The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus.
The 11th chapter of the Book of Mark is the subject for nine Memphis women gathered on a November Friday for Bible study in my cousin's music room, hung with a series of stunning Ebet Roberts photographs. A sign of the times is that many more of us in the blogosphere know the iconic figures on the walls more than Mark. Under the baleful stare of Little Richard and the distant gaze of Keith Richards, I listen to another old schoolmate talk about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Kathy Jean speaks from knowledge and passion. I can hear why 400 people used to come for her weekly Bible study in Richmond. But here in Memphis 2007 we are listening to Kathy Jean on tape. Her death ten years ago fills the morning with a poignancy and meaning that is an adjustment for me.
After thinking about Mark, the women have agreed to stay and discuss presidential politics--specifically, how their Christian beliefs and values might shape their vote. Moving from one sphere to another is difficult. At first, everybody is hesitant. And it's clear that no one has been paying much attention to the primary race in either party. "What do you think, Mayhill? You know much more about it than we do. But I don't want to say what I think; I've come two thousand miles to hear what they think. Nevertheless, I toss something out. " A hallmark of Election '08 so far has been the major candidates' professions of faith. What do you think about that?" As my cousin picks it up, right away I realize that interview journalism is like quantum physics: merely by taking measure of the situation, the investigator influences direction and outcome.
Mine is not a good question. I should've known that the women have only vague impressions of the candidates' beliefs, despite the fact that the press has been covering the subject of religion and politics better and in more depth than in previous years. Pollster Peter Hart, moderating a Presidential Election Voter Focus Group, has recently discovered the same phenomenon among Republican primary voters in Virginia (shown as part of C-Span's "Road to the White House" coverage). Five of Hart's twelve raise their hands against Mitt Romney because of his faith. "He's the Mormon?" June asks, to make sure she has Hart's question right. She confesses she doesn't know Romney or Mormonism--but still she's against him. Susie concurs, although she, too, admits "I don't know that much about him."
The significance of Hart's focus group is not only the ignorance but also the number. For more than half, Romney's religion is not an issue. I encounter the same disposition in Memphis. Virginia says, "We don't really know enough to decide. I feel so ignorant. But what we would all like to find is a real person, of integrity. How do you know that? How do you find that?" After murmurs of agreement and the usual complaints--"everybody says the right words" (Tara)--"we are suspicious about the reporting" ( Jean)--the women dispose of some candidates with an increasingly confident celerity.
Jean: Is Thompson making a move?
Mary Lindsay: They say he's lagging.
Jean: I'm not sure about him.
Carol: I'm not either. But he makes wonderful horse sense.
Jean: He does.
Carol: But he looks old and sick to me.
Jean: Very old.
So much for a Favorite Son of Tennessee. Jean and Mary Lindsay move on.
Jean: What about Huckabee? Does anybody ever mention Huckabee? He's a dark horse.
Mary Lindsay: He could bring the South.
Carol: Somebody told me he's a really strong candidate.
Jean: I'm pulling for Huckabee, because I hear he has integrity. (After general agreement, Jean continues.) When he answers questions, he really speaks the truth. And he's not ashamed to be a Christian, but he doesn't throw it down your throat.
Mary Lindsay: Exactly, exactly.
Jean: I'm going for that guy. I haven't even heard him, but I've read his speeches on the internet.
Mary Lindsay: He's a minister, a Baptist minister. And you know he has that folksy style, and he can talk to anybody, but the great thing about Huckabee is--he's been an Arkansas governor for years and years, and Arkansas has a rule--ironclad rule--that you have to balance the budget. So he knows how to balance a budget.
The women also give Bill Richardson their seal of approval. "A good governor." "Common sense on immigration." "Lots of experience in foreign affairs." No one mentions Richardson's faith. Again, it is the persona of integrity backed by real-world achievement that counts. That the particulars of religious belief, much less any litmus tests on issues, are of little or no importance for these women could be a harbinger for Election '08. Even as I note this possibility, my spirits are sinking. I am like the spectator at a town fair tortoise race who watches the hard-shell on whom she has placed her bet veer from the track and take fellow tortoises off-course, too. Huckabee! Richardson! No chance! Why won't they talk Obama and Clinton? Or Romney and Giuliani? No one, in this search for "integrity," has mentioned Obama, even though they know that Obama is my campaign beat for OffTheBus. Later one of the women, who says little in the group, takes me aside and asks softly, "Obama went to a madrassa, right?" Likely his connection to Islam, which has taken hold in the Southern imagination, is a reason no one in the group has spoken of Obama. (I will take up this fixation in a later piece.) So beyond a certain point the particulars of religious belief do matter. Islam is over the line. The more relevant question '08 is whether Mormonism is over the line.
