But he at least has raised nearly $1 million.

In Tennessee, Clayton’s policy ideas set him apart from many other Democrats: He is unusual in opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but he’s downright exceptional in saying that the Transportation Security Administration “mandates [transsexuals] and homosexuals grabbing children in their stranger-danger zones.” …

During Clayton’s failed Senate run in 2008, his Web site suggested that the U.S. government might be replaced with a “North American Union” and that Google was working against him at the behest of the Chinese government.

But his ideas about campaigning itself might be even more un­or­tho­dox. Almost everything other candidates do, Clayton said, is wrong.

“There’s other people who have gone out and put signs all over, and gone and talked to people,” he said on the phone. “And they get less votes. They go down.”

The key to his campaign, he is reported as saying, is his Facebook page. He has 382 “likes.” Well, LOL.

But for me, in terms of religion, Clayton is not the most zippy, of-the-wall part of this colorful story. Nope, things get really strange when the LEGITIMATE Democrats try to step in and head this rogue donkey off at the pass.

In terms of religion-news content, I was going to let this one pass me by.

Then I hit this section and burst out laughing on my commuter train (thank goodness I wasn’t sitting in the quiet car).

Tennessee Democrats, who’d watched their conservative voters drift to the GOP, finally lost the state House in 2010. That had been a financial lifeline for Democrats, since the legislature has broad powers over patronage. …

This year, the cash-poor party faced a rematch with … a popular incumbent with $14 million to spend. It went looking for a candidate who could run on the cheap, and they thought they’d found someone in Park Overall.

“I said to him that night on the phone, ‘Ain’t you got anybody — g** ***n it, Chip — to run?’ And he said no,” recalled Overall, an actress best known for playing the sassy nurse Laverne on the 1990s sitcom “Empty Nest.”

Overall, 55, had returned to her native Tennessee as a well-known liberal. She was talking to the state Democratic chairman, Chip Forrester.

She resisted. For a while.

“Then, he caught me drinking one night,” Overall recounted in a phone interview. “And I said: ‘Aw, hellfire. Let’s just do it.’?”

It didn’t go well. Overall refused to spend more than $100 of her own money on the campaign (“I was a big actress years ago. Money goes.”). She said the party wasn’t much help, either: It loaned her a book called “Deer Hunting With Jesus” to help reach religious voters. Overall was also sidelined for weeks by illness.

When the primary arrived on Aug. 2, she came in third, with 24,000 votes. In second place was Gary Gene Davis, a Chattanooga man who spent less than $100 (“And that was in gas,” Davis said). In first place was Clayton, with 48,000 votes. He had spent just $65 to get them. But, state Democratic officials said, Clayton had a crucial advantage: The ballot was alphabetical.

So, “Deer Hunting With Jesus” is the answer for the postmodern Democrats? That’s the plan for getting back in the game in the booming Sunbelt?

You can’t make this stuff up. Read it all.


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