Inside the Sunshine Coin Laundry near the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, Lagretta Ellington removed her family’s clothes from one of the large dryers and began to neatly fold them on a nearby table.
The air was moist and smelled of detergent. The floor was concrete. Her views of the presidential race were anything but. She was unsettled, and distrustful. The candidates just seemed like entertainers.
“I’m going to pray on it,” the 48-year-old Ellington said. “Hopefully, God will lead me in the right direction.”
In the South, now the pivotal battlefield of the 2016 presidential campaign, faith and politics walk the aisle together. And while Christians have always dominated American politics – Bernie Sanders this week became the first non-Christian ever to win a presidential primary in U.S. history – conservative Christians feel under siege.
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Marriage is being redefined, and they’re being forced to go along. A new health care law mandates free contraception, even if it violates their core beliefs. Even the greeting “Merry Christmas” feels under assault.
Their anxiety and anger help explain the rise of Republican outsider candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (“Any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander in chief”) and even billionaire Donald Trump (“If I'm president, you're going to see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me”), perhaps the unlikeliest of vessels for such support.
Do we not have any moral compass anymore?
Dr. Randy Brinson, an evangelical Christian and Montgomery, Alabama, physician
And their clout is at its peak right now.
In South Carolina, white evangelicals account for 51 percent of the likely Republican vote in the coming GOP primary. Six more Southern states, including Georgia, will vote on “Super Tuesday” March 1. Nearly 600 of the delegates chosen the first week of March will come from states where white evangelical Christians are a majority of the electorate, according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter from Larry J. Sabato and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
And whether they pray at small chapels or sprawling megachurches, Christian conservatives across the South are driven by worries that their values are being threatened.
“Biblical values we would not be willing to compromise,” explained Dennis Lacy, lead pastor of North Highland Assembly of God in Columbus, Georgia.
“Do we not have any moral compass anymore?” said Dr. Randy Brinson, an evangelical Christian and physician in Montgomery, Alabama, who founded a group, Redeem the Vote, encouraging young people of faith to register and participate.
“Are we to say to people who have a more liberal viewpoint, ‘Does everything go?’ If there are no boundaries to things of moral behavior as Christians believe, if we throw out everything . . . there’s no more faith.”
June Bond, 61, a children’s advocate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, said many evangelical Christians “feel extremely pressured.” But she also tries to imagine what it must be like on the other side of the cultural divide.
“It’s one thing to listen to what our leaders say to us, but we also need to look at the other side and say, ‘What if . . . ?’ ” she said. “The South sometimes looks at things just kind of like, ‘This is what I was told.’ ”
March 1-8 alone, 923 convention delegates – more than a third of the 2,472 that will be at the GOP nominating convention in Cleveland in July – will be chosen; 1,237 will be needed to win the crown.
Many say their objections to same-sex marriage are misunderstood.
It’s not “rooted in hostility and animus toward other people,” but because Christian conservatives believe marriage involves one man and one woman, said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
David Cooke Jr., the Georgia district attorney for Bibb, Crawford and Peach counties, doesn’t buy the “under siege” mentality of his more conservative brethren. He’s an evangelical Christian, and a Democrat, which he said was not as rare as you might think.
“When you limit the gospel to gays and abortion, there’s not a whole lot of talk about taking care of the stranger and the orphan,” Cooke said, seated in his courthouse office in downtown Macon. “I think it shows that for so many folks it’s not really about the message of the faith. It’s about cultural Christianity.”
Religion has always been part of the South’s DNA, a legacy of its rural past.
It was the lifeblood of many communities, a cornerstone of the culture. In “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” author John Berendt’s widely popular book about a Savannah, Georgia, murder, he wrote, “If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What's your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ ”
It would never occur to someone that you didn’t, added Cooke, who met his wife at a Macon church.
When you limit the gospel to gays and abortion, there’s not a whole lot of talk about taking care of the stranger and the orphan.
David Cooke Jr., an evangelical Democrat and Macon, Georgia, district attorney
Even today, the states of the old Confederacy – along with Utah and Oklahoma ‑ make up the most religious states in the country, according to a 2013 Gallup survey.
“Now change is on the doorstep, and many are worried about what it’s doing to their communities,” said Marc Farinella, a Democratic strategist who oversaw President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign in North Carolina. “There is a sense that their way of life is under attack.”
Christian conservatives feel it deeply, and resent it.
“We live in a society that has a lot of respect for diverse opinion and views, but it seems like anytime Christians express theirs, they can be lampooned,” said Lacy, the Columbus pastor. “We’re kind of open game. You can criticize any Christian and not get into trouble. But you try to criticize any other sect or group, that’s politically incorrect.”
Republican candidates seize on their distress. They’ve appeared at Christian conservatives’ rallies and trumpeted their causes.
51% Percentage of likely Republican voters in this month’s South Carolina GOP primary who are white evangelical Christians -NBC/WSJ/Marist Poll
But many conservatives feel betrayed.
Big victories have been few. Abortion remains the law of the land. The Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriage and upheld Obamacare. The Obama administration requires group health plans to pay for birth control coverage, even those offered by nonprofits, such as the Roman Catholic nuns who belong to the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Planned Parenthood still receives federal tax dollars for its health care services, despite an outcry among conservatives last year over an undercover video that purported to show the group illegally negotiating over the sale of fetal tissue from its abortion services. (Several investigations have found no misconduct by Planned Parenthood, and a Texas grand jury convened to look at the health care provider instead indicted the video makers on forged-documents charges.)
If this is a culture war, it sure feels as if the other side is winning.
“You don't have to be a cynic to see ways in which evangelicals have been used by Republicans,” said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, whose latest book is about politics and the culture wars. “And it is a long-standing lament in conservative Christian circles that Republicans won their votes with promises to overturn Roe v. Wade (which legalized abortion) . . . and then did nothing about it."
You worked on the farm all week and your one social outlet was you went to church on Sunday.
June Bond, Spartanburg, South Carolina
“I do,” said Benny Tate, senior pastor of the 7,000-member Rock Springs Church, a Congregational Methodist church in Milner, Georgia, when he was asked whether he thought that the GOP had taken advantage of evangelicals. He said parishioners were discouraged with politics as usual and had become cynical.
“I think they realize that many politicians are just concerned about the next election,” said Tate, whose walls showcase photographs of the pastor amid a parade of prominent politicians.
No doubt concerns over terrorism, immigration and the economy will play a role in how those voters sort out their choices this year.
But social, moral and religious grievances are in the political winds as well, and they’re blowing across the Christian conservative spectrum; from moderates who question some of the cultural dogma to the far reaches of the Christian right, which considers death the biblical penalty for homosexuality.
Somewhere in between is Coy Morgan, a 24-year-old law student from Montgomery, Alabama. He has no problem with people of the same sex falling in love and sharing their lives together. But he draws the line on marriage.
Morgan said he was insulted when, after the Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriage across the country, the White House became bathed in the rainbow-colored lights that represent the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
“I’m trying to be a Christian and live by Christian values,” he said. “I felt like it was a smack in the face.”