Religion and Politics in the Bluegrass State from guest poster Howell Williams

By Kelly Baker

Howell Williams, a dear colleague and a soon to be minted PhD, is a new guest blogger. Howell's work focuses upon sexual and religious identities in post-Vatican II Catholic culture. She recently defended her dissertation, entitled "Homosexuality and the American Catholic Church: Reconfiguring the Silence, 1971-1999." Hopefully, this is the first of many posts.

Her post examines a well-trodden topic for this blog, religion and politics, and she examines the presence of God in the recent Kentucky gubernatorial race.

My Old Kentucky Home: Horse Racing, Bourbon, God, and Politics

Howell Williams

Kentuckians elected Democrat Steve Beshear this week as their new governor. Beshear defeated incumbent Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher by a margin of 18 percentage points. The race is significant given that Beshear captured several traditional Republican counties and it was the first time in almost a century that a governor did not win a second term. The Democrat victory might not be so much of a mandate as the people of the Commonwealth voting anti-Fletcher. (Hiring scandals and pardons marred his tenure.)

Predictably, religion did come heavily into play during the campaign runs. Fletcher ran on a pro-god, anti-gambling platform (the folks at Churchill Downs were not so happy about that) and attacked Beshear with negative television throughout. It must be said that during Fletcher’s tenure the Ten Commandments debate continued to fuel in Kentucky and one day before the election he ordered a framed copy of the Ten Commandments to go up in the state Capital in Frankfurt. Fletcher also threatened constituents that the 4 G’s– god, gays, gambling, and gynecology (yeah, try to make the stretch there between gynecology and abortion)–were going to be hot button issues if Beshear won. The problem is that if running for office in Kentucky, one assumes both candidates “got religion” and will appeal to religious themes. There never is an “anti-god” candidate in a state responsible for 19th century revivals as well as a historically strong Catholic presence. Beshear hoped his assertion that both his father and grandfather were Baptist preachers from rural Kentucky would push back against Fletcher’s accusations. I guess it was convincing (or maybe voters are more concerned with the state of the economy at this time).

While readers of this blog are highly aware of the intersection of religion and politics as well as political rhetoric filled with god references, I was still struck (and so were many of my students) with the god-language in Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s eloquent concession speech. He surprised many with his somewhat conciliatory and apologetic tone. In between grand geographical metaphors (“from the mountains to our shorelines”), Fletcher sprinkled in biblical references. (“Scripture says everyman carries his own burden, but there is much we can do to lighten the load of leadership and so we should.” Or, “One man reaps what another man sows. The one who lets justice reign on the just and the unjust will in his own way and time bring all good things to completion.”) He even led Kentuckians in a short prayer (which is cut from the speech link given).

Kentucky might be a small player on the national political scene (well, the state does claim senate minority leader Mitch McConnell), but it does give us a warm up for the barrage of politics we are about to encounter in 2008. My students of American religious history were fascinated with identifying religious themes and issues in our state election as well as dissecting the intersection (mostly contested intersections) of religion and politics in American culture. I am wondering how others are going to handle the inevitable religion and politics questions throughout both semesters next year. (Luke, you might be the best resource for tackling this). For those of us unable to dedicate a semester-long course to the subject–but do weave a discussion of politics throughout our Religion in the U.S. survey courses–how are we to best handle the “god” particulars of the 2008 election? Is anyone dedicating a portion of his or her syllabi to this complicated issue? And if so, what angles (civil religion, evangelicals, social issues, etc.) are you going about to do this?


Liberator_Rev said…
If Christian voters followed Jesus, instead of whackos like Falwell and Robertson, they would know that in Jesus' view two commandments covered the whole of religion.

One of these has little to do with secular democracies like ours. But the other has everything to do with any government genuinely interested in promoting the welfare of its citizens. The "golden rule" is not just the heart of Christianity, it's central to most other faiths and even the heart of "secular humanism".

See http://LiberalsLikeChrist.Org/ which shows why actually FOLLOWING Jesus of Nazareth should make all Christians "Liberals Like Christ" and why liberals of all stripes should "like Christ".
Anonymous said…
As a fellow Kentuckian and observer of religion and politics, I thought I might weigh in to point out that it’s hard to predict how Bluegrass State voters might parse their faith at the polls. Though they rejected the Baptist preacher, medical doctor, and pilot Ernie Fletcher last Tuesday, voters in our state also passed the anti-gay marriage amendment OVERWHELMINGLY in 2004. Given the scandals that marred the Fletcher governorship, I suppose we could read the failure of Fletcher’s last minute posting of the Ten Commandments (evidently “thou shalt not promote thy unqualified friends to high office” is number eleven) as demonstrating something about the credibility of religious commitments in the light of a candidate’s actual practices. I was actually quite surprised, but proud, of Kentucky voters last Tuesday.

Carolyn Dupont