Christian Right in Sullivan County, Tennessee
by Lewis Loflin
The Sullivan County Commission, under pressure from local Christian fundamentalists, has de-facto declared that Christians only are welcome in this rural community buried in central Appalachia. While this is bad enough in itself, there is an even more sinister aspect to the term "Christian" as used by these people: Catholics, Mormons, and non-Christians are considered in league with Satan.
The fact is that fundamentalist Protestants are considered the only real Christians, while all others are considered inferior or worse. The local fundamentalists promote a type of religious purity that sounds a lot like the racial purity poison of Adolph Hitler. Simply put, there is no difference between those that hate others over racial differences and those that hate others for religious reasons. Before one can understand the reason all of this is happening, let's look into the history of a region that remains a Ku Klux Klan stronghold.
Before I begin, let me be clear on one thing: This is not an attack on the Christian faith or the majority of decent Christian people of this nation. Despite the claims of Falwell, Robertson, and other TV preachers, there is not and never has been a state religion in America and this nation is not a "Christian Nation" in any legal sense of the word.
Sullivan County is located in upper East Tennessee and borders Scott and Washington counties in Virginia. The area is also known as the Tri-cities; it consists of the cities of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol. Kingsport is the home of Eastman Chemical, the regions largest employer, Johnson City is the home East Tennessee State University, and Bristol is the home of Bristol Motor Speedway. The VA/TN state line divides Bristol: Half lies in Sullivan County, Tennessee, the other half is in Washington County, Virginia. Between these three small cities is Sullivan County; the whole region is commonly known as the Bible Belt.
Recent economic problems in the region are fueling social unrest. The almost total collapse of the Virginia coal industry, combined with endless plant closings, have driven thousands into poverty while thousands more have moved out. According to an article in the Bristol Herald Courier, over 30,000 people between the ages of 18 and 45 have left the area, while almost 40,000 retirees have moved in. The area has a poverty/unemployment index of over 20% in Sullivan County and a staggering 50% or more in some surrounding counties.
The huge influx of retirees only makes matters worse by driving up the cost of everything (they live on income from outside of the area, not the local economy), while most working people live off jobs that pay only $5-6.00 per hour. Higher rents, taxes, etc. have made paying bills utter hell for working families while retirees don't care as long as someone serves their food at local restaurants. The business community actively works to block out higher paying jobs to protect the low-wage tourist and retirement industries. This creates fertile ground for rising divorce rates, child abuse, and the growth of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and fundamentalist churches.
While all Klan members claim they are Christians (usually Southern Baptist), most residents don't support the Klan at all. Unfortunately, both fundamentalist Christians and the KKK support many of the same ideals and it is hard to tell them apart. To get a better idea of what all of this is about, let's take look at recent local history.
LOCAL NEWS EVENTS
Over the last several years, local Ku Klux Klan members have staged rallies at Steel Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee and other locations across the county complete with cross burnings. While many members of the community expressed outrage, most public officials and fundamentalist Christians remain silent.
About three years ago a rock group called White Zombie made an appearance at Viking Hall in Bristol, Tennessee. Local officials and Christian fundamentalists expressed outrage and with shouts of "Satan", and attempted to block the concert. During the concert, hysterical Christians sat outside in snow and twenty-degree temperatures to protest the event. Crying, praying, and making general asses out of themselves, they harassed the young people while the press turned the whole community into a joke. Rock concerts have been banned in Bristol, while the Klan plays on.
Two years ago local Christian fundamentalists, backed by Pat Robertson's Operation Rescue, picketed a family planning clinic in Bristol, Tennessee. Patrons were subjected to the usual abuse, threats, and attempted violation of their civil rights that Operation Rescue is famous for. Federal court orders would eventually put a stop to the abuse. Local politicians refused again to stand up for their citizens.
In 1997, Jerry Falwell and so-called "Christian Conservatives" seized control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Within days they began the expulsion and removal of moderate and liberal members unless they followed the fundamentalist line of social and religious intolerance. Religious cleansing had begun and even affiliated colleges would soon come under attack. The conversion (meaning persecution) of Jews and Mormons was to be a top goal of the new Southern Baptist leadership.
In November 1998, the new Baptist policy of religious cleansing would reach East Tennessee. The Tennessee Baptist Convention, meeting in Kingsport, voted to strip nearby Carson-Newman College of $2.4 million because it refused to let the Convention pack their board of trustees with religious extremists. Carson-Newman is a fine traditional Baptist College that wasn't about to be dragged into the sewers by Falwell's henchmen. The Sullivan County Commission expressed the usual silence. Unfortunately, not only were churches and colleges targeted for cleansing, but local businesses would also be under attack.
