Tennessee Voters Will Be Going on Faith

Rebecca Dozier and her two daughters, Allie and Anna.

Rebecca Dozier and her daughters Anna, 5, and Allie, 7. "God is important," she says. "Faith. I stand for traditional marriage... man and woman, the preservation of the family." Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR
College Hills Church of Christ.

College Hills Church of Christ has been around for 170 years, most recently at this suburban location in Lebanon, Tenn. Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR
Dan Wright with a baking sheet of grilled cheese sandwiches.

Longtime church member Dan Wright stepped in for his wife to prepare hundreds of grilled cheese sandwiches for the Wednesday night fellowship dinner. Debbie Elliott, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott, NPR
The church's electronic sign announces: Everyone is Welcome.

Everyone may be welcome at College Hills Church of Christ, but members of the congregation are facing a tough decision about who they want to send to the Senate. Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR
Julia Dodd, wearing a brown blouse and spectacles.

As of Wednesday night's supper, Julia Dodd considered herself undecided in the Senate race. Her next step, after completing her research: "Pray about it and cast my vote and do what I can." Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR

The stakes are high for Tennessee voters this November. Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., a Democrat, is trying to become the first African American from the Old South to join the Senate since Reconstruction. But he appears to trail Republican Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor.

Both candidates are emphasizing their faith in a state where social values are a big part of the political debate. That dynamic may be even more obvious this year, with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the Tennessee ballot.

In one of his early campaign ads, Ford talks about growing up in church. An ad for Corker describes how he led a church mission trip.

Is either candidate connecting with the faithful? We went to the College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tenn., just east of Nashville, to gauge what voters there think. The church was formed 170 years ago on a hill not far from the quaint town square in downtown Lebanon.

Today's church reflects Lebanon's rapid transformation from a rural town to a Nashville suburb. It has 1,100 members and has moved to a spacious campus on the outskirts of town.

At the Wednesday night fellowship meal church member Dan Wright — clad in a long white apron — moves quickly to put a tray of white bread into the oven. He pulls out a tray that's already toasted, and stacks slices of cheese on top.

"My wife isn't here," he says. "She does the bulk of it, but had to run an errand. You have the backup. She left me... said if you can't handle grilled cheese you have a problem."

Before long, he's stacked 200 grilled cheese sandwiches while giving us an overview of the political landscape in Tennessee's Wilson County.

He expects many people to vote a split ticket, including himself. He supports Democrats at the local level, and will vote to re-elect Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is also a Democrat. But he's leaning Republican in the Senate race, with mixed feelings.

"Just because we are traditionally Republican, we'll probably vote Republican," he says, referring to recent discussions with his wife. "But not because we like one or the other. Just staying with your grassroots. But we're not in love with Bob Corker who is running for Republican, not at all."

This area was once part of the solid Democratic South, and is still represented by two Democrats in the House. But in other national races, it has tilted Republican in recent years.

And it's in central Tennessee where the Senate race is likely to turn. Ford is expected to do well in western Tennessee, around his hometown Memphis, the state's largest city. And Corker — from Chattanooga — is likely to carry eastern Tennessee. So the voters in the middle could determine the outcome of the race.

At supper in the fellowship hall, Rebecca Dozier sits with her husband Shawn and two young daughters. She says she's decided to vote for Corker for one reason:

"Corker best represents the values I hold," she says. "God is important. Faith. I stand for traditional marriage... man and woman, the preservation of the family. I just feel Corker holds those values more true than Harold Ford, so I intend to vote for him."

Ford, she fears, will "vote with Democrats and the likes of Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton... he'll go with them. And I don't think he truly, truly holds the same values I do with traditional marriage and family. I just don't trust him."

The party label could be Ford's biggest obstacle, if the crowd at College Hills Church is any indication. Few voters there identified with the Democratic party. One exception was retiree Horace Smith.

"If you look at the Republicans, they lie, they have no values," Smith says. "Tom DeLay, look at him. The whole group. They say they're Christian and [they intimate that] I'm not a Christian and I don't like that. I believe I'm a Christian as much or more than they are."

Many other issues are weighing on the minds of the prospective voters at College Hills, including the war in Iraq. Many voters are keenly aware of what's at stake.

Julia Dodd, who said she was still undecided about how she would vote in the Corker-Ford race, acknowledged that she feels the weight of the nation as she struggles with her decision. Having done some research, she lays out her next steps:

"Pray about it and cast my vote and do what I can."

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