Why do many Bible Belt Democrats oppose abortion? Truth is, that's a religion-beat story

Democrats who, to one degree or another, oppose abortion are currently having another fleeting moment of mainstream media attention.

If you have been around for several decades (and you spent those decades as a pro-life Democrat) you have seen this happen before. Basically, this happens whenever the leadership of the Democratic Party and, thus, editors in some elite newsrooms, are tempted to believe that it’s in their political interest to win back conservative Democrats in parts of the Midwest, South and Southwest.

Right now, there are some Democrats who want to nominate a candidate that Donald Trump cannot, somehow, defeat in a few heartland states. But is that worth compromising on abortion, backing restrictions favored by a majority of centrist Americans and even large numbers of Democrats who do not live in the Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and Boston?

Yesterday, my colleague Julia Duin wrote about a New York Times piece focusing on these issues — sort of. The headline noted a familiar hole in the coverage: “New York Times finally profiles pro-life Democrats but forgets to add what religion they might be.” Why did Times editors publish this story? Duin writes:

I’m guessing it is a follow-up on their April 9 story that had poll data showing how the Democrat Party’s hard-left activists don’t represent most of the party faithful.

So they sent a reporter not to the South, where a lot of conservative Democrats live, but to western Pennsylvania. Having lived four years in the county just north of Pittsburgh, I know that it’s the Bible Belt of the Rust Belt. But as far as I could tell, the reporter didn’t go near a house of worship. That’s a big journalism problem, in this case.

This brings me to a new piece in the New York Post that ran with this headline: “Why many Dems in the South back the new anti-abortion laws.

This is not a hard-news piece. It’s an opinion essay by Salena Zito, but it includes lots of information gathered while reporting in Bible Belt-flyover country. GetReligion (other than weekend think pieces) normally doesn’t focus on opinion material, but I thought readers might want to see some this essay — since it directly addresses facts the Times team avoided in that recent A1 story.

Those two crucial subjects linked to the lives of pro-life Democrats? That would be race and religion. To cut to the chase, most of these Democrats who are being ignored by their party elites are African-Americans and blue collar white folks who go to church.

The first quote to note here is from Kentucky state Rep. John Sims, a Democrat who voted for that state’s “heartbeat bill.”

… Sims doesn’t see himself as strange.

“It is not unusual at all in my book to be both a Democrat and pro-life; it’s just the way I was raised in the church,” said Sims from the back of the Dairy Queen his family has owned for 66 years. Life means life “from conception until death,” he said.

What about that bill passed in Louisiana, enthusiastically backed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards? In a recent political-desk report, the Washington Post forgot to mention that Edwards is a Roman Catholic. Maybe that just goes without saying in his state?

So here is a crucial chunk of that new piece at The New York Post, built — in part — on information from GOP pollster Wes Anderson. This is long, but essential:

When Anderson asked voters in Louisiana if they considered themselves pro-life or pro-choice, 64 percent said pro-life. Meanwhile, 40 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents and 88 percent of Republicans in the state said they consider themselves pro-life.

In Mississippi, 60 percent of voters said they were pro-life, with 29 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents and 83 percent of Republicans making that claim.

And here’s a fact that might surprise people north of the Mason-Dixon Line — 58 percent of the pro-life Democrats in Louisiana are black. In Mississippi, that number jumps to 73 percent. “The point is … Democrats who call themselves pro-life … in most states are black,” said Anderson. (Full disclosure: Anderson is a partner at OnMessage Inc. with Brad Todd, co-author of my book, “The Great Revolt.”)

“It’s a little fact that’s been around for a long, long time that the Democrats just conveniently ignore,” he added. “The place where Republicans get pro-life Democrat support is a subset of black Democrats.”

Democratic strategist Dane Strother, a Louisiana native, said progressive Washingtonians don’t understand why Southerners can’t adopt a national platform that has shifted left. “The national Democrats want the southern Democrats to conform to their positions on life and guns,” said Strother. “But when we do we get our asses kicked.”

The final quotes here are from State Rep. Katrina Jackson of Louisiana, a Democrat who — imagine this — spoke at the 2019 March for Life rally in Washington. See the video at the top of this post.

Why are there so many pro-life Democrats in this part of America, including in the black community? She offers words that will turn many Acela-zone editors into pillars of salt (that’s a Bible reference).

“The primary reason is we are guided by our faith — the Bible teaches us it is wrong. Also, we are really family oriented. It’s not unusual to see us on a Sunday with three generations of families and extended families sitting around the dinner table.”

It’s also the reason pro-life beliefs are so prominent among African Americans, she said.

“That also centers on faith and family. Traditionally in the African-American community … you see grandparents raising children, aunts raising children. You’ve seen family members adopting other family members’ children. We network to make sure our children are taken care of,” she said. “That’s something for us that’s never been labeled pro-life, it’s just the way we live.”

So what’s the point? Simply stated, this is a crucial story in the 2020 elections — if Democrats want to win back the support of some voters who reluctantly backed Trump. The journalism point is pretty clear: If editors want to “get” this, they should consider assigning religion-beat professionals to the story, perhaps working in partnerships with political-desk pros.

The bottom line: You can’t understand this story without talking to people — black and white — in pews. While you are at it, ask them questions about religious liberty and the First Amendment.

Just saying.

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