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Faith and Freedom Coalition hopes to drive evangelical turnout in the primary election

Faith and Freedom Coalition Founder Ralph Reed spoke to the crowd at Holly Springs Baptist Church in Franklin. Reed was the executive director the Christian Coalition, a key evangelical group in the 1990s.
Lilly Knoepp
Faith and Freedom Coalition Founder Ralph Reed spoke to the crowd at Holly Springs Baptist Church in Franklin. Reed was the executive director the Christian Coalition, a key evangelical group in the 1990s.

It is a cold Saturday morning but the packed parking lot of the Holly Springs Baptist Church in Franklin, N.C., makes it look like a Sunday. Most of the cars and trucks sport campaign signs and bumper stickers.

Inside about 250 people gathered, not for a revival, but for a political rally. The North Carolina branch of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Georgia-based political advocacy organization, hosted the event to introduce Christian voters to conservative candidates running for state or local offices in the 2024 primary election.

The area of North Carolina west of Asheville is a Republican stronghold. During this primary season, the local Faith and Freedom Coalition is courting evangelical voters with social issues to drive primary turnout. In early February, BPR attended one such rally in Macon County.

Just after lunchtime, U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards, who is running for re-election in District 11, led the crowd to chant to get the session started, “Donald Trump!"

About 250 people gathered at the Holly Springs Baptist Church in Franklin to hear from an array of conservative candidates.
Lilly Knoepp
About 250 people gathered at the Holly Springs Baptist Church in Franklin to hear from an array of conservative candidates.

Edwards said that he takes his relationship with Jesus to every vote that he makes. He told a story about constitutional experts discussing with him the role of religion in our nation’s founding document. He said they told him that the Constitution doesn’t support Christianity. Edwards argued it does.

“One day Jesus said, ‘Chuck, stop arguing with those people.’ And so that next visit that I had with them I said, ‘I am no longer going to argue with you about this,’ Edwards told the crowd on February 10.

“But what I can tell you is that when Chuck Edwards goes to support an issue, when Chuck Edwards goes to vote, he’s going to continue to ask WWJD?... And that's not what you might think it is. My granny's name is Jenny. And so, I would always think what would Jenny do? She is in heaven looking at me. She's one of the most fabulous Christians [that] I have ever known.”

Edwards isn’t alone. The Faith and Freedom Coalition sits at the intersection of two influential groups in Western North Carolina: Conservatives and Christians.

The connection between conservative politicians and evangelical Christians has been growing since the 1980s, professor Chris Cooper, director of the Haire Institute for Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University, said.

“The Faith and Freedom Coalition is trying to keep this marriage of evangelical groups, evangelical issues with the Republican Party. I think we need to remember this wasn't a foregone conclusion. It wasn't always clear that evangelicals would end up with the Republican Party. This was a concerted effort really starting in the 1980s gaining ground in the 1990s,” Cooper said.

“Some folks may remember the Christian Coalition as sort of the zenith of that movement. Even today these kinds of groups are trying to remind people to vote for Republican candidates (and remind) Republican candidates to highlight evangelical issues to talk about more than just the economy and to lean into some of these social issues that they believe in.”

Ralph Reed is the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, a national political organization. He founded the Faith and Freedom Coalition in 2009. Cooper explained Reed’s impact in the 1990s.

“Back in the days when magazines mattered, he'd be on the cover of Time. He'd be on the cover of Newsweek, again championing those Evangelical values,” Cooper said.

Reed explained to the crowd in Franklin that the group’s goal for 2024 is to get every evangelical Christian to the polls.

“We've gotten the ball to the five-yard line here in the Tar Heel State. Amen! We need to punch it through in 2024,” Reed said.

That “five-yard line” is a supermajority for the Republicans in the state House and Senate, which would give conservative legislators veto-proof power. Reed says the next goal is the governor’s mansion and then the White House.

