In the South, politics and religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, are inextricably tied together. Though the groups, personalities, or issues may vary across time and locale, these formidable connections are both consistent and persistent. In this essay, we learn about one episode in the mid-1990s, when a state’s education funding debates crossed paths with a university’s humanities symposium whose title raised eyebrows among some of the faithful.
Morality Without God and Politics With Her
by Robert C. Stewart
In his Autobiography, Mark Twain wrote, “I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.” That may be true generally, but in the South, politicians often calculate, quite reasonably, that citizens will vote for them when they cloak themselves in religion— specifically certain strains of evangelical Christianity. It was my unfortunate experience to be caught unexpectedly in a minor political brouhaha, when one Alabama politician felt a call to defend the Almighty against the scourge of secular humanism and atheism.
It was 1995, and the Alabama legislature was in session. No one’s life, liberty, or property were safe. Yet, I set out again from my home in Birmingham, driving south on Interstate 65 to plead for money for the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF). I was going on my eighth year as Executive Director of the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Our primary mission was to award grants from our federal NEH funds to colleges, universities, museums, historical organizations, and other nonprofits to conduct public programs in the disciplines of history, literature, philosophy, ethics, art history, and the like. As an independent educational nonprofit ourselves, we had also secured an appropriation a few years earlier from the state’s mammoth budget for K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. Despite the small size of allotment, we still had to lobby the legislature and follow our appropriation bill as it worked its way through the legislative process. I assigned myself that task.
Traveling between Birmingham to Montgomery, at a spot on the interstate near the historic mill town of Prattville, just north of Montgomery, there stands a familiar landmark. Anyone who’s traveled the route knows it well. “GO TO CHURCH. Or the Devil Will Get You!” the big roadside sign reads. A red silhouette of Satan himself brandishes a scythe to harvest unsaved souls, or perhaps the backsliders who’ve missed too many Sunday services. I may have been headed to the Alabama legislature, where some might say heathens are in charge of modern life, but the sign served to remind me that I was still in God’s country. I was about to find out that in Alabama some politicians are eager to bring Her right onto the floor of the legislature.
On that particular day, the House of Representatives was considering about fifty miscellaneous appropriations, including ours, which were parked in the education budget. Some were for local projects that an individual legislator had secured for his or her district. Many had only a casual association with public schools. Since AHF earmarked our state funds for professional development programs for the state’s K-12 history, English, and foreign language teachers, we always felt our bill stood on solid ground. Regardless of how these appropriations made it into the budget or how they were used, approving them was usually pro forma. Unfortunately, this day the process was to be anything but pro forma for me.
After arriving in Montgomery, I found a free parking spot a few blocks from the Alabama State Capitol. The Capitol, which dates from 1851, today serves as a museum and holds the office of the Governor and a few Constitutional officers. The legislature meets across the street, in the former Highway Department headquarters, now dubbed the State House. Inside, legislative business is largely conducted either behind closed doors or among small groups of (mostly) men huddled close together in the narrow hallways. You could call it government in the dark or under fluorescent light, just not in the sunshine. Among the crowd each session are a few average citizens, who come to the State House to see how their tax dollars are spent and what their elected representatives are up to.
After entering the State House, I strolled down the halls and nodded my head to the few lobbyists or legislators I knew. I tried to act as if I belonged there, though I was rarely admitted into the inner sanctums where the real business happened. As the session began, I settled into the House gallery to watch the proceedings. I was joined there by lobbyists representing education funding supplicants both large and small, from near and far across the state. This was back when newspapers paid the salaries and expenses of more reporters to cover the legislature, so journalists were commonplace in the gallery and halls as well.
I was confident that our money, totaling only about $50,000 a year, was secure. After all, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was a supporter who fundamentally believed in our mission, and so he included AHF in the budget proposal each year, even if the Governor did not. However, when he reached our appropriation bill in the list, he was suddenly blindsided.
As our line item came up, a freshman member of the House rose from his seat holding a piece of paper. The member represented that same Prattville area, where passers-by were warned by the big sign not to miss church. (To be clear, it wasn’t his sign.)
“Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman! I have here a press release from this Alabama Humanities Foundation. They have made a grant to the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) titled, ‘Morality Without God?’ I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see our tax dollars funding the promotion of atheism. I move to cut this group’s appropriation by $5,000, the amount of the grant!”
He was on a roll: “And an additional cut of $2,000 in punitive damages!” At the time, tort reform was a hot topic in the legislature. Conservative Republicans were at war with the state’s trial lawyers, seeking to reduce what they deemed excessive damages awarded in civil lawsuits. Perhaps the legislator, also a conservative Republican, wanted to get in a little tongue-in-cheek political jab at his Democratic colleagues. Touché, I thought.
