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Pair of pastors emerge in Ohio politics: Ministers are faces, voices of movement

With differing styles, evangelical Christian leaders can sway many in pews around state

Akron Beacon Journal, April 15, 2006

COLUMBUS - On the Sunday before Ohio voters re-elected George W. Bush to a second term, the Rev. Russell Johnson took to his pulpit in Lancaster to make sure the faithful knew he was not neutral on the outcome of the votes they were about to cast.

Terrorists, he told them, "don't need Tokyo Rose" -- the radio personality who tried to demoralize American troops in World War II. "The terrorists," he said, "have Michael Moore."

It was a reference to the producer of the Hollywood documentary that created a political firestorm that year by questioning Bush's invasion of Iraq.

Last fall, likewise, when the Rev. Rod Parsley unveiled his four-year plan to evangelize a million Ohioans and register at least 400,000 of them as voters, he didn't do it at his suburban Columbus base in the new, state-of-the-art World Harvest Church.

He did it on the steps of the state Capitol.

To many Ohioans, Parsley and Johnson are just two more names leading two more movements on the political front. But they cannot be dismissed as mere preachers with lofty ambitions who momentarily have captured the media spotlight. For this year, they have emerged as the face and voice of a deep-rooted conservatism in Ohio that is fervent, politically active and spreading.

Parsley leads Reformation Ohio, and Johnson heads the Ohio Restoration Project -- both calling for Christian witness, service and political activism. Their real power, though, lies in their ability to influence thousands of Christians through member churches who care deeply enough to take their beliefs into the voting booth.

Their flocks are willing, welcoming an infusion of hot-button political issues in their sermons along with a healthy dose of skepticism toward secular ideals.

Pulpits have become the launching grounds for the war on homosexuality, pornography and abortion. Passion reigns in the pews for school choice and limited government, while resentment rages against the public school system, with its talk of evolution and sex education.

At the fore stand Parsley and Johnson, the so-called Patriot Pastors -- anointed or self-anointed, it doesn't matter -- and they are expected to play large roles in picking Ohio's next governor.

Their followers give comfort to Republicans and engender angst among Democrats because they attend church regularly and vote religiously.

Nonetheless, Johnson said: "We do not endorse candidates. We endorse convictions... Having a Democrat or a Republican is not an issue."

And Parsley said: "We've just determined to not be silent any longer... We feel strongly that we are in the majority."

So, on May 2, those followers are expected to turn out in force in the Republican gubernatorial primary to help decide whether Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell or Attorney General Jim Petro will take on Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland, poised to be his party's nominee.

And they will be there again in November.

No one on either side is taking the Reformation and Restoration voters for granted. They have already played pivotal roles in altering America's history and its political landscape.

In 2004 -- fired up by a proposed ban on homosexual marriage -- evangelical Christian voters turned out in record number to amend Ohio's Constitution and to deliver the state -- and the election -- to Bush.

This year, Johnson and Parsley are leading the call for action in God's name, while opponents paint them as intolerant crusaders who abuse their tax-exempt status for partisan politics.

Oddly -- although they are united in their cause and speak in nearly identical phrases on almost every issue -- Johnson and Parsley are very different, and their paths seldom cross.

Russell Johnson
In Lancaster -- a town of 36,000 about 20 miles southeast of the Columbus beltway -- a church the size of Fairfield Christian takes on immense proportions.

The high-tech worship center is surrounded by a private school with preschool through 12th grade.

Johnson came to town in 1986, when the church had a congregation of a few hundred. Today, $1,000 or so a day goes out the door for local missions. Teams go into the community to fix homes or to camps for work with the disadvantaged. A satellite church is 15 minutes away.

Every hour, there are members praying for people, the community, the state, the nation.

Pray, serve, engage -- that is the mission, Johnson said.

"I want to make sure I keep a balance of pray, serve, engage,'' he said, pausing between each word to stress equal importance.

He's not tall, he's not flashy. He speaks in slow, deliberate sentences, and takes pride in his humble office, carved from a classroom of the old church.

"Yes, we're at war with a secular world system," he said. "But we're ever ready to pick up the wounded and the broken -- the drug addict, the divorced, the homosexual."

`Freedom of speech'
Johnson makes no apologies to newspaper editorial boards and pastors who say he has crossed the line between tax-exempt preaching and politics.

"The Constitution doesn't muzzle our freedom of speech," he said. "Freedom of speech is something the newspapers ought to be celebrating, instead of saying, `Get behind your stained-glass windows and quit talking like you are a citizen.' As a Christian, I don't have to check my citizenship at the door.

"No one attacks us for praying, and no one attacks us for serving, but when you start talking about being informed and registered to vote, it's almost like the left says: `They can pray all they want, they can serve all they want, but if they come try to take our courts, if they come try to take our schools for intelligent design, we'll show them."

The nation was founded on God's principles, he said, and removing the Ten Commandments, prayer and the Bible from schools violates those principles.

Who is to blame
He blames America's bad behavior on three groups: the secular left, the religious left and passive Christians who are more interested in "being loved" than speaking truth.

