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From the Chicago Tribune

Evangelicals no longer lock for the GOP
Moderates, liberals redefine `values' vote

By Tim Jones
Tribune national correspondent
Published November 6, 2006

LANCASTER, Ohio -- In the world of safe bets, oddsmakers could count on white evangelical Christians to vote Republican, three out of four times, because those voters and the GOP shared the same values.

In this midterm election, however, the one-sided nature of that relationship may be changing and along with it the very definition of values.

Nowhere is that more evident than Ohio, which two years ago delivered a second term to President Bush, partly because of an expectedly high turnout among evangelicals supporting him.

Once largely confined to abortion and sexual orientation, the values debate now features a call from the ornate wooden pulpit of Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus, describing the state ballot proposal raising the minimum wage as a "moral imperative."

Churches across the state pray for the troops in Iraq, but at the Vineyard Church of Columbus, a massive evangelical complex that preaches to 7,000 congregants on any given weekend, senior pastor Rich Nathan condemned the war in Iraq as "senseless slaughter" in a prayer during Saturday night's service.

"Two years ago or four years ago, many Christians just presumed that when the administration led us to war it was a just war," Nathan said in an interview. "But how can we claim to follow the Prince of Peace and be led so easily into war?"

"I think a lot of things have changed here. There's a broadening of the evangelical agenda," Nathan said. "There is a growing questioning of the wisdom of going to war in Iraq. It's something I hear regularly from evangelical Christians."

Polls detect shift

National and statewide public opinion polls have detected the shift, showing white evangelical support for Republicans has dropped from about 78 percent to the mid-50s. Apparently in response to political concerns two years ago that Democrats were too secular and risked losing a large segment of the religious community, Ohio Democrats chose U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, an ordained minister, as their gubernatorial nominee.

Strickland, according to polls, has drawn as much as 40 percent of the evangelical vote, eroding the solid evangelical base that was presumed to belong to the Republican nominee, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.

While the polling may not necessarily predict the outcome of Tuesday's voting, there are clearly two worldviews emerging from the religious community, including evangelical churches. The more conservative one is dominant, but the emerging coalition of moderates and liberals is becoming increasingly vocal, creating a struggle over setting the values agenda.

"When we weren't looking, one of our good words was kidnapped and taken hostage--`moral,'" said Rev. David Van Dyke, pastor of the Broad Street Presbyterian Church, at a gathering of religious leaders late last week.

Priorities of many conservative evangelicals include passage of a federal ban on gay marriage and protection of the Pledge of Allegiance, in addition to opposition to abortion.

But as a growing counterweight, moderate to liberal church leaders cite the war in Iraq, the violence in Darfur, the need to address global warming and issues of social justice, such as living-wage protections.

In the southeastern Ohio community of Lancaster, Rev. Russell Johnson leads Fairfield Christian Church and is one of the pillars of the state's evangelical movement that favors Republican candidates. In remarks to his congregation Sunday, Johnson dismissed the emerging alliance between Democrats and religious moderates as those who "erode biblical truth."

"The political left has looked for candidates that look and sound conservative ... but they want to abort more children [and] yet they call themselves evangelicals," Johnson said.

Gary Lankford, executive director of the Ohio Restoration Project, a non-profit group that promotes religious values in public policy, told church members there is "no place where the gospel of Jesus Christ should not be preached."

Lankford said the deaths of more than 2,800 U.S. troops in Iraq is a tragedy, but citing 3,200 abortions daily added, "Has anyone declared our American abortion policy a disaster?"

Religious activism in the public arena is not new. Churches were involved in the civil rights struggle as well as Vietnam War protests. Conservative churches mobilized after the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision in 1973, giving birth to the religious right and helping give clout to Republicans.

Benefit for Democrats

Although Democrats may benefit from the emergence of a stronger moderate to liberal religious voice in the short term, long-term there is an almost unavoidable clash between two powerful institutions: one rooted in biblical absolutes and moral certitude, the other in compromise and consensus. Many evangelical leaders have been unhappy with Bush during his second term because they feel he has failed to deliver on national prohibitions on gay marriage and abortion.

"I think we're going to see more religious mobilization going into 2008," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist who studies politics and religion.

Dan Skidmore, an accountant and evangelical from Columbus, said the Iraq war convinced him that there needs to be a re-examination of values in politics. He voted for Bush two years ago but said there is no justification for the war.

"We need to get away from the extreme, from the headline issues and deal with matters that can help people," Skidmore said at a church gathering.

Whatever happens after Tuesday, Nathan, who is adamantly anti-abortion, predicted there will be major shifts in the evangelical movement and a broadening of the agenda.

"We are not going to be in the pocket of any political party," Nathan vowed. "Every vote is more and more up for grabs, and that is a good thing."

 


tmjones@tribune.com

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune


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