Last of the Christian Right Democrats?

On the same day that Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis got to speak at the Values Voters Summit in DC, she made known the least surprising news imaginable: she and her husband are switching to the Republican Party.

Now I don’t know a whole lot about Davis’ background, and particularly how long she has harbored the aggressively Christian conservative views that made her not only reject a Supreme Court decision on marriage equality but insist on going to jail over it in what seems to have been a pretty active campaign to become a Christian Right martyr and a magnet to every right-wing pol in Christendom. But I am old enough to remember when Christian Right types were not confined to the GOP.

In fact, I worked briefly for one of the two people who might be considered the last of the Christian Right Democratic Governors: Georgia’s Joe Frank Harris, elected in 1982 and reelected in 1986.

Joe Frank was a mild-mannered state legislator and cement contractor who attracted some very powerful backing and was almost visibly compelled into higher office by his overtly religious wife, Elizabeth. His first statewide campaign often took on the trappings of a tent revival; his rallies were invariably keynoted by African-American gospel singer and evangelist Jackie Beavers (later a gubernatorial staffer) signing “Praise the Lord, Joe Frank Harris Will Be Governor.” In a nod to old-school fundamentalist tenets, he promised never to serve alcohol in the Governor’s Mansion. In office, Harris was known to quiz potential appointees about their church attendance habits. He was lucky enough to preside over the state during a vast economic boom that made it possible for him to basically put state government on automatic pilot (with terrible consequences for his successor, Zell Miller, who became governor right when the boom ended). He did manage to enact a very important educational finance reform initiative, but other than that, it was a pretty quiet eight years. During his long retirement, he did not, unlike the supposedly much more liberal Miller, switch parties or publicly back Republicans. Nor did he, like his Alabama counterpart Fob James, make a comeback as a successful Republican governor.

I think about Joe Frank now and then when the there’s some final trickle of party-switching in
Georgia after the torrent of the last two decades. He had the decency to dance with the one who brung him, or if nothing else, to keep his dissent quiet. I would think a lot more of Kim Davis if she had resigned, or finished her term, before reemerging as a champion of conservative Republicanism.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.