Political Horizons: Christian faith a key issue in congressional race

On the campaign trail in north and central Louisiana, in their mailers and on TV commercials, the two candidates seeking to become the congressman for Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District are asking not just for support; they want voters’ prayers.

State Rep. Neil Riser, of Columbia, and businessman Vance McAllister, of Monroe, are both Republicans in Saturday’s runoff election. They have filled their campaigns with full-throated professions of conservative Protestantism, which would be unusual in the southern part of this state and other parts of America, as well.

“I can speak only to Northeast Louisiana,” said state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, head of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus. “We are strongly vested in our faith, in our religion. It’s what we believe in. It’s how we were raised. … You probably wouldn’t see that intensity in South Louisiana.”

As a force in a political campaign, strategists like to recall how Bobby Jindal was an also-ran in the 2003 governor’s race, in which he lost North Louisiana. He spent the next four years worshipping at Protestant churches and eating endless plates of fried chicken at “dinners on the grounds.” In 2007, he won North Louisiana and the governor’s mansion.

Churches are legally prohibited from supporting candidates. But that doesn’t stop many pastors from reminding their flock of election dates, reinforcing the positions they consider important and letting them know which candidates support those positions.

Jackson says some pastors in her area ask their congregants to meet on an election Saturday and go en masse to vote.

“In an election when there is very little on the ballot, these kinds of grassroots efforts are very important,” Jackson said, adding that fewer than 25 percent of the 5th district’s 481,523 registered voters are expected to cast ballots in the runoff.

The Rev. Dr. Bette Kauffman says the group she heads, Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith, is political, but backs no candidates. Instead, the coalition of churches, schools and institutions from different denominations organizes “informational meetings,” during which elected officials and candidates are invited to discuss their policies and positions. One such forum was held in Monroe Thursday night.

“In this part of the country, your faith is more important than your political party,” Kauffman said.

The Rev. Gene Mills agrees. “You’re in the Bible Belt. And both candidates (in the 5th District race) purport to be of that demographic, and both are doing their level best to turn out that base.”

Mills is president of Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based membership group that evaluates public policy from a faith-based and “traditional family” values perspective.

All the Republican candidates in the primary — except McAllister, whose campaign says they never received it, Mills said — answered the Family Forum’s questionnaire pretty much identically. They supported additional hearings on the Benghazi terrorist attack and opposed raising the ceiling for the national debt and funding the Affordable Care Act.

About three-quarters of the 103,381 people casting ballots in the Oct. 19 primary were what the political strategists call “habitual voters” — that is, people who vote in all or nearly all elections regardless of how important the issues and race.

“These are chronic voters, and these people are predominantly churched as well,” said G. Pearson Cross, head of the political science department at University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Cross analyzed the campaign messaging in the 5th District race. Both candidates are running as outsiders to government — regular guys whose common sense and Christian values will bring Congress around. “Vance McAllister and Neil Riser are both saying ‘Let’s take back our government for Christians, for good Christians like us,’” he said.

Of course, the Founding Fathers, fresh from various European countries that were each dominated by a single church that brooked no competition, included freedom of religion in the American Constitution to protect the new government from ecclesiastical overreach; not the other way around.

Cross chuckled and said such ironies miss the point.

Back in the 1600s, the second generation of Puritans wrote reams of essays bemoaning the loss of Christian purity that their fathers had held when they came to America.

“Harkening for a mythic past, that’s as American as it gets,” Cross said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.