The Evangelical Surprise

Last year the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio, became a regular stop for journalists covering trends in Christian right politics. In 2004 its pastor, Russell Johnson, helped organize a campaign for a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and succeeded in having it put on the ballot for the November elections. It passed with 63 percent of the vote, and many believed that it gave George W. Bush his narrow margin of victory in the state and returned him to the White House. The following year, Johnson launched the Ohio Restoration Project with the goal of recruiting two thousand “patriot pastors” to register three hundred new voters each and bring them to the polls for “values candidates” in 2006 and beyond.

Johnson’s meetings and rallies began with a chorus singing hymns while images of the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, and American troops in combat moved across huge video screens overhead. Johnson would then speak of “the secular jihad against people of faith” and warn Christians against standing by, as Neville Chamberlain did, while the Jews died in Europe. Talking with visitors to his nondenominational evangelical church, Johnson, energetic and a skillful debater, spoke forcefully on “the bigotry against the teaching of Creationism,” the war against Christmas, and Roe v. Wade, which, he said, had led to the crisis in Social Security by killing millions of American taxpayers. He also described how he worked with other state activists, some with ties to national organizations, to create computerized lists of sympathizers in conservative churches throughout Ohio, and to follow up with the distribution of voting guides and the recruitment of volunteers to bring church members to the polls.

In the quarter of a century that Christian right activists such as Johnson have been mobilizing voters to oppose abortion and gay rights, and support prayer in the schools among other causes, conservative white Christians have moved gradually into the Republican camp. In the past two presidential elections, how often a person attended church was a better indicator of how he or she would vote than any other demographic characteristic—income, age, gender—except for race. Blacks voted strongly for Democrats. But those white voters who went to church once a week or more voted heavily for George Bush; those who went seldom or never voted in large measure for Gore, then Kerry, while those who went to church once a month split down the middle, just as voters in general did. The Republicans had, in other words, apparently become a quasi-religious party, and the Democrats the party of less religiously observant people and secularists.

Johnson and his fellow Christian right activists speak of “values voters,” but most of these voters are evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals have a disproportionate part in what pollsters call the “God gap” between the two parties. They make up a quarter of the population—around 75 million people—and a far higher percentage of them are frequent churchgoers than are mainline Protestants and Catholics …

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