His visit to Franklin also signals the power center for North Carolina conservatism. Far western North Carolina is solidly red. Trump won more than 50% of the vote in the eight westernmost counties in 2020 and 69% in Macon County, where the Faith and Freedom Coalition rallied.

In recent years, western North Carolina lawmakers have become important voices in conservative policy in Raleigh.

“If you're looking for where the power is in North Carolina politics, I mean, look certainly it's with (House Speaker) Tim Moore. Certainly, it's with (Senate leader) Phil Berger, but that next level down a lot of it's coming from the West,” Cooper said.

N.C. Rep. Karl Gillespie, from Franklin, has risen quickly in legislative leadership since his election in 2020. He serves as House Majority Whip, making sure other conservative representatives follow the party line.

N.C. Sen. Kevin Corbin, of Franklin, is another WNC politician who has gained statewide political stature. He was an influential force for Medicaid expansion — an unpopular stance in Raleigh conservative circles. GOP leadership eventually came around to Corbin’s viewpoint, passing Medicaid expansion in 2023.

“He's been known as a conservative senator but one who is at least willing to have some conversations across the aisle,” Cooper said.

During the event, Gillespie and Corbin took the stage to highlight their shared success in the legislature.

They boasted about their efforts to lower the income tax. And, for the Christian crowd, they emphasized their work to restrict access to abortion.

Corbin talked about the Care for Women, Children and Families Act (SB 20) which bans abortion in North Carolina after 12 weeks, with some exceptions. Corbin was sponsor on the bill, which became law after Republicans overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of abortion restrictions in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

Senator Kevin Corbin spoke about his work sponsoring increased abortion restrictions following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022.
Lilly Knoepp
Senator Kevin Corbin spoke about his work sponsoring increased abortion restrictions following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022.

“Personally, I believe life begins at conception,” Corbin told the church crowd. “I'm actually crazy enough to believe that life begins before conception because the Bible says that God knew you before you were in the womb...”

Suggesting he would support even stricter laws on abortion, Corbin said Republicans passed legislation to lower North Carolina’s restriction from 20 weeks to 12 so that they “could get the votes.”

BPR previously reported that after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022,the Asheville Planned Parenthood office had to quadruple the number of appointments for abortion care to deal with demand from other states.

Since abortions have been further restricted in North Carolina, many of those seeking abortions go to Virginia and other states.

For Gillespie, the restrictions were not only a political victory, but a religious one.

“I think we both agree. It's not where we want to be but it's a step in the right direction. It stopped the influx of folks coming into North Carolina for abortions. It was a great day for Christianity,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie told the crowd he hopes one day Republicans can ban all abortions.

Corbin also highlighted the work by the pair to restrict transgender females from playing on middle school, high school and college sports teams that align with their gender identity.

“I never thought as a little boy growing up there would ever issue that boys would [want] to play girls sports. Never thought there would have to be a law saying you can't do that," Corbin said.

They pointed to a volleyball injury in a game between Highlands and Hiawassee Dam as an example of a female player being injured by someone GOP officials called a “biological male.” But the Highlands player was never confirmed to be a transgender person. BPR has not interviewed the former student athlete who was involved in this incident. The athlete has not publicly shared her gender identity.

The North Carolina “Fairness in Women’s Sports” lawpassed in 2023.

The North Carolina School Athletic Association said in 2023 there were less than 20 trans athletes who submitted gender identify request forms to be evaluated for their inclusion in high school sports.

Republican politicians highlight issues like abortion and gender identity to motivate a Christian conservative base to head to the polls. In 2022, Republicans won big in Western North Carolina. Cooper said at the time that turn out could have been higher.

Both parties use the primary as a barometer to gauge where successful candidates fall on the political spectrum on social issues.

Cooper explained why it’s important to vote in the primary.

“The reality is if you want your vote to count, you can make a pretty credible argument that the time to vote is now (in a primary)... So many of these races are going to be decided well before the general election,” Cooper said.

North Carolina’s primary election is March 5, with early voting already underway. Find out where you can vote here.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.