Sunday sales and a different kind of GOP conservatism

Categories: Sabbath Issues

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It would be more than fair to say that Georgia has moved a grocery aisle closer to the package sale of beer, wine and liquor on Sunday.

After decades of failure, a bill to legalize such purchases whipped through a Senate committee on Wednesday like a moonshiner down Erskine Caldwell’s dirt road, with only one vote of dissent and nary a witness to stand against it.

We are told that the measure’s suddenly swift movement is due to the absence of Sonny Perdue and his Southern Baptist, non-alcoholic persuasions. And that is partially true.

But something larger is afoot. We are witnessing the diminishment – however temporary — of conservative Christian lobbying at the state Capitol, and the rise of something different.

Republicans often talk of the chill that last November’s tea party-driven vote sent up President Barack Obama’s spine. Only rarely do they acknowledge that those same ballots signaled a shift to a more libertarian brand of conservatism within the GOP.

Past attempts to permit the Sunday sale of six-packs failed because of the threat they posed to Southern religion and tradition. Introducing his bill this year, state Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, said it had nothing to do with the Christian Sabbath.

“It’s a bill about local control,” Bulloch said. And we’re all about limited government these days, because the pitchforks – once held by followers of Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson — are now in the hands of tea partyers.

In slightly more than 30 minutes, HB 10 was passed out of the Senate’s State and Local Government Operations Committee, chaired by freshman Butch Miller, a boisterous Honda dealer from Flowery Branch.

A Kroger executive testified in favor of the bill. So did a working mom who had time to shop only on Sundays. So did the representative of a convenience store chain. But the religious right was silent.

Ray Newman, lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, didn’t attend. “We’ve made contact with people. They know our position,” he said.

Jerry Luquire, head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, also skipped the hearing. “I don’t show up at the Capitol much anymore because that’s not where the power is anymore. The power is among the people,” he said. Luquire said his group would carry the fight to local communities.

In the 2009 fight over Sunday sales, Tim Echols, founder of a group that introduces kids – often home-schooled – to the workings of government, packed a Senate hearing with young Christians who spoke against the measure.

This year, as a new member of the Public Service Commission, Echols is staying out of the fight.

The vacuum is so obvious that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, a supporter of the Sunday sales bill, made the measure a “scorecard” issue. The chamber will “grade” lawmakers on their vote come the next election.

Thirty years ago, a coalition of Southern Baptist and Methodist religious leaders ruled over the state’s blue laws, which carved out a quiet, often confusing place for Sundays. As one witness testified Wednesday, you could buy a can of beans on Sunday – but not a can opener.

Cracks in blue laws began appearing as metro Atlanta grew. Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, now a member of the PSC, remembers negotiating with Gov. Joe Frank Harris – a Methodist teetotaler – over a bill to permit the Chateau Elan resort north of Atlanta to sell, on Sunday, the wine it produced.

Harris himself, before he left office in 1991, lured a Budweiser brewery to his hometown of Cartersville.

Growth brought new residents to the area who didn’t seem to mind – Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews and Hindus. “It’s a different kind of religious landscape, that’s for certain,” said Gary Laderman, professor of American religious history at Emory University.

For the last decade or so, holding the conservative Christian line on social issues has fallen to Sadie Fields of the Georgia Christian Alliance, who knew the tactics that moved the state Capitol.

She understood that forcing a stalled vote on gay marriage in 2004 didn’t require a statewide effort. Fields simply called the pastors of churches in House Speaker Terry Coleman’s rural district.

But Fields retired last year. “Is there a void left by the Georgia Christian Alliance? Clearly I think there is,” said Dan Becker of Georgia Right to Life.

It would be wholly incorrect to say that conservative Christian influence has fled the Capitol. But its scope has been reduced.

GRTL is currently the most prominent conservative Christian group lobbying at the Capitol. But the group limits itself solely to “life” issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Not gay marriage, not the sale of alcohol.

Georgia Right to Life, in fact, has drawn on metro Atlanta’s growing Catholic population for a significant portion of its support. And many – if not most — Catholics don’t have a dog in the Sunday sales fight.

Like others, Becker said that conservative Christians haven’t left the field – but are reorganizing. Many tea partyers, he said, have been befuddled by the movement’s decision to shy away from traditional social conservative issues.

Look for them to repair the movement quickly, Becker said. ”They’ll reorganize. And it will be a force to reckon with, once it’s up and running.”

– By Jim Galloway, Political Insider


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