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Monday, September 05, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Church leaders seek more influence in state government

Repository staff writer

The Rev. Russell Johnson says he doesn’t want to take over Ohio; he just wants to improve it based on his Christian faith.

The way that he’s going about it is making some people nervous.

Bolstered by a pivotal role in President Bush’s re-election and passage of a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, some Ohio conservative evangelicals are working to ensure they have an impact in the 2006 elections.

Russell’s Ohio Restoration Project has set up a network of “patriot pastors” and “minutemen of prayer” to mobilize like-minded voters, pushing hard to align public policy with its biblically based views.

Its Web site warns that “Today’s America allows abortion of unwanted pregnancies, increasingly accepts homosexuality, rejects the teaching of intelligent creation in our schools, and many other issues that are in opposition to biblical truth. We are on a path of destruction, and nothing is going to change if Christian citizens deny their responsibilities.”

Only 3 months old, the organization has drawn international media, and state political, attention. Last week, Ohio Restoration hosted its first statewide meeting, drawing 500 pastors — and politicians including gubernatorial contender J. Kenneth Blackwell — to suburban Cincinnati.

Among the group’s goals:

• To recruit 2,000 patriot pastors to “inform and equip” Christians “to be engaged in the 2006 elections.”• “To bring to the forefront issues ... relevant to the Christian community and provide candidates a forum to specifically address these issues ... including such matters as marriage, right-to-life, educational choice, taxes, employment and other values-voter issues.”

• To create an “E-Prayer” network of 100,000 people to pray “at a moment’s notice.”

So far, said Johnson, his group has support from 900 pastors. Each, he hopes, will register 300 new “values voters” — ones he describes as “pro-life and pro-family with a biblical worldview.”

“We basically are wanting to mobilize pastors to raise the banner,” said Johnson. “People need to be praying for Ohio and for their communities.” He said the group also wants to galvanize volunteers for efforts ranging from nursing homes to youth sports coaching.

The organization’s motto, he said, is “Pray, serve, engage.”

“The hinges of history for our country are moving, and Ohio is at the epicenter,” he said. “In terms of definition of marriage, the definition of life, will we be the culture of death or the culture of life?”

Rise of the ‘TheoCons’?

Johnson and similar groups have been accused of trying to establish a theocracy. Not true, he said.

“We’re not trying to impose, we’re trying to propose,” he said. “The theocracy claim is a hyperbolic exaggeration by those trying to generate fear. Those who are saying this is an attempt at a theocracy are those who want to muzzle Christians.”

But the Rev. John Mann, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Canton, said he’s disturbed by what he sees as attempts to dismantle the wall between religion and government.

“The last time a political party co-opted the church was during the rise of the Third Reich (in Germany), and it didn’t turn out very well,” he said. “I’m very concerned that this kind of merge of political ideology and religious ideology will do very significant harm to both. I’m afraid that ‘patriot pastors’ will become ‘pastor politicians.’ ”

Mann disagrees with the contention by some Christian conservatives that their faith is under siege.

“Christians have a responsibility and obligation to put our 2 cents into the public conservation about values in our society,” he said, and “those of us who are Christians are in no danger of being overlooked in America.”

But it’s government backing of churches that has weakened churches in Europe, Mann said. “The wisdom of separation of church and state is the best blessing the church has ever had. The church has been way better off going on its own course and relying on its own followers.”

Mann contends that the American church is suffering from its own success.

Some desire a “kind of authoritarian control of other people’s thoughts and behavior that comes with the desire for power,” he said. But “God does not micromanage the world. He gives people freedom to make decisions and error, to grow and learn, which is an important part of faith.

“I think we’ve got a bunch of Christians running the country who are feeling pretty heady, who honestly want to dictate and control behavior and the culture in a way that is not Christian at all. ... It is far more like a tyrannical theocracy than it is a democracy influenced by Christian participation. ... The arrogance and hubris of this movement is just scary to me.”

Getting involved

Tom Smith, public policy director for the Ohio Council of Churches, said he has no problem with Christians’ being politically active, but does have reservations about how some groups are doing it.

“I believe faith-based people should be involved in the political process, but not necessarily dictated to by a denomination or pastor,” he said. “Information should be shared with people in the faith-based community so they know what’s going on with government and legislation.

“I guess that where we differ is, they kind of want their (members) to fall in line behind a leadership position.”

Smith said evangelicals perform a great deal of outreach and mission work.

