North Carolina has long been a state divided. Visitors to the Old North State are often surprised to find themselves on the wrong end of our deep-cutting cultural fault lines when they attempt to make polite conversation about anything from college basketball to barbeque sauce to politics. Navigating and avoiding those divisions, an art of survival we are taught at a very early age, usually requires focusing on those things upon which all of us in the Tar Heel state can agree.
It’s a short list but it includes some of the following:
- Our patron saint, James Taylor: N.C.’s favorite son, and the timeless nostalgia of his song “Carolina in My Mind”
- The state toast: When glasses are raised many of us can muster at least the first verse: “Here's to the land of the long leaf pine; the summer land where the sun doth shine; where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great; here's to ‘Down Home,’ the Old North State!”
- The blessed assurance that we are neither South Carolina nor Virginia. We prefer the not-so-subtle distinction, “A vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.”
In this election season, however, even poking fun at South Carolina hasn’t been enough to unite our deeply fractured communities, schools, churches, and families.
What lies beneath the noise of the punditry trying to determine if this purple state will go red (like 2012) or blue (like 2008) is the centuries-long struggle of a state attempting to move beyond a history mired in slavery and oppression into a new era of upward mobility, education, and economic opportunity. Like so much of the nation, our state’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a proxy war, one where each candidate has come to represent hopes and fears that long preceded 2016.
Despite what one might think surveying yard signs across North Carolina, folks down here aren’t neatly divided into Clinton and Trump camps. In fact, when you catch them at an unguarded, honest moment, most people will admit the reservations they have about the presidential candidate they otherwise so adamantly defend in adversarial exchanges with their in-laws.
The best windows into North Carolina’s current condition are the contests being waged at the state level.
The race for the governor’s mansion between Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and the state’s four-term attorney general Roy Cooper reflects the nuance in the 2016 election. Gov. McCrory’s defining legacy has been his support for House Bill 2, widely known as the “bathroom bill,” which prevents transgender individuals from using public restrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify. The bill also prevents local governments from passing laws to provide additional safeguard LGBT civil rights and regulate employment standards for government contractors.
The bill set off a firestorm of backlash, eventually affecting one of the state’s most sacred institutions: college sports. The NCAA responded to HB2 by moving its first-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament out of the state. The ACC followed suit by removing its championship playoff games from the state. The NBA also pulled its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte. Music artists, businesses, and other state governments joined the exodus by pulling funding and investments from North Carolina in response to the “bathroom bill.” All told, the bill cost the state an estimated $630 million.
To say that HB2 has tarnished the state’s reputation would be a profound understatement. Those of us who have traveled out of the state (or the country) have become accustomed to some version of the same response when we introduce ourselves as native North Carolinians: “Oh, you’re from the bathroom state!”
No. We are not this.
That’s why so many of us, especially those in the state’s faith communities, were appreciative of Rev. William Barber II for standing up at the Democratic National Convention and saying, “I'm so concerned, about those that say so much — about what God says so little, while saying so little — about what God says so much. And so in my heart, I'm troubled. And I'm worried about the way faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed.”
There is much reason to worry. Even in the last week we have witnessed efforts to purge voter rolls of African-American names in several counties across the state. Such is just the latest in a well-orchestrated effort to muffle the voices of our black and brown brothers and sisters who have fought for the past century to have their votes counted. The voter purge comes on the heels of the recent Fourth Circuit decision to strike down North Carolina’s voter identification law, citing its provisions which served to "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision."
Even without voter ID laws in place, the returns thus far suggest that efforts to close down early voting sites and discourage African-American voters from going to the polls are having an effect. (As if to clearly articulate the intent behind the coordinated voter suppression activities, the North Carolina Republican Party referred to these effects as “encouraging.”)
But to end the story there is to fall victim to the complacency of despair. The full story is replete with those who refuse to allow North Carolina to once again bow to the small-minded mean spiritedness that has plagued our past.
On Sunday, pastors across our state answered Jim Wallis’ call to step into the pulpit and name the evil inherent in the fear-driven ideologies which divide God’s children. These clergy members put their job security on the line to speak out against the racial and gender bigotry that has become normalized in this election. One of those faithful messengers was my father, a Baptist pastor, who reminded his congregation that we as Baptists hail from a long line of brave predecessors who died defending the right of all people, of all backgrounds and colors, to practice their religion, or no religion at all.
Today, on Election Day, faithful North Carolinians have partnered with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and spanned out to precincts across the state to help flag and solve problems that arise at polling places. Others of us have set up an election protection headquarters at the University of North Carolina School of Law and are currently fielding phone calls from Election Protection volunteers and voters who are being prevented from voting.
But even more important than anything we do today is the hard work that must be done to heal our fractured communities, families, and congregations after this tumultuous election season is over. For Christians in the Tar Heel State, that means standing in the gap — building the relationships that allow us to bridge the divide between the rural and urban, white and non-white, those with and without a college education, Republicans and Democrats.
When James Taylor visited the state last week with President Obama, he led a crowd of thousands singing "Carolina in my Mind." After he sang, and we all wiped the tears from our eyes, James implored those gathered to do everything we could to restore his home state to the beacon of hope and progress he had known it to be.
We Tar Heels have a obligation to fulfill — not just to patron saint Taylor, but to God and all God’s children — to reclaim our state. To make it once again the place “where the weak grow strong, and the strong grow great!”
Here’s to down home, the Old North State.