Mississippi candidates render unto voters a heavy dose of religion and politics

Published 10:25 pm Saturday, October 27, 2007

Politics and religion might occupy separate spheres in some parts of the country, but as Mississippians prepare to elect a governor, they’re being inundated with messages that intertwine the ballot box and the old rugged cross.

National Republicans have enjoyed a solid alliance with conservative Christian groups the past couple of decades. Democrats, though, aren’t giving an inch this year in this mostly Protestant, buckle-of-the-Bible-Belt state.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Arthur Eaves Jr., a Jackson attorney, appears in one TV ad holding a Bible and talking about how Jesus ministered to the “least and the lost.”

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In campaign speeches, Eaves pledges to set aside 10 minutes each day for voluntary, student-led prayer in public schools. He accuses Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of being beholden to “moneychangers” — big tobacco, oil and insurance companies that Barbour once represented as a Washington lobbyist.

“The most crucial question this campaign is, ‘Who do you serve?’ I want to serve my Creator by serving the people of Mississippi,” said Eaves, 41, who has put $2.5 million of his own money into his largely self-funded campaign.

Barbour, 60, has raised $8.4 million as he seeks a second term in the Nov. 6 election. He counters that Eaves’ school prayer plan is unconstitutional and could jeopardize the freedom students already have to gather for voluntary religious services.

When Eaves invokes the biblical image of Christ throwing the moneychangers out of the temple to question whether the governor still has ties to his old lobbying firm, Barbour slings back with an Old Testament reference of his own.

“There’s a little part in the Bible where Daniel is in Babylon and the king of Babylon, Belshazzar, a hand appears out of nowhere and writes a message on the wall of the temple and Daniel has to interpret it,” Barbour said during a recent debate.

“If a hand appeared on that wall and wrote, ‘Haley Barbour gets no income other than his retirement from Barbour Griffith and Rogers and owns no interest in Barbour Griffith and Rogers,’ that wouldn’t be good enough for my opponent.”

The next day, Eaves supporters exchanged e-mails pointing out that in the story Barbour cited from Daniel, the writing on the wall told Belshazzar, in part, “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end” — and that the words came true.

Barbour served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993-97, and built alliances with religious conservatives, including the Christian Coalition. He has kept many of those connections alive. Ralph Reed brought the Christian Coalition to national prominence as its leader from 1989 to 1997. When Reed ran for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006, Barbour endorsed him. Reed lost that election.

The intertwining of religion and politics is nothing new in Mississippi.

Candidates often court voters in churches, particularly during the last few Sundays before elections. Legislators here open each day with prayer, often Christian-specific invocations from ministers. Several years ago, Mississippi lawmakers mandated that “In God We Trust” be posted in every public school classroom.

Joseph Parker, a University of Southern Mississippi political science professor, said Eaves’ constant references to religion could appeal to some voters and grate on others.

Parker said he has a friend who’s a yellow-dog Democrat who won’t vote for Eaves because he considers the promises about school prayer to be inappropriate.

“I think you could kind of figure what segment of the electorate those messages are aimed at, and it’s that segment of what were once blue-collar Democrats that have become Reagan Democrats or Karl Rove Democrats or whatever,” Parker said. “It’s an effort to win those people back.”

James C. Shoulders, pastor of Rising Sun Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson, said he believes daily devotional at school would help youngsters stay on track and avoid jail later in life.

“We’re losing our children to drugs, gangs, all these other things,” Shoulders said. “We need back the prayer in our schools. When I was coming up, we did have prayer every morning.”

The Rev. Phillip Knight of Florence, Miss., president of the conservative Congregational Methodist denomination and state director of Christians United for Israel, said he’s bothered by Eaves’ references to “moneychangers,” a term often used in a derogatory way about Jews. Eaves said he doesn’t intend the reference to be anti-Jewish.

“Any student of the Bible will also remember that when Jesus ran the moneychangers out of the temple, he and his followers were also Jewish,” Eaves said.

Knight said he plans to vote for Barbour, largely because of the governor’s stance against abortion and against same-sex marriage — positions that Eaves also publicly advocates.

“We’re values voters for sure,” Knight said. “(Barbour) matches up perfectly with us there.”