In Tennessee it has long been the tradition of candidates to tout their religious beliefs and church attendance when courting the electorate. Being in the center of the Bible Belt, this message unsurprisingly resonates well with the majority of religious voters.
Each of the three remaining primary contenders for the Republican gubernatorial nomination make frequent references to their religious beliefs on the campaign trail as well as in campaign literature and on their websites. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and former candidate Joe Kirkpatrick went so far as to state their religious affiliations on their website biographies directly after introducing themselves. Only Democrat Mike McWherter omits his personally religious beliefs from his website.
About Monday night’s televised debate among the remaining Republican candidates and McWherter, Tennessee Report correspondent Mike Morrow described the event as “laden with references to holy scripture and solemn appeals for prayer.”
In Chattanooga, two candidates for the Hamilton County Commission, Democrat Kenny Smith and Republican Tim Boyd, who attend the same church, have exchanged heated words on the role of personal religious belief in a public election. Boyd remarked on Smith’s apparently limited church attendance as evidence that he was less suited to hold office, while Smith defended himself as a solid Christian. Even the independent candidates not involved in the exchange felt the need to declare their own beliefs that Jesus is their personal savior.
It should come as no surprise that candidates are overtly religious on the campaign trail when the state constitution expressly forbids any non-theist from holding public office. Article IX, Section 2 of the Tennessee Constitution states that, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.” To be fair, Section 1 of the same article forbids ministers from being elected to the legislature, but only because they should not be distracted from their superior task of saving souls. The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, however, make these disqualifications unenforceable.