Evangelicals flex political muscle

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Evangelical Christians, energized by ballot victories in the 2004 election, are gearing up to have an impact on the state's 2006 races for governor and other statewide offices.
Groups headed by the prominent pastors of two evangelical Protestant mega-churches in Ohio plan to push conservative religious values on issues such as abortion and gay rights into the political arena, convert 100,000 Ohioans to Jesus, register 400,000 Ohioans to vote and distribute millions of voter education guides that will rate major candidates on their support for "family values."
 
The biggest beneficiary this year could be Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who faces tough primary competition for the seat being vacated by Gov. Robert Taft (R) in this heavily Republican state. But the groups' foray into elections also has proven risky because of the possibility of scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service.
 
Ohio "will be the blueprint for change in our nation as a whole," predicts the Rev. Rod Parsley, a nationally syndicated TV evangelist who heads the 12,000-member World Harvest Church, just southeast of Columbus, Ohio.
 
Preaching from the pulpit against same-sex marriage, legalized abortion, and pornography, Parsley and the Rev. Russell Johnson, pastor of the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio, drew acclaim in 2004 for their leadership in a successful drive to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage in the state.
 
The ballot measure enticed a surprising number of evangelicals to the polls, where they also cast votes for President Bush and were a decisive factor in his razor-thin 118,000-vote victory margin in Ohio, giving him the national election. Conservatives' victories in Ohio this year could give Republicans an edge in retaining the presidency in 2008.
 
Parsley has formed two political offshoots: the Center for Moral Clarity and Reformation Ohio .  Johnson, whose congregants are beginning to run successfully for political posts such as county sheriff and city council, also has formed an offshoot called the Ohio Restoration Project . The groups aim to organize "patriot pastors" to use their churches to register voters, develop sermons that focus on conservative themes and remind residents to "vote their values" on Election Day. Under IRS rules, the groups can register voters and discuss issues and candidates but cannot endorse candidates or engage in partisan politics.
 
"For too long, the values that we have held dear have been trampled underfoot, while we are the largest special interest group in Ohio and in America today, and I say 'Enough is enough,'" thunders Parsley during a recent rally.
 
In Ohio, evangelical Christians make up about 25 percent of the vote, but that underestimates their power, says political scientist John Green of the University of Akron. He notes that if conservative Catholics and other traditionally orthodox religious people are added to the mix, it's a "pretty significant voting block, somewhere between one-third and two-fifths of overall voters." Green has been studying the impact of religion on politics as a senior fellow of The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a nonpartisan research organization that — like Stateline.org --  is a project of the Pew Research Center.
 
In this year's governor's race, Blackwell is being challenged in the May 2 primary by Attorney General Jim Petro . Blackwell is a political rarity: an African-American statewide-elected official who is on the right wing of the Republican Party and is so conservative that he often criticizes mainline Republicans for accepting tax hikes and growing government programs.
 
Blackwell is clearly the darling of the conservative Christian movement. Pastors Parsley and Johnson often have praised Blackwell for his help in 2004 in passing the anti-gay marriage ballot issue, a proposal that Petro opposed.
 
Since then, Blackwell has appeared at several events sponsored by the evangelicals, including a massive rally on the Statehouse steps last October. As the crowd of several hundred roared, Blackwell declared the religious conservative movement refuses "to give up, or back up, or shut up, until we've made a better world for all."
 
In the general election, though, Democrats also may have a candidate for governor who can claim that God blesses his politics. Southeast Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and he is a former Methodist minister.
 
Strickland already has begun to frame problems such as hunger, homelessness, poorly performing schools, and Ohio's No. 1 ranking in home foreclosures in a religious context.  "When we have counties where the unemployment rate has gone down and the poverty rate has gone up, those are moral issues," Strickland says.  "And we Democrats need to be talking about those issues in moral terms."
 
Liberal activists now are fighting back against the evangelicals who have been born-again as conservative politicos. More than 100 ministers and rabbis have formed We Believe, a coalition that aims to make "economic justice and fighting poverty" the top issues in political campaigns, replacing the moral issues of abortion, gay rights and embryonic stem cell research.
 
In addition, 31 ministers and rabbis have filed a complaint at the IRS, accusing the two evangelical Ohio churches of violating the terms of their tax-exempt status. The accusers claim the two churches have basically endorsed Blackwell by highlighting him at their events, by aiming voter registration drives mostly at conservatives, and by planning to distribute voter education guides that aim to garner votes for him.
 
"Here's the handbook from the IRS on what to do and not do," says Dave Ball, a lawyer who helped draft and file the complaint.  "They've done the 'not do' stuff right out of the book."  
 
That charge has drawn strong denials from pastors Johnson and Parsley. "We are following the IRS guidelines," Johnson said. "We have never endorsed a political candidate."
 
Parsley insists the movement's voter registration drives don't discriminate in favor of Republicans or conservatives.  "We don't ask folks what political affiliation they have when we register them to vote."
 
IRS Commissioner Mark Everson has come to Ohio to warn churches not to step over the line into partisan politics, but he has not said whether his agency intends to audit the two Ohio churches. Still, the liberal clergy who filed the Ohio complaint have been buoyed by Everson's announcement that nearly three-fourths of the 82 churches and charities that the IRS has probed for their 2004 activities did step over the line. The critics insist that some of those infractions are similar to what the two Ohio churches are doing.  
 
Ohio Democratic Party leaders are worried about religious conservatives' newfound political muscle. "The Christian right is very powerful in Ohio, powerful in its hypocrisy and its rhetoric and, sadly, controlling public opinion," says state party chairman Chris Redfern.  He presides over a party that watches from the sidelines as Republicans dominate the governor's office, all the other statewide elected offices, both chambers of the Legislature, and six of the seven seats on the Ohio Supreme Court.
 
Ohio Democrats are worried that, if Blackwell survives the primary, in November he could pull more than the 10 percent to 15 percent of the black vote usually received by Republican candidates. Besides Blackwell's racial identity, the evangelical movement's stand against abortion and gay rights could strike a chord among some in the black community. Parsley, for example, is white, but his congregation is one of the most racially integrated in Ohio.
 
Meanwhile, Ohio Republican leaders are walking a tightrope. They know evangelicals' votes could be crucial in helping the GOP win general elections, but they also worry that the conservative Christians' agenda may push Republican candidates so far to the political right, they may be harder to elect in November.
 
Bill Cohen covers state politics for Ohio Public Radio.