The campaign for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional district offers two major-party candidates who openly and directly tie their political positions to their Christian faith.
“My faith is what drives my ministry and what motivates me as a candidate for Congress,” Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the Democratic candidate, said.
“I pledge to be guided by my Christian faith and family values in all my decisions,” Chuck Edwards, the Republican, vows on his campaign website.
But while Edwards, a self-described Christian conservative, and Beach-Ferrara, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, share a Protestant Christian tradition, they stand far apart on the so-called “culture-war issues” of the campaign.
They both cite Christian doctrines in support of their opposing views on women’s reproductive rights, individual sexuality, gay and transgender rights, and parental control over the content of school curricula, as well as emerging issues including gun safety restrictions and Christian Nationalism — the concept that America is divinely blessed and must be governed as a Christian nation, blurring the line between Church and State.
Asheville Watchdog asked both Beach-Ferrara and Edwards to talk about how religion shapes their views on issues, and how their Christian beliefs will inform the way they will govern if elected to Congress on Nov. 8.
Only Beach-Ferrara agreed. Neither Edwards nor his campaign staff responded to numerous requests to talk to be interviewed. In an effort to compare and contrast their different views, The Watchdog has to rely on statements made by Edwards during the campaign.
“I Couldn’t Walk Away From God”
Even as a popular senior at Chapel Hill High School bound for the Ivy League, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara struggled to feel included in her community and her church. In her own words, she was “a gay kid in North Carolina in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was a time when the messages that you heard loudly and clearly were messages of condemnation and exclusion.”
The church she attended with her single mother, an affiliate of the Presbyterian Church USA faith, though not overtly hostile, provided no sustenance. “It was very clear that this wasn’t the sort of environment where I could come out” as gay, Beach-Ferrara said in an interview with Asheville Watchdog.
“I wrestled with the question: Where can I really be honest about who I am? And church wasn’t one of those places at that time. The loudest voices in Christianity were condemning people like me.”
Her sense of alienation from church extended beyond high school and well into college at Brown University. Yet never did those Christian voices of condemnation cause her to abandon her search for faith. As she struggled to reconcile a desire for religious affiliation with her identity as a gay woman, she said she “felt this call to the ministry that was hard to explain. I felt I couldn’t walk away from God. I never felt estranged from God.”
Beach-Ferrara is a 47-year-old mother of three, a Buncombe County commissioner, a published novelist and — as a result of her long journey — a graduate of Harvard’s Divinity School and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Her ministry has ranged from teaching creative writing in state prisons to founding and heading the Campaign for Southern Equality, which advocates for gay and transgender rights, including gay marriage.
“A Christian and a Family Man”
Chuck Edwards, the Republican candidate for the seat, declined numerous requests to discuss his faith and how it has shaped his views. The 62-year-old state senator and McDonald’s franchise owner from Hendersonville frequently and unequivocally identifies himself in religious terms.
“As a parent and grandparent,” Edwards writes of himself on his campaign page, “he instills the same values of Christianity, hard work, honesty and integrity that his parents taught him.”
In campaigning for the GOP nomination earlier this year, he distributed literature saying he is a “Christian conservative.” At political events, Edwards has said he is “a Christian and family man … married to the same woman” for more than four decades, and together they’ve raised “two Christian children.”
‘Culturally Religious Region’
To outsiders, secular voters and those adherents of non-Christian faiths, a public entangling of religion and politics may seem unusual, even contrary to the Constitutional separation of church and state when taken to an extreme.
“I don’t think Christians need to be shy about saying how their faith informs their views on character and policies,” Rabbi Mitch Levine of Asheville’s Congregation Beth Israel told the Watchdog. “But our country includes people from a wide variety of faiths and no particular faith.
“So candidates need to remind themselves — and us — that their legitimacy depends upon backing up their policy views with arguments that don’t depend on religious convictions,” Levine continued. “I want to hear why their views are good for America, and why their views are the right way to go, and why their views are going to improve our lives as Americans.”
That may not be the way things work in the Carolina mountains, as noted by the German social-scientist Max Weber following a visit more than a century ago. Weber observed that door-to-door salesmen unfailingly claimed membership in local churches, although many rarely attended.
A salesman “talked about being Christian as an identifier,” said Duke University professor Pope McCorkle, who teaches in the Sanford School of Public Policy and has observed elections in the state for decades. “To be a Christian was the badge they wore that said to people, ‘I’m okay.’”
Even in the current campaign, McCorkle said, “If a candidate is going to talk about a religion, having ‘Christian’ in its name is important.”
There is ample evidence as to why. In Buncombe County, a section of the interstate highway through Asheville is labeled the Billy Graham Expressway for the late evangelist. Graham made his home in the town of Montreat, just east of Asheville. And his conference and training center, The Cove, is in Swannanoa, another adjoining town.
In the Congressional district, Protestant churches number in the hundreds, far surpassing other denominations, including Roman Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques.
“This is still a culturally religious region,” said Professor Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University, an authority on the region’s politics. “That means that even if people aren’t going to church that often, they sure talk about it. Cultural networks [and] social networks are still structured around churches in many of these mountain communities.”
Cooper said he isn’t aware of any current surveys correlating a particular religious faith to a political party. But he and others point to recent voter exit polls showing that Republican candidates in North Carolina do better than Democratic opponents among church-going Christians. Cooper said this “furthers the narrative that to be religious means to be Republican.”
