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National

Religion Takes Spotlight In Final Days Of Nashville Mayoral Race

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Iowa caucuses aren't until February 1, but off-year mayoral races are hitting the home stretch. In Nashville, a campaign focused on affordable housing and traffic has taken a detour into religion. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports that one candidate is sowing doubt about his opponent's Christian faith.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: It started with phone calls and emails whispering that frontrunner Megan Barry is an atheist, which she is not. It's no small accusation in a state like Tennessee that still has a law banning atheists from public office. Her opponent, David Fox, a businessman and former school board chairman, called it malicious gossip.

DAVID FOX: You know, I don't want to have anything to do that sort of stuff.

FARMER: Then, a Fox radio ad aired the week before Election Day. No A-word, but it implies Barry opposes public prayer and pick fights with faith-based groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She doesn't share our values, and Megan Barry doesn't deserve our vote.

FARMER: Dave Fox had to defend the minute-long spot publicly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOX: All of our ads have been accurate. I think people have a fair conversation about our priorities, our faith, our values. That's how kind of get some sense of predictability with a candidate.

FARMER: Fox himself isn't a Christian. He's Jewish, which makes him a significant minority in Nashville, home to the Southern Baptist Convention and a host of religious publishers. To support his claims, Fox's campaign points to Megan Barry's husband. He's a university professor, liberal blogger and board member of the local ACLU chapter. He stood quietly behind her press conference to refute the ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEGAN BARRY: My husband is not running to be the mayor of Nashville. I am.

FARMER: If elected, the two-term city council member would be the city's first woman mayor. She got the most votes in the seven-way general election last month. The central campaign issue has been the booming growth of Nashville and where to pull the reins or fan the flames. The contest has felt like a partisan one, though it's not, with Fox courting Republicans and Barry, the favorite of most Democrats. Nashville remains a blue city in an increasingly red state. Still, Barry says she was a bit blindsided by questions of her faith.

BARRY: There are all kinds of people in Nashville that have all kinds of faith, and I think to deride anybody's personal beliefs is just not right for Nashville.

FARMER: Yet the attacks have been effective to a degree. Tracey Lovett, a pharmacist who voted early, said she briefly reconsidered her choice.

TRACEY LOVETT: You feel like you didn't do as much research as you needed to, so it makes you want to go back and say, well, wait a minute; how did I miss that?

FARMER: Megan Barry was raised Catholic, though by her own admission, she's not a regular at church. Her opponent, David Fox, has talked more openly about his Jewish beliefs, saying they're one of the primary reasons he's running to be the mayor of Nashville. Barry says she lives out her faith instead of talking about it. Now she's being more public.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I pray right now that you come on and lend us your helping hand.

FARMER: At a prayer breakfast, African-American ministers lay hands on Barry's head and trademark blazer. Race is really what this spat is about. Neither candidate did well with black voters to get into the runoff. The Reverend Judy Cummings suggests questioning Barry's religion is just an effort to drive down turnout in her community.

REVEREND JUDY CUMMINGS: Shame on anyone who falls for these lies.

FARMER: Misleading or not, voters the mayor's race are listening. The question is whether the religious attacks will have the intended effect or result in a backlash. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.