Louis C.K.’s fictionally autobiographical series Louie once ran an episode where, on a trip to Birmingham for a stand-up gig, he discovers that, despite believing that “everyone’s basically the same no matter where you go”, the South is an altogether different culture. I almost wish he’d stayed down for longer than the one (albeit, again, fictional) night he spent there, to experience what face a political campaign takes in a region where hecklers demand that you “say some shit about Mobile”.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to go as far below the Mason-Dixon line as Alabama to find stereotype-fulfilling homophobia and isolationism. Although I go to school in Massachusetts, I remain a registered voter in my home state of North Carolina for a number of reasons– primarily among them coming this May, where we’ll be voting whether to amend the state constitution to only recognize marriage between “one man and one woman”. While back home last summer, myself and a handful of others counterprotested an appallingly popular rally in support of the amendment in Raleigh. Here’s a couple of pictures characterizing the event:
So you can imagine being a religious minority in such a climate is rough enough, let alone attempting a bid for office. But, dear reader, candidates of that sort do exist down under: Cecil Bothwell, currently an Asheville City Councillor, now running for the NC11 House seat, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist church, and a self-identified atheist. Also quite the beat poet.
That last bit is pretty telling, though– Asheville isn’t exactly your typical what-kind-of-crops-does-your-family-grow Southern commune. It’s more of, to borrow a sentiment from Patton Oswalt about places like Portland, OR and Austin, TX, the state’s isolated “bubble of sanity”, where the “streets are paved with marijuana” and you can “elect a hacky sack mayor”. Yet Asheville, wonderfully weird as it is, still generally espouses a peculiar non-progressivism. A coalition of local conservatives, along with their sympathizers across NC, challenged the legitimacy of Bothwell’s initial bid for City Council on the grounds that the North Carolina state constitution, in print, requires a belief in God to hold office. Naturally, thanks to progressive activists, the Fourteenth Amendment, and sanity, this was ruled as bullshit.
And now, Bothwell has set his sights on challenging incumbent Heath Shuler (a Blue Dog Democrat and former NFL Quarterback– again, in Asheville, where lawmaking may well be done via fingerpainting, exists an entirely wacky universe that still somehow upholds Southern conservatism). Sentiment expressed by local bloggers and columnists looks positive towards Bothwell, but not until later this year will we really see how contentious the race will be.
Bothwell’s plight offers a fairly, I think, accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a religious minority–or almost any minority, for that matter–candidate down South. I’m still hunting for other examples outside of my home state– part of the difficultly in tracking down religiously eclectic political hopefuls, particularly with nontheists, is that they just avoid the subject of religion altogether.
But that’s the South. Not entirely conquered by conservatism and traditionalism, but enough so that it is pretty damn politically nonviable–or, certainly, a struggle–to out yourself as belonging to a religious group that doesn’t already have five churches throughout your district. For the next year, when I’m not following specific politicians with nontraditional religious views, I’ll also tackle issues wherein certain minority religious groups have been discounted or discriminated against by politicians to help their election bids (as done by current Senator Kay Hagan in the last cycle).
Don’t let the hot climate fool you–politics in the South can be awfully cold. So let us go then, you and I, and see what they hold for those in the religious 99%…er, rather, the less than 50%.
Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.