Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984

By William D. Snider | Go to book overview

17. That Old-time Religion

Hodding Carter, Jr., wrote thirty years ago that "the South may be described as the Bible Belt in the same offhand derisive way that the Eastern Seaboard can be identified as the Barbiturate Belt, the roaring, raw cities of the Midwest as the Tommy-gun Belt and the West Coast the Divorce Belt." Time has moved on in all these regions. Changes have eroded the stereotypes. But the South, including North Carolina, still clings to the old- time religion, and any politician who ignores that does so at his own peril.

Much of the grassroots strength of Helms and Hunt could be traced to their religious roots. One Baptist minister went so far as to note that both Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms were "almost peas in a pod" when it came to theology. "They're both pious, they believe in personal morality, they're very duty oriented. They're based in the same religious tradition. But it comes down to the kind of social consciousness they've developed off the theology."

Helms, who grew up in the First Baptist Church of Monroe and became a member of the Hayes-Barton Baptist Church after moving to Raleigh, constantly sprinkled his politics with religious themes. His enthusiastic alliance with the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority gave him a strong wedge among fundamentalist church members, many of whom had not been politically active in the past. But when Falwell decided to push politics from the pulpit, he provided Helms an ideal vehicle for his moralistic crusading.

Helms established close contacts with conservative ministers who shared his alarm about "atheistic socialism." In the senator's book When Free Men Shall Stand, he outlined how Christianity is incompatible with "political liberalism" and explained how the United States was founded for "the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith." At one point Helms's book is explicit about why he fights "liberalism" so zealously: "Atheism and socialism--or liberalism which tends in the same direction --are inseparable entities. When you have men who no longer believe that God is in charge of human affairs, you have men attempting to take the place of God by means of the Superstate. The all-provident Government, which these liberals constantly invoke, is the modern--day version of Baal."

At a prayer breakfast at Greensboro's First Baptist Church in 1977, Helms expounded on this theme: "We cannot walk the streets of our cities without being assaulted by pornographic and obscene literature. We can

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