Do Southern Democrats Have Time for the Future?

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I did not learn to care about unborn human life or about the centrality of marriage to human culture in my boyhood Southern Baptist congregation. I came to care about these things on the campaign trail with a Democratic United States Congressman from Mississippi. I won’t say that everything I know about politics I learned from the Mississippi Democratic Party. But close.

As a young idealistic Southerner, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Mississippi Democrat, and it was an exciting time in the history of my home state. The state party was freeing itself from an ugly segregationist past, and was full-throated in its support for civil rights. At the same time, the Party was relatively free from the silliness of the McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis ideological wing of the Democratic National Committee. It was not all that difficult to be a pro-life, pro-family Democrat at that time in Mississippi because most of our elected officials believed exactly the same things. The difference between the parties usually was not one of ideology, but of emphasis. Democrats just seemed more comfortable around African Americans, and didn’t have yacht club memberships—or so we liked to think.

When I served as president of the University of Southern Mississippi Young Democrats, I was also part of the campus pro-life activism. By contrast, the president of the College Republicans at the time was an outspoken advocate of abortion rights. As a freshman in college, I started an internship in the office of a young Democratic congressman, Gene Taylor, and would eventually serve as his campaign spokesman. On issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the protection of marriage, he was to the right even of my boyhood pastors. When I was ordained to ministry after leaving Congressman Taylor’s staff, he was at the service with a Bible he had autographed for me by President Clinton. As he left the White House with the Bible, he told the Washington Post that President Clinton was not the kind of man he would trust his daughter with—and this was before anyone knew the name Monica Lewinsky. He didn’t just believe the
right things—he talked about them (and still does).

But, in many ways, times have changed, both in the Democratic Party and in the Magnolia State. Ricky Cole, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party, recently voiced his frustration to MSNBC News that the national Party is not making more of a play for rural southern voters. Cole was asked how Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean’s support for same-sex unions would play in the South.

“I’ve seen elections and political debate over the last few years dominated by stuff like the Rebel flag or a marble slab with the Ten Commandments carved on it, and I think issues like that are part of an upper-middle-class conceit that we actually have time to talk about stuff like that,” Cole responded. “If we can deal with the bread and butter issues here at home, and the life and death issues abroad—instead getting into some Starbucks coffeehouse debate about stuff that doesn’t matter to the average Americans—then we can win this election.”

Ricky Cole and I served together on the executive committee of the Mississippi Young Democrats in the 1990s. I had to smile when I read the quote, because, in some ways, it sounds just like something I might have said then. When backed against the wall, Mississippi Democratic populism always unconsciously lashes out at the privileged, and turns the discussion back to the plight of the common man. That’s why notorious Senator Theodore G. Bilbo could win elections in the early part of the twentieth-century by charging his opponent with playing the “effete and effeminate sport” of golf. And he won, over and over again. Golf won’t work anymore. Perrier water used to resonate. Maybe Starbucks can serve the same purpose now.

It might seem politically wise to pass off seismic social issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights as irrelevant “coffee shop talk” for the elites. Think again. After all, it is the economic and social elite who are most invested with the social revolution represented by these issues. After all, Howard Dean didn’t grow up on a catfish farm in the Delta, but in the high-rise apartments of Park Avenue.

It is more than a little insulting to say that Mississippians—and other southerners—are too poor, or “don’t have time” to worry about anything more than economic existence. After all, the echoes of an evangelical heritage—even where little authentic faith remains—leaves at least an intuition in the minds of Bible Belt voters that there is something more important than the next paycheck. That’s why you see “red state” voters more concerned with issues like partial birth abortion. They recognize that they have an obligation to “have time” for issues of such monumental evil.

Likewise, there is something in the culture of the rural South that recognizes that culture is, as Russell Kirk once defined it, a contract with the dead and with the unborn. Southern voters might not always know how to articulate it, but they know that gay civil unions and the destruction of marriage will have ramifications for the next generation. National Democrats don’t seem to get this, and this is why they are, in the words of U.S. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), a “national party no more.”

This moral sense has often failed. But that’s what ought to raise alarm bells about such rhetoric for, of all people, Mississippi Democrats. After all, nineteenth century Democrats sought to quell the conscience of the region about holding human bodies in captivity because slavery was good economics. And it wasn’t all that long ago that another set of Democratic politicians assured Mississippians that they were “too poor” to listen to “elite” Easterners about “abstract coffee shop issues” like racial justice and voting rights.

Mississippi will probably not vote for Howard Dean in next year’s election—for all kinds of reasons. But the South will be forced, eventually, to deal with the pressing social issues that are now bubbling up in places like Vermont and Massachusetts. Maybe the South will one day embrace gay marriage. Stranger things have happened, and the social left will have the opportunity to make the case that a culture-shaping social revolution should take place.

But let’s hope they don’t try to sell gay marriage and easy abortion while telling the voters they don’t have “time” to care about such “abstract” things as the future of marriage, the welfare of children, and the underpinnings of American culture. Southerners ought to know that they’ve heard that somewhere before.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.