In October 1998, in nearby Marion, Virginia, members of the Blessed Hope Baptist Church picketed a local photography shop. While these people claimed that naked elbows and kneecaps constituted pornography, they harassed customers and handed out leaflets depicting a man shooting at someone. Is someone firing a gun really an appropriate symbol for the Prince of Peace? Whatever happened to clouds and crosses?
In 1998 Sullivan County politicians set out to ruin and shut down two local strip bars. After using everything from ridiculous safety regulations to refusal to issue a sign permit, a local politician finally came out and stated "We will put them out of business." They relented on the sign nonsense under threats of legal action by the owners. Ironically, the very same kinds of businesses have operated in nearby Johnson City for years with no problems at all. The threat these businesses pose is the fact that they paid more than minimum wage, the real fear in Sullivan County. The legal fight still goes on.
It is sad that the Sullivan County Commission sits in silence as the rights of citizens are violated, the Klan burns crosses in local parks, and fine colleges are stripped of funds by TV preachers. When real threats to the community come along, they bravely get off their sorry butts and prove that they won't be pushed around.
A RELIGIOUS RIGHT DEFEAT
The issue of "Released Time", would provide the first solid defeat for the Sullivan County Baptist Association. Released Time started out as a pilot program to release public school students for "religious instruction" during school hours. Controversy set in over safety issues, liability, and just what was being taught. One school board member complained that every time he inquired into subject matter of these churches, he got only silence. The intention was to limit the program only to local fundamentalist churches; enter Carletta Sims.
Mrs. Sims, head of the Tennessee Atheist Organization, asked to start a release time program for atheism. She would be joined by Lewis Loflin, head of the TN/VA chapter of the World Union of Deists, in requesting equal access to the children out of fear of cult activity among some Christian groups. As they say, "The shit hit the fan."
In September 1998, the Sullivan County School Board voted to end Released Time. Mr. O'Dell, the school superintendent, informed the board that they would have to allow other faiths equal access or violate the Constitution and be open to lawsuits for religious discrimination. One board member gasped and asked, "You mean we have to let in Catholics, Mormons, and Buddhists?" Another board member lashed out at the fundamentalists for some kind of threatening letter he got for abstaining on an earlier vote. Rather than let atheists, Deists, Mormons, and Catholics have equal access, the board voted 5-2 to end Released Time. Local fundamentalists expressed outrage: They were going to prove who runs Sullivan County!
Within days of the school board decision to end Released Time, fundamentalists went before the Sullivan County Commission demanding that they reinstate the program. The school board informed the Commission that they had no legal authority over them and stood by their decision. The Commission, under pressure from raving fundamentalists across the county, needed an easy target: Mrs. Sims would be that target.
The Commission passed Resolution 30, which allows local the fundamentalist Baptists to hang the Ten Commandments in the county courthouse. By hanging it beside the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, the Commission claims that it is only a "historical document" and has nothing to do with Mrs. Sims. That's the official line, not what the cowardly Commission is saying to everybody else. They keep implying that Baptists are the only real Americans and claim that only Baptists died for our freedom. What about the thousands of Catholics, Mormons, Jews and even atheists that died for our great nation? Attacking one lone woman is easier local fundamentalist hate groups.
"Sullivan County does not lay down for atheists," so says Commissioner Mike Gonce in the Bristol Herald Courier. Isn't it odd that the Sullivan County Baptist Association is handling all of the details and is acting as a "clearinghouse" for the display? Nobody is buying the historical documents crap, and even the local press refers to it as the Ten Commandments resolution.
Real Americans unite! God loves us all and our founding fathers of this great nation intended it as land for all of us to live as equals and to have equal access to government. Others have asked permission to hang historical plaques and have been refused because of not being a Falwell Baptist. The Bill of Rights is nothing to banana-republics such as Sullivan County where the Klan does what it wants while local politicians attack their own citizens and actively work to undermine the rights and freedom of others.
Update: while this was published in 1999, I do not believe the data of that time holds true today. Because of the extreme antics of radical secularists, and the fact no harm has come from the Sullivan County plaque, it's my position in 2008 to just leave it hanging. In fact, it deserves to stay. Lewis Loflin
Quoting the Kingsport Times-News (1-18-2004)
"It seems clearer and clearer and clearer that we are promoting a particular religion, and that's a violation of the Constitution. The Constitution is the one document that protects minorities, and just because most people feel the Christian faith or the Jewish faith is the right faith, that doesn't mean they have a right to impose it on everyone else.