POLITICS MARCH 6, 2000
If you believe the South Carolina autopsy reports, John McCain was done in by people like Mary Johnston. A church volunteer who writes frequent letters to the editor, Johnston is the exotic evangelical species reporters blamed for McCain's crushing defeat. As the story goes, she and her church buddies dragged George W. Bush from the mainstream to the fringe right, turned him into a raving theocrat, and levitated him to victory.
It's true that Johnston voted for Bush. But she didn't do it because he palled around with the Bob Jones University mullahs, touted "Judeo-Christian values" for schools, and stretched out his drawl. In fact, what Johnston really wanted from Bush was for him "to be who he is," i.e., part of the establishment, respectable, someone who wouldn't cause embarrassment. Johnston didn't want Bush to be more like her. She wanted to be more like him.
Like many religious conservatives, what determined her vote was not right-wing zealotry but class envy. "I want to give them all the opportunities he had," she says of her three children, one of whom she claims looks like the young Bush. "We don't have the money the Bushes had, but I'll make sure they go to the best schools, first grade to college."
The first clue to Johnston's true aspirations came when I visited her Rock Hill home and she quickly hid an eye-catching newspaper photo. "Oh, it's nothing, nothing," she said, shoving it under the pile on her kitchen counter. Only when pressed did she explain.
The photograph, spread across several columns of the Rock Hill Herald, showed a rough-looking crowd gathered in a place called Chester. Located in the woolly backcountry of the Appalachians, Chester is a half-hour drive from the striving suburb where Johnston lives, but psychologically it is much further away. As she sheepishly admitted, Johnston used to live there. And that stain on her past never ceases to embarrass her.
The fine citizens of Chester, the accompanying article explains, have organized a committee to protect the mobile home ("Protect the mobile home!" Johnston exclaimed."Can you believe it?!"), protesting new limits on that ubiquitous and cherished Southern institution. "They're so uneducated," she said of her former neighbors, no doubt privately shuddering at some loathsome 7-Eleven encounter from her past.
"They're so rude."
"I mean, all kinds of things go on in those trailers, all hours of the night."
"You want some tea?"
Like much of the recently rural South, the South Carolina upland is packed with churchgoers secretly envious of their coastal betters in Charleston. Almost all the religious conservatives I interviewed there in the days before the South Carolina primary said they used to have rednecks as neighbors or as relatives, or that they used to be rednecks but no longer are. Jim Ardrey, who lives on a parcel of land his family has owned for 100 years, complained, "They didn't know what to do with it, because they were all, you know, rednecks."
Ardrey, though, does know what to do with it. He's taken the land and built a housing development, Ardrey Acres, with massive brick houses in faux Southern Colonial style, hedges trimmed to resemble swans. His next project is obvious: a golf course.
Many of the religious conservatives I spoke with remembered odd status details about Bush, like what brand of shirt he prefers or which cigars are his father's favorite.They knew every school he'd gone to and for exactly which years. Meanwhile, the rumors circulating in the evangelical world about McCain—while presumably spread to question his moral fitness—had a whiff of white trash about them: he had bastard children, he drank too much beer.
The affection for Alan Keyes was an open hydrant, gushing, "outstanding orator," "has his pulse on where the heart is," "accepts the Scriptures as is." People could quote whole paragraphs of Keyes's speeches by heart. But the love was ultimately doomed; all said they would never, ever vote for him. "We need men like Keyes," said Ardrey, "good Godfearing men who have a strong sense of the difference between right and wrong." Sounds perfect, no? "But he turns people off. He needs to go slower," Ardrey said. Like an uncle you're quite fond of but who might make a scene in public, Keyes was loved but best kept locked up. He passed every Christian-right litmus test but the most important one: he didn't appeal to the new Christian-right snobbery.
THAT YEARNING REFLECTS an anxiety about status in the Christian right at large. Left Behind, last year's best-selling series chronicling the apocalypse, is chock-full of status symbols, as Michael Joseph Gross points out in a recent review in The Atlantic Monthly. Everyone in the books is smart and beautiful. One character is "Ivy League educated," another is an "erudite reader." The books pause to savor important brand-name toys, like Range Rovers loaded with all the accoutrements—built-in cell phones and entertainment systems. Sometimes the swagger produces painful garbling: one character looks "as if he had come off the cover of a Fortune 500 edition of GQ."
Mainstream envy shows up even at Bob Jones, perhaps America's last bastion of true fundamentalist separatism. Outside South Carolina, Bob Jones represents the noxious whiff of the racist South. But, inside the state, what's surprising about Bob Jones is how well it's integrated into the Republican Party, how seamlessly Bob Jones people have morphed into party drones—in this case, humble crusaders for Bush.
In the mid-'60s, long before the Christian Coalition and Ralph Reed, the Bob Jones people demanded a seat at the table. Slowly, they transformed the local Republican Party, sneaking some of their dearest issues, such as abortion, into the party platform. But, after 30 years of political dealing, the party transformed them, erasing their naive streak. Now they've compartmentalized. Their theology discourages them from joining activist groups with an ideology that could conflict with their strict religion.But they've declared the Republican Party neutral ground, a suitable forum for worldly pursuits.
At the end of my trip I set out for Chester to see whom the redneck neighbors would vote for. Before reaching Chester I came across one, an underfed cowboy leaning against his trailer. His name was Charlie Craw, he said, and he lived there because he managed the local motel, fixed things, kept the place clean. He asked why I'd stopped, and I said I had noticed the trailer. "It's not a trailer, it's a mobile home," he said, and I didn't bother to ask the question.
This article appeared in the March 6, 2000, issue of the magazine.