published Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Candidates debate role of religion in politics

by Dan Whisenhunt

While there is a concept of the separation of church and state, the reality in Hamilton County is that religion and politics are inseparable.

Many local government bodies open their meetings with a word of prayer. Some candidates and elected officials talk openly about their faith; others consider it a personal matter.

In the race for the District 8 Hamilton County Commission seat, two of the candidates, Republican Tim Boyd and Democrat Kenny Smith, are both members of East Ridge Baptist Church. Andy Mullins, a Board of Education candidate for District 8, is also a member.

Mr. Boyd said he has never seen Mr. Smith "darken the door" at the church, but said he would not use his church attendance to further his campaign.

"Generally the friends that know you as a person that is a lot of times your church family and if you're active in church, they will get behind you and support you as an individual because of the relationships you've built through the church," Mr. Boyd said.

Mr. Smith chose not to respond to Mr. Boyd's comments about his church attendance.

"I'm a Christian and my decisions are based on that," he said.

Other independent candidates in the District 8 commission race, Jim Winters and Terry Turner, both say they believe in the divinity of Jesus.

"As far as my candidacy goes ... religion, it's an important part of my life," Mr. Winters said. "I'm not trying to seek votes based on my religious positions."

Mr. Turner said he is a "follower of the way of Christ."

"(Christ) teaches us to be humble, nonjudgmental, to love God and to love others," he said. He said everyone has a core set of values they use to make decisions.

Mr. Mullins said religion played a "huge role" in his decision to run for school board. He said he prays frequently, but added he won't "spend two weeks in prayer" if he has to make a quick decision.

"For me, it's a very important thing that I seek God's leadership, that I stay in his word, that I do the positive things," he said.

Mr. Mullins added that people who do not regularly attend church are elected, so he doesn't see it as a requirement to run for office.

Ronnie Mitchell, pastor of East Ridge Baptist Church, said churches should be involved in politics. He said "liberals" have tried to drive a wedge between churches and their involvement in public life, and said the concept of separation of church and government means government should stay out of religion, but not vice versa. He said America was founded by "conservative, fundamentalist Christians and radical Bible believers."

"Yes, the church is about love, forgiveness, kindness and compassion," he wrote. "But the church is also about salt and light. Being salt and light may mean making a stand. It may mean running for political office."

But while candidates say their faith plays a role in what they do, how important is it to voters?

Dr. Richard Wilson, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said a "mainstream religious affiliation is a positive factor" for any candidate.

"In some races, I can think of, it has been the decisive factor, the factor that gave someone an extra 5 or 10 (percent of the vote), so in that sense it's very important," he said. "If you were to look at a composite of all the races, I could only say that it was a factor, but not necessarily a definitive."

It's a personal thing

County Mayor Claude Ramsey goes to church, but declined saying where. He said people who are not regular churchgoers have been elected to county offices.

"It's an important part of my life, period, not my political life," he said. "I don't think of going to church as being a political act."

Commissioner Larry Henry, who attends Morris Hill Baptist, said his beliefs have never been an issue on the campaign trail.

Jim Fields, who recently defeated incumbent Commissioner Richard Casavant in the District 2 Republican primary, said his prominent role a Signal Mountain Presbyterian church helped him get elected. Mr. Fields is an ordained elder and has served on the board of deacons.

"We have a lot of people in our church and they've known me for years and I think that helped quite a bit," Mr. Fields said.

Dr. Casavant declined comment.

David Cantrell, Mr. Field's independent general election opponent, said, "As a young person I attended the United Methodist Church. Faith has always been important to me and my family. My brother was a minister and my oldest sister was a church secretary for many years. I am guided in my everyday life by faith and values."

In the District 6 race, incumbent Commissioner John Allen Brooks and his Republican opponent Joe Graham gave equal and opposite responses when asked what role their faith plays.

Mr. Graham described his faith in great detail, saying he was raised Catholic but attends Lookout Valley Baptist Church.

"I believe if a good honest hard-working Christian man of whatever faith is being honest with his constituents, I believe it has a huge place in the politician in his answers, his beliefs and the ways he makes decisions," Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Brooks said his religion is "very personal." He said the question of whether he attends church is "not a question I answer to anybody."

"I try not to use religion as something to be elected on," he said.

Continue reading by following this link to a related story:

Article: Local professors discuss role of faith in U.S. history

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about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
librul said...

"Christians and Jews don't believe in Allah or Brahma. Hindus don't believe in Yahweh or Allah. Muslims don't believe in Brahma or Yahweh. Atheists agree with all of them." - Mark Thomas

And THAT is why no politician in America who purports to seek office to represent all THE PEOPLE should allow his religion to have anything at all to do with his campaign.

Believe what you choose to believe, but do not seek to be elected to force your beliefs upon the electorate or because your religious beliefs conform to those of the majority of voters. Our secular Constitution that grants you the right to run for office charges you with protecting the rights of minorities - religious, political, racial et al from the tyranny of the majority.

Far too many local candidates are crossing the line in this regard and voters should grant them support based on how closely they follow the Constitution's mandate - not the Bronze Age scriptures they so eagerly wave in your face.

July 6, 2010 at 9:46 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

Protestants don't recognize the leadership of the Pope. Jews don't recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Baptists don't recognize each other in liquor stores.

July 6, 2010 at 9:54 a.m.
eeeeeek said...


How do you keep your baptist friend from drinking your beer while fishing?

Take two baptist friends.

July 6, 2010 at 12:40 p.m.
Sailorman said...

librul said

"....voters should grant them support based on how closely they follow the Constitution's mandate"

Amen (pardon the pun) that would be a true miracle

good one eeeeek

July 6, 2010 at 1:34 p.m.
Curmudgeon said...

A friend recently asked, when it comes to getting potholes in a public street repaired, can a Methodist do a better job than a Baptist, a Unitarian, a Jew or an atheist? This idea of candidates running on their religious affiliation, or lack thereof, is just plain ludicrous. I realize that self-proclaimed Christians are a majority in this country, but, as poet Friedrich Schiller noted, "The voice of the majority is no proof of justice."

July 7, 2010 at 10:37 a.m.
eeeeeek said...

“A lie is a lie even if everyone believes it. The truth is the truth even if nobody believes it.” — David Stevens

July 7, 2010 at 10:52 a.m.
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