Rob Christensen, political reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, had an interesting column yesterday on how North Carolina has largely spurned religious-right politics that have overtaken other states:

[S]o far the contentious social issues have largely remained off North Carolina's legislative agenda. That might seem surprising in a state that fostered the career of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, one of the heroes of the religious right. Sen. Elizabeth Dole has described North Carolina as "the buckle on the Bible Belt."

Part of the explanation is in which party controls Raleigh. The agenda of the religious right has been pushed largely by Republicans. But North Carolina is one of the few Southern states where Democrats have controlled both the state legislature and the governor's mansion throughout this decade.

Most North Carolinians go to church and believe in the Bible, polls show. But North Carolina has always been a more nuanced state on social issues than many imagine. Take abortion.

In 1968, North Carolina became the second state to legalize abortions. Until the mid-'90s, North Carolina was the only state in the South -- and one of just 13 in the country -- to fund abortions for poor women.

Even Helms has acknowledged that his strong anti-abortion stance was the position that he had the most difficulty explaining to his constituents.

This is an interesting update on V.O Key's thesis about North Carolina in his legendary 1949 book "Southern Politics," where he argued the state was a "progressive plutocracy" -- tolerant on social issues like race relations, and conservative and subservient to business interests when it came to economics.