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Gary Pearce: Politics, religion inextricably linked

Race and religion have always shaped America’s politics. Race now dominates the 2020 debate, but religion will play a crucial role. It always does.

Churches are on the front lines of protests against racism. People of faith, black and white, may not be packing the pews because of COVID-19, but they’re standing up and speaking out.

In white evangelical churches, some people view the protests as riots, lawlessness and one more sign that America is on the wrong path. These are the people President Trump was signaling when he held up that Bible.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has deeper roots among these evangelical Christians than any Republican gubernatorial candidate before him. When North Carolina’s original COVID-19 restrictions covered churches, Forest told pastors the political left was using the pandemic in a war against churches: “There is no doubt that there are people that are on the left that are using this to pull certain levers to see how far that they can go. How far are they able to push? How long can they keep churches shut down? How long will Christians be silent on this matter before they stand up?”

I learned the hard way that those voters can be crucial. When Gov. Jim Hunt ran against Sen. Jesse Helms in 1984, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had a goal of registering 100,000 new voters for Helms through fundamentalist churches.

Hunt got swamped in many of those precincts, especially in rural areas and small towns. He lost by about 86,000 votes, 52% to 48%.

In 1980, the Moral Majority played a big part in Ronald Reagan’s election. Ironically, he beat Jimmy Carter, whose openness about his born-again faith in the 1976 campaign made some Democrats uncomfortable.

Elizabeth Dole, who succeeded Helms in the Senate, courted evangelicals and “prayer warriors.” But she hurt herself in her 2008 reelection race with an ad suggesting that Kay Hagan, her Democratic opponent, was affiliated with atheists who wanted to remove references to God from the public arena. The ad ran Hagan’s photo with another woman’s voice saying, “There is no God.”

Dole lost.

After Republicans won control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010, evangelicals pushed for the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In 2016, the legislature passed the “bathroom bill,” which Lt. Gov. Forest and evangelicals strongly supported. Former Gov. Pat McCrory’s quick decision to sign that bill may have cost him reelection.

Democrats have their own church ties. African-American churches host voter registration and Election Day turnout drives. Candidates flock to churches on Sundays.

North Carolina has a tradition of progressive white churches. Just as they support today’s protests, they were active in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests.

Religion and politics go way back here.

In 1928, anti-Catholic feeling was so strong that solidly Democratic North Carolina went 55-45 for Republican Herbert Hoover over Al Smith, a Catholic.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy faced anti-Catholic prejudice. When he campaigned in North Carolina that September, he was asked – in a question his campaign may have arranged – if he’d take orders from the Pope. Kennedy said no; he would take an oath as President, on the Bible, to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Period.

He carried North Carolina. He won big margins in eastern counties that were heavily Democratic then and are heavily evangelical now.

America may have separation of church and state, but politics and religion are inseparable. Where you sit on Sunday says a lot about how you vote on Election Day. 

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant and adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt. He blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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