“It’s just that they believe that some of their beliefs are not being heard in government, and the leadership is pushing harder and harder to bring those things to surface,” he said. “Other faith-based groups that don’t necessarily agree with those positions need to step up and get involved in the process so other voices are heard.”

Like Smith, Rabbi John Spitzer of Temple Israel in Canton said he has no problem with groups such as the Ohio Restoration Project encouraging people to get more involved in politics. But he has concerns.

“The whole concept of encouraging religious people to get involved is within the law and in the spirit of our democracy,” he said. “My concern is about the public face as expressed on (Ohio Restoration Project’s) Web site.

“The public face seems to assume there is one sense of morality, there is one sense of faith. All Americans seem to be painted with the same brush.”

But Spitzer sees “legitimate differences of opinion,” and “to label those differences as somehow immoral because they don’t conform to this movement is not only wrong, but dangerous.

“When they suggest there’s only one point of view on stem-cell research, a woman’s right to choose, or same-sex unions and so on, that’s obviously incorrect,” Spitzer continued. “What they believe is a moral spiritual religious society where ‘secular’ is almost used as an epithet. We’re a religious people living in a free society. It is the glory of America. It makes it possible for diversity of Americans to live in harmony.”

A great awakening

The restoration movement, Spitzer said, is nothing new.

“We are now experiencing is one of those ‘great awakenings’ in American society,” he said. “In the face of instability and concerns, people gravitate toward religious fervor. ... Having said that, I guess it surprises and dismays me how difficult it seems to be to motivate the great center.

“I still believe the great bulk of Americans are pluralistic and ... essentially open to different ideas and coexistence. (But) it seems to be so difficult to motivate that group of people.”

Attempts by groups such as Johnson’s to fix American society, he said, actually threaten it.

“There’s this conflict of ideas that there is one right that will fix everything,” he said. “One of the things that happens when conservatives or a religious political philosophy holds sway, the options of the majority are diminished. ... The Ohio Constitution is now being used to withdraw rights from people.”

But Spitzer, too, rejects the idea that groups such as the Ohio Reformation Project want to establish a theocracy.

“I think what we’re seeing is really a thrust toward two different directions. There’s a sense of anxiety that society is out of control, and the only way to get it under control is one, right point of view. I think the second thing we’re seeing is this desire to remake society in ‘our image.’ I think people who are involved in the Ohio Restoration Project feel society has been made in the liberals’ point of view.”

Reformation Ohio

Columbus-based TV evangelist Rod Parsley, founder of the 12,000-member World Harvest Church and the Center for Moral Clarity, launched Reformation Ohio.

It’s based on a 10-point, three-step program that includes converting 100,000 Ohioans to Christianity, registering 400,000 voters with a special outreach to minorities, projects to assist needy people, and a radio and television campaign.

“Ohio was the focus of the world in 2004,” Parsley said. “It is my objective to see that ‘values voters’ in the state become engaged in the process.”

He defines values voters as people concerned with life, marriage and religious liberty issues.

“I formed Reformation Ohio to address spiritual and moral needs,” Parsley said. “I believe we must equally focus on both.”

Parsley has clout. Blackwell, who is now Ohio’s secretary of state, appeared with him while campaigning for the gay marriage ban, and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate, also has sought Parsley’s counsel.

“We hope to stand in the middle and look at left and the right and say that we believe the only way to get it consistently right is based on what we believe are biblical, Christian ethics,” Parsley said.

Parsley noted his ministry has condemned genocide around the world and speaks out on many issues other than value politics, and he said Reformation Ohio is more broad-based than the Ohio Restoration Project, which seems to have voter registration as one of its top priorities.

“But we’re glad to have anyone on our side championing causes of morals and religious liberty.”

Patriot pastor

His movement has a lot of support in Stark County, Johnson said.

Johnson recently spoke at First Christian Church, whose senior pastor is the Rev. John Hampton, a longtime friend of his. Hampton said many pastors were already doing much of what Johnson is suggesting. First Christian registered voters in 2000 and 2004, and has invited candidates to visit the church and meet the congregation, he said.

“I don’t see this as anything different than what I’ve been about in my ministry — encouraging people to try and get involved and to minister,” Hampton said. “We’ve been registering voters for years. In appreciation of the heritage and freedom we have, we’ve had ‘I Love America’ services for about eight years.”

As a patriot pastor, he said, his goal is to “help connect people to the heritage, to the faith, that really is the underlying of the establishment of our nation.”

