THE BREWING WAR ON TOLERANCE PART 1
(and Nazi references galore)
Shaping politics from the pulpitsBy Susan Page, USA TODAY CANTON, Ohio — Pastor Russell Johnson paces across the broad stage as he decries the "secular jihadists" who have "hijacked" America, accuses the public schools of neglecting to teach that Hitler was "an avid evolutionist" and links abortion to children who murder their parents.
"It's time for the church to get a spinal column" and push the "seculars and the jihadists ... into the dust bin of history," the guest preacher tells a congregation that fills the sanctuary at First Christian Church of Canton.
That is his mission. Johnson leads the Ohio Restoration Project, an emergent network of nearly 1,000 "Patriot Pastors" from conservative churches across the state. Each has pledged to register 300 "values voters," adding hundreds of thousands of like-minded citizens to the electorate who "would be salt and light for America."
And, perhaps, help elect a fellow Christian conservative, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, as governor next year. That has alarmed some establishment Republicans who back rival contenders and warn that an assertive Christian right campaign could repel moderate voters the party needs.
Evangelical Christian leaders nationwide have been emboldened by their role in re-electing President Bush and galvanized by their success in campaigning for constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage, passed in 18 states so far.
Now some are organizing to buildon last year's successes. They want to solidify their role in setting the political agenda and electing sympathetic public officials.
The Ohio effort isn't unique. Johnson's project — which he says has signed up more than 900 pastors in Ohio during its first 10 weeks in operation — has helped spawn the Texas Restoration Project in Bush's home state. The fledging Pennsylvania Pastors' Network has signed up 81 conservative clergy so far. Similar efforts are beginning to percolate elsewhere.
"It's maturing as a movement within the evangelical Christian community," says Colin Hanna of Let Freedom Ring, a Pennsylvania-based group that teaches pastors how to be involved in politics.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, calls the networks a new chapter in an effort to organize conservative clergy that began with the Moral Majority a quarter-century ago, then faltered.
"This generation of evangelical pastors is much more open to this type of activity," says Green, who studies Ohio politics and religious conservatives. "There isn't the kind of hostility to involvement in public affairs you would have found among evangelicals 25 years ago."
Interviews with a dozen worshipers after the service here find only enthusiasm for Johnson's message. No one raises concerns that the church is moving into terrain where it doesn't belong. "There's a plumb line that our nation needs to stand for," with Christian principles guiding public policy, says Vicki Cantrell, 50, a homemaker. Her words echo Johnson's sermon.
Her husband, Jim, 52, a chemical engineer, applauds the church's efforts to "get Christians reconnected to the political process" by registering and educating voters. "They've been absent a lot in the past," he says.
Let's hope that we don't someday see this:
More to come.