In Memoriam

Methodist Dixie

The actress Dixie Carter, who died this month, only played a liberal. In real life she was something else.

By 4.29.10

Actress Dixie Carter, age 70, died earlier this month, best known as the tart tongued southern liberal on the popular 1986-1993 sit-com Designing Women. Her real-life politics were considerably different from her fictional character's. Reputedly, whenever the script demanded a liberal tirade from Carter's role as interior designer Julia Sugarbaker, she expected the compensating opportunity to strut her admirable singing voice. Her favorite cameo was her performance of "How Great Thou Art" in an episode when one of the characters pondered the ministry. It was the last performance that Carter's mother viewed before her death.

"She got to see her little girl sing this great Methodist hymn for the whole country," Carter later recalled wistfully.

The wife of actor Hal Holbrook, Carter mixed easily with the Hollywood polloi but retained her mostly conservative southern and Christian roots. She restored and lived in her Western Tennessee childhood home in McLemoresville. And she retained a lifelong affiliation with Methodism. Her funeral, and wedding to Holbrook, were at the McLemoresville United Methodist Church. She once declared she "never saw any reason to change the beliefs I was brought up with." Her cheerful faith eventually persuaded Holbrook to join her as a regular churchgoer during their courtship and marriage. 

"How come we've got to the point where Christians must apologize for being who they are?" Carter once asked. "Why have Christians allowed themselves to get into the position of being the bad guys? That is a very sad turn of events, and we'd better do something about it. Again, the extremists are the ones who get the attention. They're the ones people listen to, but they don't represent the vast majority of sensible, decent people who are too well-mannered to scream their opinions in your face."

Carter's Christianity seems to have informed her mostly traditionalist perspective and her classy, even keel. She once laughed to the unsympathetic cast of The View that she was "the only Republican in show business." She gave some money to Republican candidates and appeared at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia. There she appeared on The O'Reilly Factor with Pat Boone, another rare Hollywood conservative and openly practicing Christian. Bill O'Reilly pronounced her a "patriot" upon her death. Evidently she attended Bush's first inauguration, joining hands on the stage with Marie Osmond and Nell Carter. "Made you feel like an American!" she remembered. "Yeah, I get real patriotic. I get a lump in my throat."

Her conservatism was not entirely consistent. She supported Bill Clinton in 1992 and attended his inauguration, partly because her producer, Linda Bloodworth-Thompson, was of course a close Clinton buddy. In a somewhat unfortunate appearance on Bill Maher's now defunct Politically Incorrect, Carter pronounced herself a "libertarian" and wondered about, without actually advocating, legalizing drugs and prostitution. Presumably she would have thought those issues through more carefully in a more uplifting setting.

Upon Carter's death, numerous homosexual blogs claimed her as a supporter of their political cause. Evidently Designing Women had many homosexual fans who admired its vampy female characters. No doubt Carter appreciated all her followers, but it's not clear that she ever compromised her Christian convictions. A Designing Women reunion panel video advertised as an endorsement of same-sex unions shows the other cast members prattling on about their support for homosexual marriage. Carter demurely smiled and withheld direct comment. In a 1998 interview, Carter carefully declined to offer her endorsement, describing marriage as a "sacrament" and linking it to procreation. "That's hard for me," she said of same-sex marriage, "Because I'm very old-fashioned, very old-timey," and "very traditional."

Reportedly, Carter avoided roles that were morally compromising and shunned scripts relying on humor "derived from private parts or going to the bathroom." Despite her discretion, "I've always been treated well," she insisted of her business. "More often, the case has been that I've asked not to say a line because of the offensive or crude nature of the piece." But her best known roles were on programs, like Designing Women, Family Law, and Desperate Housewives, that were hardly prudish.

Carter's house in western Tennessee was also where she was born, delivered by her grandmother during the Depression. McLemoresville had 200 people when she was born and not quite 300 when she died. In her final years, she shared the house with her husband and her elderly father, an affectionate patriarch and devout churchman who sounds somewhat like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. His 2007 obituary described him as a "lifelong Methodist and staunch Republican." Daddy Carter was also a World War II veteran and successful businessman who was likewise born in the family home place. Dixie Carter once explained of her home: "Oh, there'd never be any question of giving up that house. Because it's not a palace, but 'boy howdy,' it's home. And it very much fills up the well. It's very restoring to go back there."

As a child, Carter memorized Scripture in that house. "It was a given, a fact of our lives," she once remembered of her Methodist Christianity, noting that she did not first meet non-religious people until she moved to New York as an adult. Her experience there and in Hollywood never persuaded her to adapt or abandon her faith, as she once told a Salvation Army publication: "I never saw any reason to change the beliefs I was brought up with, because nothing in the behavior of my parents or grandparents or any of the other members of my family ever gave me reason to doubt that what they had taught me was true." She avoided arguments with her non-believing colleagues. "I went to church and everybody knew that. I never stopped saying that I was a Christian. I believe that if you live a certain way, that bears witness better than anything else." When Holbrook, during their courtship, asked her about weekly church going, Carter responded: "It makes me happy. That's all I can tell you, Hal. The truth is, I feel better when I'm leaving the church than when I came in, every single time, without fail."

Besides promotional work for the Salvation Army, Carter also lent a hand to her United Methodist denomination. In the 1990s, she joined fellow performer and Methodist Willie Nelson for a denominational fundraiser in Nashville. In more recent years, she sang Christmas carols at a Methodist assisted living facility near her Tennessee home. "We've heard it all our lives, but isn't it beautiful," a tearful Carter told her elderly listeners as she shared the Nativity story. "And the angels said there were tidings of great joy for the people with whom He is well pleased," she read from the Gospel of Luke. "I certainly hope we're among the people 'with whom God is well pleased!'" 

At Carter's funeral, the minister of McLemoresville United Methodist Church celebrated that Carter's faith had never faltered. "She would have wanted to leave a smile on everyone's face," husband Hal Holbrook told the minister. Photos show a typical, tasteful small town southern funeral, mostly absent signs of Hollywood glitz, though much off the cast of Designing Women was present. Actress Delta Burke wept copiously, supported by her husband Gerald McRaney, better known as "Major Dad." The church chimes that rang throughout the funeral were donated by Carter, who seems to have left her friends and fans smiling, as her husband insisted she would.


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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.