By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007
JACKSON, Miss. -- A wealthy evangelical Christian, John Arthur Eaves Jr., is running a campaign for governor that is rife with what Jesus might do.
He talks about banishing "the money changers" from state politics and about a health-care proposal focusing on the "least among us" -- just as Jesus would -- and the cornerstone of his stump speech is familiar to anyone who knows the bit in Matthew 6:24 about "Ye cannot serve God and Mammon."
"The most important question in this campaign," he said at a typical campaign stop here last week, "is 'Who do you serve?' "
He is running against Republican incumbent Haley Barbour, he answers, because he wants "to serve my creator."
The 41-year-old plaintiff attorney is waging what might be the most overtly Christian-inspired statewide race in a long time. But what is most startling to Bible Belt voters here, where faith-based appeals most often come from the religious right, is that Eaves is a Democrat.
It's a fact that unsettles both sides of the partisan divide. For if Eaves threatens the Republicans' success in attracting evangelical votes, his conservative positions on social issues irritate traditional Democrats. He opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. He favors teaching creationism alongside evolution. A major thrust of his campaign is a promise to resurrect school prayer.
"I am a Democrat because I am a Christian," he tells voters.
He then draws a contrast to the way he construes the Bible's message and what he sees as the judgmental aspects of some religious conservatism.
"My Jesus offers love, hope, peace and forgiveness," he said.
Eaves has put nearly $4.6 million of his own money into the race, but as his race against the better-funded Barbour winds down, he is judged a long shot to win.
Yet the novelty of the Democratic campaign, and the possibility of narrowing the "God gap" -- the edge Republicans have held in attracting evangelical voters -- will have many here and elsewhere watching just how close he can make it.
For an evangelical candidate, Mississippi is fertile ground. According to the Eaves campaign, more than 70 percent of Mississippi voters identify themselves as evangelical or "born again." And like many of them, Eaves believes the Bible is the infallible word of God and that Christ is the only way to heaven.
"Who's on Jesus' side in Mississippi?" his Web site asks.
Out of his faith, Eaves has fashioned a populist political stance.
Touring the state in a jet owned by his law firm, Eaves and Eaves, he paints Barbour -- the ex-head of the Republican National Committee and a former lobbyist -- as a Washington insider beholden to "Big Oil, Big Tobacco and Big Insurance."
After the National Rifle Association endorsed Barbour, Eaves took a typical jab. Standing before television cameras, he insisted that he's the more genuine gunslinger.
"I'm a real hunter, you know?" Eaves said. "I'm not a silk-stockinged hunter that hunts these raised pigeons . . . these tame birds."
In response, Barbour has objected, touted his leadership after Katrina and parried Eaves's religious thrusts with sarcasm. "I'll spare you the sanctimony," he said at a debate.
But if he nettles Republicans at times, Eaves also unsettles at least some Democrats with his social views and overt religious appeals.
As governor, he assures them, he would be tolerant of the views of other faiths. "Everyone searches for the truth," he said. "They ask, 'Why am I here? What is my purpose?' I find my truth in the message of Jesus. But I believe we are all united in the search for truth."
At a campaign stop Thursday in Gulfport, a gay couple, members of the local Democratic executive committee, greeted Eaves at the airport. They then taxied him to a campaign stop at a bridge opening.
Later, Renick Taylor, 38, an Internet field engineer, said he isn't much bothered by Eaves's position against same-sex marriage. Mississippi voted to ban it in 2004, anyway, he noted, leaving the next governor with limited options for legalizing it.
Eaves "injects religion into everything," Taylor said, adding that the religious talk generally appeals to him -- but not to others. "There is one atheist on the executive committee who actually cringes every time he mentions God," he said. "Fortunately, for us, there's not many atheists, and not that many people that far to the left, living in Mississippi."