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Saved by faith?

Key 2007 races hinge on beliefs of candidates and faith of voters

Saved by faith?

Who is on Jesus' side in Mississippi? That's the question John Arthur Eaves Jr. posed to voters during his recent campaign for Mississippi governor.

The 41-year-old attorney and evangelical Christian ran his campaign on themes familiar in the Bible Belt: Eaves is pro-life, opposes gay marriage, and favors teaching creationism in public schools. But one thing about Eaves' overtly Christian-themed candidacy threw Mississippi voters for a loop: Eaves is a Democrat.

Eaves did not prevail against Republican incumbent Gov. Haley Barbour in the Nov. 6 elections, but the candidate did manage to make a point in the Republican stronghold: Democrats can be Christians, too.

Three states held elections for governor this year, and all three races were notable for at least one reason: Candidates from both parties made religious appeals a significant part of their political campaigns.

The local elections provided a glimpse of what is already unfolding ahead of next year's national elections: Democrats and Republicans alike are determined to establish their religious credentials with voters, as faith becomes fashionable in the public square.

Eaves made faith the centerpiece of his campaign for governor. The candidate's website bio told voters that Eaves "gave his life to Christ at age 8." The bio concluded: "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."

The candidate attacked "big tobacco companies, big oil companies, and big insurance" that he said were behind Barbour's campaign. Barbour, a former lobbyist, denied Eaves' accusations that he is beholden to such companies through ties to his old lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.

Eaves tied his political affiliation to his faith: "I'm a Democrat because Democrats invest in people. I'm a Democrat because I'm a Christian." The candidate said his gospel-based convictions drive his desire to help the needy.

In the end, Barbour prevailed largely because of his success in helping the needy after Hurricane Katrina: The governor won praise for spearheading a quick cleanup, as well as job growth and redevelopment. Barbour also emphasized the role of churches by facilitating thousands of volunteers to help needy families.

Next door in Louisiana, the governor's race took a different turn. Voters in the state still staggering from mismanaged hurricane recovery efforts opted for a change: They rejected Democratic candidates in favor of Bobby Jindal, a Republican congressman from New Orleans. (Embattled Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco did not seek reelection.)

Jindal, 36, is the son of Indian immigrants, and the first Indian-American elected as governor. He is also a devout Catholic who converted from Hinduism while in high school. During his campaign, he told voters: "I draw my definition of integrity from my Christian faith."

While Jindal carefully acknowledged that we live in a "pluralistic state," he also made political proposals with Christian-based ideas: He supports teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools and also advocates a total ban on abortion.

The Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar said he would focus on expediting recovery in Louisiana and promised to undertake what may be his biggest challenge: "cleaning up corruption" in a state notorious for political scandal.

Political scandal helped doom the reelection campaign of Ernie Fletcher, the Republican governor of Kentucky. Fletcher came under investigation for his administration's hiring practices, and a grand jury indicted the governor on misdemeanor charges of skirting the state's hiring laws. A judge later dismissed the charges in a negotiated deal after Fletcher admitted wrongdoing by his administration.

Democratic candidate Steve Beshear won the Kentucky governor's race by making Fletcher's troubles his mantra. Beshear also made an appeal to religious convictions: The candidate spoke of his Christian faith, and he ran television ads showing him in front of a Kentucky church.

The day before the Nov. 6 elections, Fletcher issued an executive order to display the Ten Commandments in the Capitol Rotunda. The governor insisted the action wasn't a political ploy to gain more votes, but a response to a judge's ruling that allowed the posting. One day later, Beshear won 60 percent of the votes in a landslide victory.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.