The committee chairman searched the gallery with his eyes, looking for me. When he spotted me, his face said, What just happened here? I didn’t exactly know myself. He carried over our bill, with the amendment attached, to another session and asked the representative to meet with me about the UAH grant.
Needless to say, the UAH lobbyist, whom I knew a little, was as stunned as myself and the committee chairman. The university’s annual appropriation for its operations had not yet passed the House. If the AHF money was to be reduced because it awarded the controversial grant, what might happen to the millions of dollars for the university that applied for the grant?
How had this happened?
Then, I spotted the representative speaking with a figure – call him an activist or maybe a lobbyist, whether paid or a volunteer I don’t know – who was familiar to me as possibly being associated with the Christian Coalition, the political organization founded in 1987 by televangelist Pat Robertson. The Coalition is diminished today, but in 1995, it was a powerful advocacy group (though it claimed nonpartisan status for tax purposes). Apparently, either he or someone in that network had obtained the AHF press release, which innocuously announced the UAH grant along with several others. This was long before Google or other search engines. Someone must have spent his or her days scouring paper press releases and other announcements, and the term humanities probably put us on their radar. Humanities, humanism— I doubt the spotter knew the difference. The matter was then likely passed on to the freshman representative to strike a blow at the godless humanists in the state’s universities and do-good nonprofits.
I told the UAH lobbyist that the Philosophy Department had an excellent track record of conducting programs for the general public in Huntsville. AHF had funded several. I was always impressed that in a city known for the hard sciences and engineering, there was an audience for philosophy programs among the population. In ancient Greece, philosophy encompassed mathematics and astronomy, so perhaps it’s not surprising that twentieth-century number-crunchers and NASA scientists might be interested in discussions of ethics and questions of moral conduct. The UAH lobbyist called the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, who confirmed that this symposium was legit.
When the UAH lobbyist and I managed to pull aside the legislator, I said, “This grant doesn’t promote atheism. We are very careful not to fund any program that advocates for a specific political or religious position. Look at the question mark in the title. The program will address the philosophical question about whether a person or society can have a moral character without belief in a deity. It’s an ancient question that will be discussed among the public, not in the classroom.”
“Furthermore,” I added, “this grant has been made with our federal funds, not our state money. We use our state appropriation strictly for programs for public school teachers.”
That was the decisive point for the legislator. He seemed satisfied, though I didn’t know then whether he planned to take further action.
We didn’t attempt to persuade the people who had likely enlisted him. Maybe they thought AHF was filled with secular humanists and wouldn’t trust us no matter how we used our state funds. They might reject even asking the question whether morality can exist without God, because in their minds, the existence of God Herself was without question. Philosophy be damned, so to speak.
Yet, I still had to wonder, were other legislators willing to do this bidding? Did someone have to get their pound of flesh, insisting that our appropriation be cut— or even eliminated? As far as I was concerned, the coast wasn’t yet clear.
A couple of weeks later, I was back at the State House. Our appropriation would be up for debate again, along with the amendment to reduce it. I watched the chairman present it for a vote. When he did, the freshman representative again stood up. But this time he exclaimed, “Mr. Chairman! I proposed that amendment. I have since learned about that grant to UAH. It was not made with state funds. I withdraw my amendment, and I apologize.”
Would wonders never cease?! An apology from a politician! Perhaps this legislator remembered how often the Bible speaks about repentance. Whatever moved him, our full appropriation passed without objection. Afterward, I greeted and thanked him. For the next few years, I was always happy to see him in the halls, and he never again opposed our funding.
As for the Christian activist and lobbyists, they still had a target-rich environment in the 1990s: abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, textbooks and curricula. Just three years later, the Christian Right was taking aim at President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In 1999, it was Gov. Don Siegelman’s gambling proposal. Somehow, amid these worldly concerns, philosophical symposia about morality and God became small potatoes.
A native of Tuscaloosa, Robert C. (Bob) Stewart served as Executive Director of the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF) from 1987 until retirement in 2012. At AHF, his writing consisted of a wide array of memos, financial statements, newsletter articles, grant proposals, and other appeals for financial support. Prior to AHF he held curatorial, research, and administrative positions at museums in Alabama, Florida, and Massachusetts. He holds a BA in English from Amherst College, an MA in American Studies from Boston University, and an MBA from Emory University. He resides today in Nashville with his wife Lida. Among his pursuits in retirement, Bob has drafted the sketches and captions for a family history graphic novel, based primarily on Lida’s great-great-great grandfather, Captain Josiah Davenport (1773-1835).