Spring 1999, Vol. 2, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Civil Religious Affair

Covering the Bible Belt II:  A Freethinker's Testimony

Covering the Bible Belt III:  Liaisons Religieuses

God in the Press Box

Excommunication in Rochester

No National Conspiracy

Religion on the Small Screen

Epic Respectability

Covering the Bible Belt I:  
Montgomery Wars: Religion and Alabama Politics

by Gerald Johnson

Last June, with much of the nation’s media held in thrall, Alabama offered itself as a testing ground for the power of the Religious Right and the Republican Party. Governor Forest Hood "Fob" James, flamboyant paladin of fundamentalism and states rights, faced moderate businessman Winton Blount in a runoff election for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

"Today is an important day for the Religious Right in America," proclaimed the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. "It’s the day that Fob James learns whether he will be carrying the cross of fundamentalist fervor into the general election for governor of Alabama...The Religious Right is treating it as high stakes. James has made religion, rather than race the fulcrum of Alabama politics...Fob James, defender of the Ten Commandments, defender of prayer in the schools, is the Religious Right’s best shot at working its will on an entire state."

And despite uniformly negative press both in and out of Alabama, James, with the Christian Coalition and its former director Ralph Reed as high profile supporters, cruised to victory. "I don’t need to tell you that in God’s wisdom and planning, the eyes of America are going to be on Alabama on June 30," Reed told James supporters just before the election. "You have here in Alabama a governor who has taken the most courageous stand on behalf of the Ten Commandments, school prayer, religious freedom, the protection of unborn life, and...the values that you and I share."

During his first term as a GOP governor (he also served a term as a Democrat from 1978 to 1982), James enthusiastically embraced the role of commander-in-chief of the Alabama front in America’s ongoing "culture wars" of religion and politics. His initiatives to thwart federal judicial power and to assert Christian symbols in public life attracted national attention. And he promised more combat in his second term.

The attention of the media wandered after the primary, and many Americans were surprised last November when James decisively lost his bid for reelection to Donald Siegelman, a moderate-liberal Democrat whose campaign focused on establishing a state lottery to fund public education. James’s defeat was one of several that cast doubt on the Religious Right’s capacity to win statewide general elections.

While Siegelman’s victory suggests that there are strict limits-even in the Deep South-to the power of the Religious Right, James’s strategy of linking the rhetoric of states rights to public Christianity bears examination. Alabama’s current culture war involves a number of related skirmishes: teaching creationism versus evolution, posting the Ten Commandments in public places, praying in school and praying before football games. For many years, race provided either the substance or the rationalization for states rights political arguments. Now religion does.

Governor James began mingling state and religion at his 1995 inauguration with customary flair. Like many fundamentalists, he and his wife are fascinated by the reestablishment of the State of Israel and have strong ties with leaders of Orthodox Judaism there. To underline the point, James, an Episcopalian, gave a prominent place in his inaugural ceremony to rabbinical prayers and Jewish music-atypical fare in Alabama. Behind the inaugural podium was a huge banner proclaiming that the Tenth Amendment reserved powers to the states.

Early in his term, in an appearance as chair of the State Board of Education, the governor aped the theory of evolution by slowly crossing the stage beginning in a crouch and ending erect. The incident embarrassed more moderate Republicans, and during the 1988 primary Winton Blount told the Weekly Standard that Alabama didn’t need a governor "dancing around the stage like a monkey."

Later in 1995, James captured national attention when he initiated legal action against the American Civil Liberties Union after the ACLU brought suit against an Alabama circuit judge for displaying the Ten Commandments and allowing only Christian prayers in his courtroom. James vowed to use state troopers and the National Guard to keep the Ten Commandments on the courtroom wall. "The only way those Ten Commandments and prayer would be stripped from that courtroom is with the force of arms," the Associated Press quoted James, summoning up the image of George Wallace confronting federal marshals at the doors at the University of Alabama.

In 1997, James mounted a battle against an Alabama federal judge who had issued a ruling prohibiting school-sponsored prayers in DeKalb County. James sent a 30-page treatise to the judge entitled, "How the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court think they are more ‘deliberate’ than the ‘people’ of the United States."

The next year, he sent the court a long brief written by his lawyer son contending it was in error in its rulings on the separation of church and state. The Bill of Rights does not apply to the states, he argued, informing the justices (the AP reported) "he believes government officials should defy high court decisions they consider unconstitutional." Interviewed a year ago on NBC’s Today show, James charged the high court with "lawlessness" and "judicial fraud": "Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln defied court orders," he said. "And they said very plainly, if you allow an unelected tribunal of five or six people to set public policy, then at that hour, the people have lost their right to rule."

As he grew more outspoken, James attracted significant support from the leaders of the Religious Right. He signed up Ralph Reed, late of the Christian Coalition, as a political consultant, and won the endorsements of such luminaries as James Dobson, Donald Wildmon, James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafley.

While the doings of Alabama’s governors haven’t attracted much national attention in recent years, Fob James’s states rights onslaught captured the eye of the out-of-state media almost as soon as he took office in 1995. And about 40 percent of the articles, commentaries, and wire service reports on James published or broadcast during his term examined his attempt to use religion to defy federal power.

"In true Alabama tradition, James is at war with the law," Time reported in a typical dispatch on September 4, 1995. "State and federal judges have, at one time or the another, declared Alabama’s pubic schools, mental institutions and foster-care system constitutionally inadequate. Rather than give in to judicial rulings he dislikes, James inveighs against ‘pygmy-headed, pea-brained so-called jurists,’ harking back to the time when Governor George Wallace recommended ‘barbed-wire enemas’ for federal judges. More substantively, James introduced a long-shot bill that would allow the legislature to overturn rulings of the Alabama Supreme Court from which three or more judges dissent."