"A culture that has facilitated secularism to the point where you can talk about every person in history but Jesus, you can't talk about the impact of the Bible, you can't sing Silent Night -- those kinds of tentacles around the heart of faith can choke out the life of the community.

"I think that faith needs expression," he said, noting that in Lancaster and surrounding Fairfield County, there is no abortion clinic.

"It's the only city of our size on a four-lane highway that does not have a smut shop," he said. "And as a result, at the end of the day, what happens is I think it makes it easier to farm the garden, to plant the seeds of God's truth."

His 17-year-old Fairfield Family Association -- a church-based advocacy organization -- changed its name last year to become the statewide Ohio Restoration Project. Hundreds of "Patriot Pastors" gather every month or so in towns around Ohio.

Johnson brings the choir, a video presentation and a message, and invites prominent politicians. Blackwell, the candidate for governor, is often a speaker.

Representing a majority
The media and his critics, he said, don't know that the Restoration Project represents the majority. Critics are out of touch.

Some of the pastors who accuse Johnson of violating his tax-free status, he said, "could hold church in a phone booth."

"If at times I appear hard, it's not that I claim to have all the answers," he said, "but the things I am convinced of, I am passionate about."

Among those passions are abortion, body parts for research, God in the classroom, homosexuality, Hollywood, teachers' unions, frivolous lawsuits and government waste. "A lot of good parents are losing their ability to raise children of faith in a culture with temptation on steroids," he said. "The teachers' union has an agenda of social engineering," he said. If children are taught they come from monkeys, they act like monkeys, he said. "I believe children are created and designed with purpose and meaning and value," he said. His relationship with Blackwell is misunderstood, he said.

"This is a much longer view. This is not just Ken Blackwell. We do not endorse candidates. We endorse convictions about life, marriage.... Having a Democrat or a Republican is not an issue -- (it's about) having convictions about things that matter to us."

Christians should be undeterred, he said. "From my standpoint, in the New Testament, wherever Christians went, there was either a revival or a riot. I hope and pray we have revival."

Rod Parsley Parsley is an independent. He is on television, sponsors world missions and heads a multiracial congregation, and his image dominates the multitude of multimedia Web sites and pop-ups affiliated with his organizations.

When he unveiled his Reformation Ohio before the television cameras at the Statehouse last fall, Parsley told the crowd the vision of the country's founders and the inspiration of its great reformers "are colliding with unprecedented moral decay and cultural decline."

And he predicted "Ohio will be a training ground that will launch a national reformation."

His home base, the new 138-acre World Harvest Church in Canal Winchester -- where the floors glisten at the school entrance and the administrative offices require a security card -- is just down the road from his Bible college.

Parsley said his ministry is "still a local church at heart," yet with membership of about 12,000, it reaches most of the United States and 120 nations. "We say we speak to the world from this pulpit," and serving others is the foundation.

"The first thing I seek is for God to allow me to be an expression of his character to hurting people. We have a society that is in a lot of distress right now, and my role is to be as much `Balm in Gilead,' if you will (an Old Testament reference to medicine for a hurting generation), to as many people as I possibly can; to reach hurting families and to help them understand that the love of Jesus Christ is the most compelling force on earth."

`Silent too long'
He is frustrated that the news media focus on his public-square involvement and pay little attention to the church missions.

But he is steadfast, and he said evangelical Christians have been "silent too long" on moral issues.

"We've just determined to not be silent any longer, to lift up our voices in these arenas.

"We feel strongly that we are in the majority," he said. "Every time these moral issues are put before the people, conservative Judeo-Christian moral values win the day. Every time. So let their voices be heard. Let everyone's voice be heard."

Parsley acknowledged that there is disagreement among Christians about the role of the church and what an ideal world would look like.

In fact, an ecumenical pastoral group, We Believe, complained to the Internal Revenue Service that Parsley and Johnson are abusing their nonprofit status by supporting candidates and issues.

Parsley and Johnson both deny their efforts violate any federal laws.

Issues to debate

Parsley, speaking of disagreements with other Christians, said: "We're not going to agree on homosexual marriage, we're not going to agree on abortion rights, and probably in finality we're not going to agree on the government's role in poverty and education."

But these are issues, Parsley said, that should be debated.

"In all frankness, we have an educational system in this country that I believe indoctrinates young people with an anti-God, anti-Judeo-Christian worldview," he said.

And after spending billions of government dollars on welfare for 40 years, he said, "there are more poor Americans than ever, there are more disadvantaged than ever, there are more of our children going to bed hungry every night than ever."

But Parsley said there are ways to unite.

"If they say they care about poverty, if that is one of their major platforms, then I invite them to join me."

Within hours of race riots in Toledo, Reformation Ohio was there preaching, feeding and registering voters.

He is excited that so much attention is being paid to religion. Newsweek had a cover story on Jesus. The Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ was a hit. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Strickland is a former United Methodist minister.

"I think people are hungry for God," he said. "I believe we are ready for a spiritual revival that produces a moral reformation."

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