With JFK, it was the Catholic question. With Mitt Romney, it’s about Mormons. Now Nashville is facing a different twist on the political/religious conundrum.
Buck Dozier, who is running for mayor, and Carolyn Baldwin Tucker, who wants to be vice mayor, both belong to the Church of Christ—that quirky collection of rigid fundamentalists that’s a little squirrelly even for much of the rest of the Christian right.
It is a loose network of independent churches with no creed, so it’s hard to generalize about its beliefs. But in addition to the standard conservative Christian articles of faith, the typical Christer thinks a church piano is the devil’s instrument, it’s wrong to celebrate Christmas as Jesus’ birth—and, oh yes, everyone but members of the Church of Christ is going to spend eternity in hell. Some church members dispute that last tenet as a mite judgmental, so we asked Dozier to explain.
“That isn’t true” that the Church of Christ thinks everyone except its own members is going to hell, Dozier says. “Probably years ago there were some who may have said that, unfortunately. They’re all dead, I think. We don’t believe that now.”
That’s good, because heaven would be a sparsely populated place if only Church of Christ members went. There aren’t many in the world—something less than 2 million. Nashville, though, has been blessed or cursed with a lot, depending on your point of view.
About 30,000 of voting age attend 110 congregations in the city, according to church statisticians. So they could easily make a difference in the Aug. 2 elections if they went for one candidate. That’s especially true in the mayoral contest, where five candidates are splitting up votes. They might not mean as much in the vice mayor’s race, which has only two candidates—Tucker and another at-large council member, Diane Neighbors. Only 100,000 people altogether are expected to cast ballots.
Nashville has had at least one Church of Christ mayor in its history, Ben West, who held the office from 1951-63. But the issue of his religious affiliation “never came up,” says his son, former Vice Mayor Jay West, who is Methodist himself.
Dozier and Tucker, both at-large council members, are different. They often talk about their faith in public. Dozier is an elder in his congregation, sort of like a chief in an Indian tribe, and Tucker teaches Sunday school class in hers. (Women aren’t allowed to hold leadership positions in the Church of Christ.)
They are viable as political candidates at least partly because of their affiliation with the Church of Christ. Despite that, they insist their church membership shouldn’t matter in the election. As Dozier puts it, “A pothole is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican, Baptist nor Church of Christ.”
The problem with that argument is that the mayor and vice mayor do more than fill potholes. What their faith might say about their judgment is a legitimate concern for voters.
With other Christian conservatives, they have been most prominent in opposition to gay rights. Tucker, a former public school teacher and principal, passionately opposed a 2003 ordinance outlawing employment discrimination based on sexual orientation within city government, including schools. When it was defeated, she called it “a victory for Nashville, a victory for the children, a victory for the Lord.... I am sure it will raise its ugly head again, and I’m sure we will have to deal with this again. But if it’s the Lord’s will, we will prevail.”
Dozier, a former church youth minister, ran for council in part on opposing gay rights. Once elected, he participated in the public humiliation of a lead sponsor of that anti-discrimination measure, former Metro Council member Eileen Beehan. Dozier joined 16 colleagues in abstaining from voting on her nomination to the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission, leaving her without enough support.
Dozier told reporters at the time, “...we don’t want [the anti-discrimination proposal] to come back up this term, and she was the symbol of that.” Interestingly, Dozier now denies he was sending an anti-gay message. “That had to do with the gay issue?” he asks, feigning ignorance. Instead, the former Metro fire chief says Beehan had offended him in some way because of “something dealing with the Fire Department,” though he won’t talk about what it was.
Tucker, who joined the council in 1999, has also been instrumental in opposing funding for the arts in Nashville. Apparently it stems from her outrage that the statue at the Music Row Roundabout features nudes. The dancing figures were privately funded, but the Metro Arts Commission is guilty in Tucker’s mind for technically approving the design.
Although Dozier acknowledges he wouldn’t support any gay rights proposal, he insists he wouldn’t push a conservative Christian agenda as mayor. “All religions have their strengths and weaknesses and blind spots,” he says. “It’s true that the Church of Christ has been narrow-minded probably in the past. But it’s changed a lot. My faith-based heritage helps me. I do believe that the quality of an individual is enhanced by faith, and I will always support that. But my faith has never gotten in the way of my judgment in elected office and it shouldn’t.”
Tucker, who is known for singing in a quavery falsetto to voters at the polls, is less reassuring. Asked a series of questions about her faith and her politics, she replies with Bible verses. “The Bible says when the righteous rule, the people rejoice,” she says, her voice rising with passion.Then she pauses and adds matter-of-factly, “Be sure to put in your story that I want everybody’s vote.”So saith the council member. Let us all pray for deliverance.