The specter of Alabama’s segregationist past was much on the minds of out-of-state journalists. "George Wallace told Alabamians they could defy the federal government and keep segregation. Fob James tells Alabamians they can defy the federal courts and keep prayer in the public schools and the Ten Commandments hanging on a courtroom wall," NPR reported on "Morning Edition" on May 29, 1998.

Other voices put it even more strongly. "Too often in politics, demagoguery pays," complained the Tulsa World on July 6, 1998. "It’s certainly paid off for Alabama Gov. Fob James, whose strident support for government-sanctioned prayer and religious activity carried him to a big victory over a more moderate Republican...James’s braying defiance of the Supreme Court and federal government obviously played well with voters of both parties in Alabama. Demagoguery remains alive and well in the South."

Howell Raines, an Alabama native and editor of the New York Times editorial page, called James the latest in a long line of embarrassing Alabama governors. "Alabama’s lack of progress," Raines wrote in the Boston Globe in June 1998, "can be linked directly to its penchant for electing buffoons."

National coverage of James’s primary campaign often depicted Alabama’s religious struggles as a test of political strength of the national Religious Right. "As a battle for the soul of Southern Republicanism, the Alabama primary that Gov. Fob James won so convincingly on Tuesday reinforced a number of truths about the party and the region," The Austin American-Statesman editorialized on July 2, 1998. "Religious conservatives still wield immense influence. It was a campaign that probed the inherent tensions in Southern Republicanism, between the conservative Christians drawn to the party by a deeply felt moral agenda, and the business-oriented voters primarily concerned with the state’s economic interests."

There’s no question that the organized Religious Right gave James a powerful boost in the primary. The Christian Coalition mailed out some 200,000 letters on his behalf, and provided marked sample ballots for distribution in churches throughout the state on the Sunday before the election. In the runoff campaign, Ralph Reed was a particularly active presence.

But journalists in and around Alabama, or those more committed to conservative politics, were more likely to see James as a shrewd operator. "When Fob James howls at hallowed American institutions the way he often does, it’s tempting to wonder whether he has basked too long under the full moon," the Atlanta Journal and Constitution editorialized on May 8, 1998. "His most recent outburst, however, appears to have more to do with a political rather than a lunar calendar."

If the national media tended to look at the larger church-state issues, in-state media saw James’s religion wars almost entirely in terms of Alabama politics. Not that they were any less critical. Every major newspaper in the state endorsed Winton Blount in the Republican primary runoff election.

Alabama journalists had three main complaints:

First, they contended that James was focusing on religion at the expense of matters more important to the direct welfare of Alabama. Brandt Ayers, editor of the Anniston Star, charged James with failing to maximize the state’s potential during a period when other states in the region were thriving economically. "He’s involved in all these crazy crusades," Ayres told the Boston Globe. "He’s devoted so much energy to defend the Ten Commandments you’d think somebody was out to repeal them." Second, they called attention to the threat the governor’s actions posed to basic constitutional processes. "It really isn’t very funny," declared the Montgomery Advertiser, "when the governor of Alabama wanders so far afield from fundamental understandings of constitutionality that have governed American law for so long."

Third, they were highly critical of the governor’s crusading zeal. As the Huntsville Times put it, "The people of Alabama, even the devoutly religious, did not necessarily elect this man to drag the entire state into ridicule and penury in support of ideas that are, at the very least, unusual."

But dragging the people of Alabama into high-profile religious politics was a central part of the James campaign strategy. And he did succeed in attracting both national attention and national support. The national media, in particular, were impressed by James’s victory in the runoff election against Winton Blount. Many in Alabama, however, questioned the strength of an incumbent governor who could win re-nomination only after a highly competitive general primary election and being forced into a runoff by a moderate Republican who had never before held office.

While the Religious Right certainly contributed to James’s runoff victory, it seems likely in retrospect that many white, conservative voters were more influenced by a more familiar factor in Alabama politics: race.

During the primary campaign, Blount received an unusual endorsement from Richard Arrington, the black Democratic mayor of Birmingham, who urged black voters to vote for him under the state’s open primary laws. The alliance of a silk-stocking Republican and a black, urban mayor generated a substantial and very rare increase in voter turnout in the runoff election, particularly in the rural areas of the state. It is this group that gave James the primary victory.

But just as the attention of the national media wandered away during the general election campaign, so did the support of many of James’s friends on the Religious Right. Immediately after the runoff primary in June, polling data began to show that James would lose big in the general election. Ralph Reed was seen no more. James eventually lost the election by 16 points to a career politician who ran on the single issue of a state lottery structured to support education.

A member of James’s administration and a self-proclaimed social conservative, Dick Brubaker, recently wrote in the Birmingham News, "Fob was able to defeat Blount in the primary because the social conservatives stuck with him. Unfortunately, everyone was so disgusted with Fob by Election Day that not only did Siegelman win in a walk, but Fob took down a good many pro-family, Religious Right lawmakers with him." Blount’s elevation to the chairmanship of the state Republican Party, he continued, "merely serves to make the rout of the conservative wing of the party complete."

While that might overstate matters, it is clear that Fob James failed in his attempt to forge a winning political ideology in Alabama by using the rhetoric of states rights to defend a form of public Christianity. In fact, to win the Republican nomination, James was obliged to fall back on the old politics of states rights and race that proved so durable and effective for George Wallace and many other Southern governors. James and the Religious Right lost the battle. The question is: Is the war over?