His momma read him Bible stories at bed time and rocked him to sleep singing the old hymn “In the Garden.” He gave his life to Christ at age 8 and walked where Jesus did at age 9. Thirty-years later, he stood on the banks of the Jordan River as three of his own sons professed faith and were baptized. His wife’s name is Angel. He is pro-life, pro-prayer, pro-Bible literacy and pro-guns. He’s a Southern Baptist running for office.
And no, John Arthur Eaves is not a Republican. He’s running for the governorship of Mississippi as a Democrat against Haley Barbour, the Republican incumbent who was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997.
“I’m a Democrat because I’m a Christian,” Eaves said in an interview. “Jesus came to help the people. He healed the sick, and he tried to help the poor. The Democrats’ core fiber is to help people. That was Jesus’ mission.”
Eaves’ mission is to convince enough voters that he’s on Jesus’ side to win the governor’s race.
One TV ad opens with a picture of a wooden cross next to a lake on a cloudy day with Eaves’ talking about his baptism. Following frames include his family holding hands and praying at supper time, posing together in front of their church and children praying in school. He closes by asking viewers to prayerfully consider voting for him.
Another TV ad begins with Eaves leaning on a farm fence holding what looks like a brown, leather-covered Bible: “Jesus ministered to the least and the lost. And he threw the moneychangers out of the temple. I’m not perfect, but I’ve dedicated my life to helping the powerless.”
In a summer speech at the Neshoba County Fair, Eaves said, “I am running for governor because I believe Mississippi can be better and it will be better when we take the reins of government from the special interests who hold the keys to the governor’s mansion.”
“Haley Barbour has opened the doors of power to the moneychangers: Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Insurance. These groups–who Haley has lobbied for–may talk about helping Mississippi, but they are merely wolves in sheep’s clothing who have been making false promises and pulling the financial strings of our leaders to force us to accept false choices,” said Eaves.Toward the end of his speech, Eaves said, “I am putting my entire life savings into this crusade. Instead of accepting money from special interests, I have freed myself to do my best to answer this call to service, with a clean conscience and with no allegiance to any but God and the great people of Mississippi.”
Eaves’ populace campaign is crammed with both obvious and veiled biblical imagery–wolves vs. sheep, moneychangers vs. Jesus, the powerful vs. the least of these, false choices vs. the true way, pridefulness vs. humbleness.
No wonder Barbour is annoyed about Eaves’ aggressive insertion of faith into politics. After all, in a state where every home has more than one Bible, Eaves message has traction, while Barbour’s persona looks religiously sterile.
“My opponent loves to quote the Bible,” said Barbour, accusing Eaves of being sanctimonious and arguing that campaigns ought to be about public policy.
Of course, Barbour didn’t seem to have a problem with the GOP being labeled as the God’s Only Party over the past 25 years.
But now that a faithful Democrat is quoting the Bible, Barbour has flip-flopped on faith–faith has no role in politics, a shameful twist of hypocrisy.
Eaves, on the other hand, exhibits an authentic faith both through his example of regular church attendance with his family and his advocacy of those at the margins of life rather than advancing the interests of the powerful.
“I see him every week. He attends the Madison campus, unless he’s out campaigning,” said Jeff Redding, campus pastor for Pinelake Church, a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and located on two different campuses in the Jackson-area.
Redding told EthicsDaily.com, “He has never mentioned the campaign to me on Sunday because we are wrapped up in what God is doing.”
If Eaves ran as a Republican, his faith-based campaign would be accepted uncritically among conservative religionists, and the SBC bureaucracy would promote his candidacy.
As a Democrat, his faith appeal appears too excessive, too out of character for the way we think about faith and politics.
However, the more Democrats strive to display their faith and Republicans stumble away from faithfulness, the more likely that a resilient new cultural storyline will emerge, one that dislodges the 25-year prevailing myth that God favors on one party.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.