Opinion

This Is Not Your Father’s Bible Belt. Can Dems Make It Theirs?

Republicans have long claimed a monopoly on religion, but that could be changing

Ninth Congressional district Democratic candidate Dan McCready. (Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

OPINION — There’s a series of striking images in a televised ad for Dan McCready, who is seeking to represent North Carolina’s reliably conservative 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. It puts the candidate’s military record and faith front and center — not entirely surprising for someone vying for voters in a swath of the state that includes an affluent section of Charlotte, as well as parts of rural counties all the way to the Fayetteville area, with its strong military presence.

In the ad, McCready stands with his troops as an announcer states that after 9/11, he “was called to serve his country.” Then the scene shifts, and the narrative continues to describe the Marine Corps veteran as finding another calling when he was baptized “in the waters of the Euphrates River.”

He is the Democrat in the race.

It’s not that the party is full of non-veteran heathens; it’s that the GOP has long sought to present that narrative, or at least claim itself as the more religious and military friendly of the two. But like Conor Lamb, another Democrat and veteran who beat a Republican candidate for a House seat in a Western Pennsylvania district that Donald Trump handily won, McCready is the party’s hope because he fits his district.

A big tent?

To counter dominance by the GOP, which has increasingly become one thing — the party of Trump — the Democrats are touting their big tent, resisting labels and stereotypes, and trying to reclaim onetime DNC chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, or something close to it. It promises to be a difficult task in this polarized present. You can be sure GOP money will attempt to “Nancy Pelosi” their way to retaining House control. But that often effective message is harder to sell when candidates chart their own path.

In other geographical locations, that strategy may produce Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City; progressive Democrat Ayanna Pressley, who upended predictions to win on Tuesday in her Massachusetts district; or a well-known Doug Jones in an Alabama Senate race.

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It can also produce some criticism that Democrats are trying to be all things to all people, which was raised by McCready’s primary opponent. Still, the candidate — who has said he would not support Pelosi as speaker if Democrats regained House control — is walking that line.

The district still favors a Republican, since it was crafted that way by GOP state legislators. On Tuesday, a federal three-judge panel ruled North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts would remain as is for the midterm election. Their ruling last week that the districts were unconstitutional because of “partisan gerrymandering” stands, and the current map can’t be used after the 2018 election. But it was decided that now is too late to do anything before Nov. 6.

In the 9th District, Republican Mark Harris’ strong faith background may have helped propel him past incumbent Robert Pittenger in the GOP primary. Both claimed allegiance to the president, though Harris presented himself as someone who would shake up the status quo. The former Baptist pastor may have surprised Pittenger, whose own biography featured his years as assistant to the president of Campus Crusade for Christ.

Both parties knew the race would be a battle in a battleground state no matter which way this week’s ruling was decided. In North Carolina, that means candidates have been crafting appealing policies and personalities in what is still the Bible Belt, though its religious diversity would surprise those whose opinion of the region was set years ago.

In recent years, North Carolina found itself in the middle of the “culture wars.” In 2012, voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the constitution that said “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state,” before the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal. In 2016, the state General Assembly revoked a Charlotte LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance that said, among other provisions, that people could use the bathroom for the gender with which they identify.

But then and now, the area is not exclusively the province of Franklin Graham, the leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and politically a supporter of all things Trump, no more than it is that of North Carolina’s Rev. William J. Barber II, architect of the “Moral Mondays” movement and leader of Repairers of the Breach.

The clergy is split between conservative and progressive denominations, and those in between, taking different sides on issues and all claiming it’s a matter of faith — or their interpretations of it on an issue such as immigration reform, to use just one example.

The North Carolina Values Coalition, whose vision is “to be a powerful positive political force that advances a culture in North Carolina where human life is valued, religious liberty thrives, and marriage & families flourish,” shares a Friday Five list of “articles, stories, and quotes.” Recently it included what it called a Charlotte Observer “hit piece against Mark Harris that distorts Scripture and Harris’ sermons” that featured sentiments Harris expressed in past talks and to Roll Call on the role of wives in marriage and on homosexuality as a choice. The list also highlighted the money “San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi” has spent “to defeat” Harris.

Then, last week, ahead of Trump’s Friday visit, in which he campaigned and raised money for Harris and incumbent Rep. Ted Budd and warned that “some really bad people” are running for office, a group of faith and community leaders gathered to, its release said, “denounce sexist and homophobic rhetoric of Rev. Mark Harris.” The group pointed to Harris’ support of the 2012 amendment and the 2016 “bathroom” bill, positions shared by the NC Values Coalition.

Rev. Melissa McQueen of Many Voices, a black church movement for gay and transgender justice, said in a statement: “As a proud same-gender-loving woman, a mother, spouse, and a veteran, the God that I know, the God that I love, and the God that loves me is a God that loves everyone.”

In a region that has always been defined in part by its faith, the definition of what that means, exactly, is changing. How fast and how far is the question that may swing votes in close congressional races in North Carolina and beyond.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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