My school chums do consider Hillary Clinton, and at some length. The notes of fair-mindedness and dispassion in the discussion strike me as important as the fact that one of their choices for President is a Republican, the other is a Democrat.
Jean: My gut feeling is Clinton, well she's out there, but she hasn't got--
Virginia: Clinton is wicked, it seems to me. And I'm curious, I'm just asking y'all--it seems to me she's asking the young women to vote for her, just because she's a woman.
Tara: Well, of course, she went to Wellesley.
Mary Lindsay: Well, she blew it big time in that debate.
Jean: That's what I heard.
Virginia: What did they get her for?
Mary Lindsay: The governor of New York wanted to give illegal aliens, who she calls undocumented workers--drivers' licenses. She contradicted herself in two minutes.
Virginia: So instead of it being debated, it switched to this whole thing about immigration--are you for it or against it. And truthfully, if you look at the facts on giving everybody a driver's license--we did it in Tennessee, y'all remember that? (After general agreement, she goes on.) It was a total disaster--
Mary Lindsay: Well, they said, at least if they get a driver's license, they'll have to learn the laws of the road. . . . So this is the kind of thing, the unintended results of a good intention--
Virginia: I think it would be great if we could just get the facts out there.
Mary Lindsay: Well, that's what Hillary tried to do.
Virginia: If people could rationally--
Mary Lindsay: That's what Hillary tried to do. She didn't exactly say she was for it, but she understood the problem the governor was facing. And that it might be a solution. . . .
Virginia: I think she's probably committed illegal acts. But is there somebody she could run with as vice-president who would make her acceptable?
Ann: That's a thought.
Mary Lindsay: Clinton scares me because she has never even run a country store. She has never met a payroll, and she has no executive experience. . . .
Virginia: Well, I think she probably would appoint good people.
I don't have to enumerate for readers of a political blog the many strands of American discourse on HRC interwoven here. Suffice it to add that Mary Lindsay, who defends Clinton several times during the morning, is a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher who isn't much of a fan of evolution. I suspect that Mary Lindsay, whose views encompass offhand dismissals of Pat Robertson and litmus tests, is another harbinger of Election '08. For the first time since the Reagan years, there will be no conservative Christian block vote.
The dispassion I hear in the women's assessment of the presidential candidates speaks of a recent shift in consciousness among American Christians. I am not the first journalist to report this. "Frank Page of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. . . . told convention delegates that Southern Baptists had become known too much for what they were against (abortion, evolution, homosexuality) instead of what they stand for (the Gospel)." David D. Kirkpatrick interviewed Page for his in-depth piece "End Times for Evangelicals? in the Sunday New York Times Magazine on October 28.
Christians are recollecting who they are. They are remembering that, for them, Jesus' ministry is the first priority. Moreover, having forgotten Cromwell's Commonwealth, the Puritan Bay Colony and any number of nineteenth-century utopian ventures, American Christians are re-learning what seems to be a difficult lesson. Sion, the city on the hill, is not part of world geography. Any attempt to create this New Jerusalem on earth will fail. As Mary Lindsay says, "it's the crossing over, where our politics and faith--it's sick, it's diseased, and it's affecting this country in a bad way." Far from threatening or trying to dominate the public sphere, Christians should always be removing themselves from it. After all, as Augustine says, Christians are mere sojourners in the land. It's this inclination of believers that their leaders have forgotten and are now being reminded.
Before I leave Memphis, I return to the church in which I grew up and which Virginia, Jean and Ann still attend. It's All Saints Day at Second Presbyterian, and before the sermon the congregation--2500 strong--rise. The minister says, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field." We give the response, and most of us know the words by heart. "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever." This is one point on which Scripture is unequivocal. For Christians, priorities should be clear. Faith first, then politics, if time and inclination allow. Not faith and politics.