The EFM Feature

The condescension of the media focused on Southern evangelicals in 2000 when Tennessee’s own son Al Gore chose Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate. Immediately, journalists ran to their computers to tell the story–not that a Jew for the first time in American history was running for Vice President, but what they felt was the real story: Southern evangelical bigotry.

Of course, the media got it wrong. Many evangelicals I know would’ve voted for Lieberman over Gore, if given the chance. Lieberman, after all, is a man of integrity and faith, but couldn’t overcome the liberal stigma of guy claiming he invented the internet and that the earth was melting like a snowcone in the sun.

Nevertheless, the L.A. Times proclaimed, “If there is any backlash against Lieberman, it will likely come from Southern evangelical Protestants in states Gore will probably lose anyway.”

So we find ourselves here we again, in 2006, and the media is–once again–running the same old, inaccurate story. On March 11, for example, the Boston Globe ran an article about how Gov. Romney’s Mormonism would be a dealbreaker down in Memphis at the Southern Leadership Conference: “Romney Makes a Southern Pitch: Conservatives Not Swinging.”

But what the Boston Globe did not know was that members of this group (Evangelicals for Mitt) spent the preceding two months in living rooms–and on the phone–telling Southern Republicans about Gov. Romney. We had dozens and dozens of Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Church of Christ, and Methodists (and–yes–Mormons, although evangelicals far outnumbered them) eager to support Romney at the convention. We all witnessed the speech that the Boston Globe covered in their article, and the reality was quite different from what the paper related.

The room was packed, so I stood in the back as he received at least two standing ovations during his short speech. I’d brought buttons with the single word “Romney” on them. My sister had designed them to have the “O” in his name be the middle of the Tennessee state flag–three stars representing each geographic division of the state–because we felt he represented traditional Southern values more than any other candidate. I meant to bring 200, figuring we could raise awareness of the Governor by passing out buttons in the halls after the speech. But due to an ordering error, I ended up with 700. I imagined giving them away in Christmas stocking wells after the ’08 presidential election came and went, and wondered if my kids’ teachers would appreciate a bag of them on Teacher Appreciation Day.

But what I didn’t anticipate–and what the media still doesn’t get–is that Southern Republicans (almost definitionally Southern evangelicals) really took to the Northern governor from Massachusetts. When he stopped speaking that afternoon in Memphis, I held up a button and said, tentatively, “Anyone here like Mitt?”

While I’d previously tried to give away a few before his speech, people smiled quizzically–unfamiliar with his name–before finding a seat in the large auditorium. But afterwards, you would’ve thought I was giving away Microsoft stock. People flocked around me, and I struggled to get them from my bag quickly enough. Men in Frist hats said, “We’re supposed to vote for our hometown guy, but we really like what Romney said.” A group of little ladies took a handful, saying, “He’s certainly easy on the eyes, isn’t he?”
None of this enthusiasm was portrayed in the “Southerners Not Swinging” headline of the Boston Globe, of course.

But, as you know, the warm reception of his speech was just half of the story. A couple of days later many Southern evangelicals circled his name in the Hotline Straw Poll–causing him to beat George Allen (Presbyterian from Virginia), John McCain (Episcopalian from Arizona), Mike Huckabee (Baptist preacher from Arkansas), Sam Brownback (Catholic from Kansas), and Rudy Guiliani (Catholic from New York).

On March 12, the Boston Globe was forced to run a headline of a much different sort. “Frist Wins, Romney Takes 2d in GOP Straw Poll.”

And so–for once–they didn’t report about the supposed bigotry of those of us in the South. And, having given away all 700 buttons while standing in the halls of the Peabody Hotel, the teachers of my kids at school ended up with gift certificates to Applebees.

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