On the eve of the election, a reporter and photographer set out for Washington, via America. We tell stories from seven towns, touching on seven issues from politics and real life.
INGLIS — When the ruckus was over, when the phones at Town Hall stopped ringing and the reporters went home and the ACLU called off its lawyers, Carolyn Risher, the mayor who banned Satan from this little town, felt like she had changed the world.
"It opened up people's eyes, yes sir," she says. "People finally saw that God belongs in everything."
The letters came from Canada and Australia, from Texas, Alaska and Wisconsin, and they filled four three-ring binders and a decorative Santa Claus box in her office.
"Satan is alive and well," wrote a woman from California.
"God bless you as you continue to rid your town of vice," wrote a man from Georgia.
One man wished to move his Winnebago-based business from Nashville to Inglis, population 1,625.
"Each of my handtowels is 100% cotton, and stained with a mysterious shrouded image that may or may not be the face of Jesus," he wrote. "Even if you are skeptical about the controversial religious image, they're still handsome towels and they will absorb perspiration. Everyone is a winner!"
All the mail was positive, the mayor says, save a single letter from an elderly woman who included a photo of her middle finger.
The response taught her, and a lot of people here, a lesson about the separation of church and state.
It's a bad idea.
• • •
On Halloween 2001, a month and a half after Sept. 11, the mayor, who lived her whole life here, heard the voice of God on her way home from a weenie roast at church. She sat down at her kitchen table and put pen to paper.
Be it known from this day forward that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis. Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens.
She planted the decree inside wooden posts at the town limits. Word spread like fire. The media descended. The Daily Show had its fun. The ACLU threatened to sue, so Risher reimbursed the town for the stationery and moved the posts from public property to private.
Seven years later, it's hard for residents to pinpoint whether the proclamation had any impact. Meth and crack still squeeze the addicts. You don't have to look far to find the homeless and jobless.
"The town's not changed at all," says Terry Patterson, 36, pouring dollar drafts of Budweiser at a bar on U.S. 19. "They got rid of a few of the transients, but there's still a lot of bad around here."
Down the street, Osborn Barker, 43, waves at traffic from a corner. He's running for Levy County property appraiser.
He remembers the proclamation. "We were proud of her," he says.
The license plate on his Chevy pickup says, "Smile … JC Loves You," planting him squarely in God's party.
"Jesus Christ is every step I take," he says. "He's my campaign manager. He writes my speeches."
He says he talks about his faith on the campaign trail, and it likely wins him some votes, and there's nothing wrong with that.
"This area is very conservative," he says. "It's really the Bible belt. And people want to elect a person of faith."
• • •
The wind is blowing hot and wet through the parking lot in front of Town Hall. Dark clouds creep across the distance as people gather for the mayor's Sept. 11 memorial service.
"I prayed it wouldn't rain on our ceremony," Risher says.
Four Christian preachers are lined up to speak and pray, at a town-sanctioned event, a fusion of religion and government, and the mayor is not worried about what nonbelievers, or non-Christians, might think about that. America may struggle in presidential elections with how much faith to blend with its politics, but Americans do not.
"God gave us more power than he did Satan," Risher says.
The preachers talk about God and country, and how Christians are locked in a battle between light and darkness, between America and al-Qaida, between Christians and Muslims.
"No matter how many peaceful Muslims there may be, they are no protection for us from the terrorist Muslim leaders and what they are fanatically bent on doing," says Pastor Rick Moore, from the nearby Church of God, and the crowd responds with hollers.
"They'll not rest until they've taken down the White House, and until they've taken Jerusalem back," says Jeff Adams, from Jesus' Ministries in Inglis. "If we don't stand to defend that name of Jesus, we will fall."
"We need to find some godly people that's running for office and put them in there," says Pastor Bobby Thompson, from First Baptist Church.
Lee Greenwood's God Bless The USA spills from giant speakers as the people, all of them white and most of them Christian, raise their hands, church style, and sway. The mayor of Inglis stands behind the stage, smiling, and looks up at the storm clouds as they slide across the sky.
Coming Tuesday: Kenner, La.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.