“Certainly, there was respect by our founding fathers for people of all faith,” Hampton continued, but “we can’t look at our heritage without acknowledging that they had a Judeo-Christian worldview.”

Many memorials and government buildings in Washington, D.C., bear Scripture or references to God, he noted. “Jesus said, ‘If people don’t pray for me, the stones will cry out.’ The stones are crying out as a testimony to the faith these people had.”

Another supporter is the Rev. Dana Gammill, the second-generation senior pastor at Cathedral of Life in Plain Township.

“What they’re doing is trying to inform the community about the issues that pertain to values and ethics,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to take a back seat because we’re Christian. We shouldn’t impose our beliefs on every person, but at the same time, we have a right to express our conscience. ... I think people who have Judeo-Christian values should be able to exercise their freedom to influence the law if they’re in the majority.”

Prayer and politics

Johnson said the Restoration Project is making concerted efforts to form a coalition with conservative Catholics and black Christians, whom he says have been taken for granted by Democrats and liberals. President Bush doubled his votes among blacks from 8 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004.

Johnson warned, however, that evangelicals will not be pandered to by conservatives who want their vote but not their input.

“The power brokers have welcomed the evangelical vote whenever it’s a close election, when they need 22 percent more,” he said.

Among Johnson’s targets are Republicans who he said aren’t doing enough to support President Bush’s agenda — Sens. Michael DeWine and George Voinovich among them.

DeWine was among the moderates who opposed a “nuclear option” to ban minority-party filibusters of judicial appointments in the Senate. Voinovich’s stand against deficit spending, and his objection to the appointment of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador are thorns in the side of the Bush administration.

“Michael DeWine needs to be supportive of the president,” Johnson said, “instead of holding hands with Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer. We elected him to be senator of Ohio, not Massachusetts.”

‘Secular jihad’

But specific political races aren’t his group’s only target, Johnson said. He said it needs to fight “a secular jihad against expressions of faith in the public square the last 40 years.”

Johnson said creationism — the faith-based interpretation of the origin of man — belongs in public school curriculum, and maintains that evolution teaching has become a “fact-by-default more than a theory. They protect their theory with no evidence.”

“Hitler was an evolutionist to the core,” he said. “It fueled his bigotry. He called (black Olympian) Jesse Owens an animal. We’re one blood, one race — the human race.”

Teaching evolution isn’t the only fault Johnson finds with public schools. For eight years, his ministry has operated a Christian academy for more than 700 students, in Fairfield. That’s in part because “we think the secular system is no longer publicly owned by taxpayers, but the teacher’s union. The unions have become dogmatic. Academic freedom no longer exists.

“The teacher’s union has fostered an anti-Americanism perspective of history ... .They’ve begun using schools for social engineering.

“We see that parents are saying they want schools to teach that marriage is between a man and a woman; about the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence; that our forefathers had a sense of faith and destiny. When it comes to prayer in school, reading the Bible, or our Christian heritage, the teachers’ union consistently comes down on the side of Karl Marx.”

Hampton, however, said that public education cannot be condemned across the board.

“My kids are in North Canton schools, and I’ve been pleased,” he said. “Certainly, some things are introduced in classrooms, but I’ve talked to my daughters about that, and why they should challenge it. There are some wonderful, godly people in the public schools, including some members of my own congregation.”

Paradigm shift

Though the Ohio Restoration Project is officially nonpartisan, Johnson clearly backs Blackwell in his expected bid for governor next year.

Johnson and Blackwell have shared the podium at appearances throughout the state.

“We do not, as a group, endorse candidates,” Johnson said. “That said, we are very appreciative of Secretary Blackwell’s principled stand on marriage. When it came time to pass (the marriage ban), we went to Ken for help. He didn’t need a focus group on marriage; he didn’t need a poll. Ken stood up, when every other state officeholder went to the woods to hide. ... We need someone with the conviction to lead.

“I don’t think the folks in traditional political circles have caught this yet. There’s going to be a paradigm shift. ... We’re still in the education process, but we’re patient and persistent. A lot of people just now are beginning to understand.”

Christians, Johnson said, have allowed their influence to wane for too long.

“You can read People magazine, but don’t read the Bible. You can talk about Gandhi, but don’t talk about Jesus, and don’t talk about creation. ... Christians need to come out of their foxholes, out of the pews, and shine their light.”

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