Southern Faith: Why Candidates' Beliefs Matter

Ahead of the primary voting in Mississippi and Alabama, guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with William Martin Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Professor of Political Science at Mississippi State University, about the religious politics of the South.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We're going to return to the issue of faith in the politics of the deep South, and the degree of difficulty that Mitt Romney's Mormon faith presents as he tries to win over evangelical voters. We spoke with William Martin Wiseman. He's Mississippi-born and bred, and a professor and director at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

We talked about the importance of religion, particularly evangelical Christianity in Southern politics.

PROFESSOR WILLIAM MARTIN WISEMAN: There've been several different surveys that have found that Mississippi is the most religious state in the union. It's the most conservative state. A 2010 Gallup poll had Mississippi ranked number one there, and so, religion is huge. We've been referred to before as the buckle of the Bible Belt, which generally stretches across the deep South.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now in that context, what sort of challenges do you think that presents to Mitt Romney?

WISEMAN: Well, I think they're huge. You know, when the primaries started, the flag was often raised that Mormonism would have problems in some parts of the country. And I think most folks were specifically referring to the South. And where it is a curiosity, as far as religion is concerned in much of the country, in the South, when they say that Mormonism is not Christianity, but rather a cult, that presents huge moral and religious and theological problems to a lot of those people, because many think, well, if you get outside the Christian religion and endorse somebody and vote for them, then that's tantamount to a sin, and that's a big deal in this part of the world.

WERTHEIMER: Really, tantamount to a sin?

WISEMAN: Right.

WERTHEIMER: Well now, what are these voters going to do when they're faced with the choice between the incumbent president and the Republican nominee, if it's Romney?

WISEMAN: To me, the answer to that very question will be one of the most interesting stories of election night. It's going to be interesting to watch Mississippians and other deep Southerners rationalize voting for a Mormon when many have vowed never to do it. But with the first African-American president running for re-election, I predict that many will say, well, it is after all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that would give them the excuse to rethink that and certainly the Republican nominee will carry the deep South fairly handily.

WERTHEIMER: How big an issue is this question of religion compared to other issues? I mean are there other things that you think are as important, more important?

WISEMAN: I, you know, I think religion is in the top two or three probably. The thing that most people - or at least most that I sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk politics with around the state - is they dislike Obama. And, you know, I won't go so far as to say race is the reason, but there does seem to be a cross-section in the South who is happy to have a national figure that's an African-American that they can object to again.

Now, that certainly not everybody. You've got a lot of Mississippians who are just good solid Mississippians who are very antigovernment, and they view Obama as big government. The thing is Mississippi is generally right at the top of the list of net gainers from Washington. We get about two dollars back for every dollar we send up there. Yet, we're constantly protesting against the heavy hand of the federal government, and probably couldn't live without the money if the programs went away.

WERTHEIMER: Well, so what about the economy? Does that rank as like number one as it does many places in the country?

WISEMAN: The economy is certainly important. But the thing is, to the majority of Mississippians, we've been used to a bad economy since the Civil War. While, yes, we'd like a lot better economy and a lot more jobs and so forth, it is not a new struggle for Mississippians.

WERTHEIMER: This is really going to be an exciting run-up to the general election.

WISEMAN: It is going to be powerfully interesting when you have a multimillionaire, white Mormon running against an African-American - and particularly one that has had the accusations of being Kenyan and Muslim and all of that thrown in - and those are the two choices, there's so much to get into the mind of Southern voters about there.

WERTHEIMER: Marty Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Thank you very much for talking to us.

WISEMAN: I thoroughly enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.

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