Candidates debate role of religion in politics

Candidates debate role of religion in politics

July 6th, 2010 by Dan Whisenhunt in Politics

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.

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