CNN exit polls in 2020 found that a third of North Carolina voters identified themselves as “born again” or “evangelical” Christians. An estimated 86 percent of these voted for Donald Trump, who defeated Joe Biden in North Carolina but lost nationally.
“Particularly in rural North Carolina and in the surrounding suburban counties, they make up a core constituency of the base of the Republican Party,” political science Professor Michael Bitzer of Catawba College told the website FiveThirtyEight.com.
Defending “Family Values”
Although Edwards refused requests to be interviewed for this article, his public comments and record in the North Carolina Senate on cultural issues validate his self-identity as a Christian conservative. In a recent GOP forum, Edwards touted his endorsement and “A+” rating by the North Carolina Values Coalition, which has lobbied the state Assembly to outlaw abortion in the state and to defend “family values,” representing positions such as opposition to gay marriage and all-gender bathrooms, and support for expansion of state support for home schooling.
He has authored and supported bills that would criminalize abortion after what he has called the “point where the baby feels pain.” Some Republicans contend that this “fetal pain” point is 20 weeks into the pregnancy, although there is little scientific evidence to support that. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in peer-reviewed studies, says that a fetus’s central nervous system isn’t sufficiently developed to experience pain earlier than 24 or 25 weeks, which would maintain the viability standard set in the recently overturned Roe v. Wade ruling.
To Edwards, however, the debate over the gestation period is irrelevant to his view that abortion should be completely outlawed. “I am pro-life and will always be pro-life,” he says.
The Republican lawmaker has also voted for legislation that would bar public schools from teaching the legal concept called critical race theory, which identifies laws that perpetuate racial discrimination. That legislation also would prohibit teachers from recommending books featuring LGBTQ characters, and block transgender athletes from participating in scholastic sports. (The legislation passed the state Assembly but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.)
Edwards was the prime author of another measure that would give families who home-school their children — the majority of whom are evangelical Christians — a $1,000 tax credit per child per semester to offset their public-school taxes. That measure would have cost the state more than $200 million per year in lost education taxes had it become law.
The Hendersonville businessman’s absolutist position on gun ownership also ties into the religious beliefs of many conservative Christians. If elected, Edwards claims that he would be the only member of Congress who is a licensed firearms dealer. In a debate aired on WLOS, he said he opposes any restriction on gun ownership and ridiculed Beach-Ferrara’s call for “common-sense gun safety.”
“The Warrior Jesus”
That view aligns with a growing strain of evangelicalism called the “Jesus and John Wayne” movement (a name taken from a Christian-rock band’s song). The movement advises that young boys are to be taught to play with toy swords and guns, and older boys trained in using firearms.
Calvin University history professor Kristin Kobes du Mez, who wrote a book, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” told the Watchdog that this philosophy was widely incorporated into homeschooling curricula beginning about 25 years ago; it is credited with a sharp rise in homeschooling by evangelical Christian families. Kobes du Mez said this curriculum upends the image of a turn-the-other-cheek Jesus, arguing instead for the “warrior Jesus,” who angrily expelled money changers from the temple.
North Carolina leads the nation with more than 10 percent of its school-aged population — about 180,000 students — in home schools. That’s more than double the percentage in the next two largest states, Florida and Georgia, according to the National Home Education Research Institute’s 2021 survey.
Beach-Ferrara opposes all of those positions, labeling them as “extreme” and “divisive.” She sees them as contrary to the Christianity she discovered after struggling to reconcile her sexuality with a faith that was “condemning people like me.”
Inclusion, Not Condemnation
Although she graduated from Brown University with the intention of going on to medical school, she said felt a stronger “calling to serve” others who, as she had, were struggling with life challenges. She scrapped plans for medical school, entered Harvard Divinity School and was ordained in the United Church of Christ, which traces its lineage to Puritans and Congregationalists.
In that faith, rather than spiritual messages of condemnation, Beach-Ferrara found inclusion. “It took some time to find voices that carried different messages, and those messages were rooted in a firm grasp on scripture, on theology, on liturgy,” she said.
She finds scriptural support in the framework established in the recently reversed Roe v. Wade ruling where a woman’s right to choose abortion was hers alone until the fetus reached viability, generally considered to be 24 weeks with medical intervention.
And she says Edwards’ opposition to the range of LGBTQ issues from gay marriage to transgender rights are intended to ostracize people because of their differences from his evangelical Christian vision of society.
“It’s a brand of extremism, making people become scared of each other and making people see each other as strangers,” she told the Watchdog. “The approach I believe in, and that this campaign is all about, is that there are no strangers, there are no enemies.”
Beach-Ferrara also expresses the need to maintain, even strengthen, the constitutional separation of church and state. “Chuck Edwards has said in his own words that Christian conservatives will take the country over,” she said. “That’s about his religious beliefs being imposed on everyone else.”
How this message impacts voters will soon be settled with the end of voting on Election Day, Nov. 8. Political analysts like Cooper think Beach-Ferrara’s religious affiliation may give her a boost with younger, secular voters. But Cooper adds she has little chance to persuade evangelical Christians “who vote with the Republican Party the majority of the time.”
“The elephant in the room is her religiosity combined with her sexuality. I think she leads with both,” Cooper said. “And clearly the latter of those two is not going to play well with evangelicals.
“If Jasmine Beach-Ferrara wins this election, it is going to be a real interruption and a real change to the behavior in this district.”
Featured image courtesy of WLOS.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. He lives in Asheville. Email email@example.com.