Ohioans sincerely at odds about how much religion should mix with politics
Dispatch Poll Politics And Religion '... under God, divisible'
By Darrel Rowland , Joe Hallett and Mark Niquette, The Columbus Dispatch, May 7, 2006
"The real Ken Blackwell wouldn't be standing up here if he didn't first say, 'All the glory is God's.' " Those were the first words in the GOP gubernatorial nominee's victory speech last week. A few minutes later at the Democrats' victory party, Ted Strickland's Jewish running mate was extolling Strickland's virtues as "an ordained Methodist minister."
Like it or not, religion almost certainly will play a major role in Ohio's race for governor.
A Dispatch Poll shows that many Ohioans will like it - but about as many won't.
And therein lies the danger for both Blackwell and Strickland. One segment of Ohio wants them to talk about their religious beliefs. But overdoing the God talk risks alienating the rest of Ohio.
"This campaign will be conducted on the knife's edge, and there's real peril if they step off," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and a national expert on religion and politics.
"The candidates have got to make careful appeals to religious voters without alienating nonreligious voters."
In this state, almost evenly divided politically, Democratic and Republican voters take virtually opposite views on the place of religion in a campaign.
Republicans are twice as likely to want the gubernatorial candidates to publicly discuss their religious beliefs. Democrats are twice as likely to worry about public officials becoming too close to religion and religious leaders.
"I want to know how they feel about it - if they have a strong belief in God," said Republican poll participant Dan Kasunic, 47, an engineering technician from Wickliffe.
"This country was set up to lead the rest of the world. God picked this country."
But Democratic Gary Mongold, 39, of Springfield, currently unemployed, said, "Religion is OK to have, but it shouldn't be in politics. It should be separate. If they vote and they're Christian, I'm all for it.
"But don't talk about religion. Talk about this issues."
Blackwell and Strickland obviously are well aware of the pitfalls of such a jumbled, emotionally charged battlefield. The Dispatch attempted to get responses from both to the questions answered by the 5,000-plus Ohio voters in the poll. It wasn't easy.
Each ended up dodging two of the five inquiries. It was difficult to pin them down even on such a seemingly simple question as how often they go to church.
A Blackwell spokesman said, "Our campaign is focused on communicating Ken Blackwell's agenda for job creation and economic growth. His personal religious beliefs are well-documented."
However, in response to the poll questions, Blackwell did say, "As a political leader I bring my total being to the job. My faith informs how I lead."
This year, Blackwell labeled as "bullies" the religious leaders who filed an IRS complaint against a pair of pastors accused of improperly supporting him through their tax-exempt churches and nonprofit organizations.
One of those ministers, Russell Johnson, senior pastor of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, went to Blackwell's victory party. A few days before the election, Blackwell got a call on the campaign trail from "Pastor Rod," but his campaign wouldn't confirm it was the other pastor, the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus.
Blackwell also has met privately with leaders of black churches, hoping to peel away traditional Democratic votes, much as President Bush did in 2004. The drive to get black votes for Blackwell - who would become Ohio's first black governor - is a major subplot to the 2006 campaign.
The poll shows the views of black Democrats on religion and politics are more in line with those of Republicans than with other Democrats. Black Democrats are much more likely to attend religious services weekly and consider themselves born again or evangelical than are white Democrats.
Those factors may force Strickland to make a religious based appeal to black Democrats to keep them voting the party line, Green said. But such a strategy risks angering secular Democrats, he added.
Strickland said he will not talk overtly about religion but will let his actions show his values.
"Someone said to me once, 'Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I'll tell you what you believe,' " he said. "To me, that pretty much sums it up.
"I don't think the voters need to hear from me or other candidates about how religious we are, but they do need to hear from us what we think is important and what we will do as an officeholder to promote the public good, and that will be a reflection of what we value."
Strickland said he doesn't consider himself an evangelical or born-again Christian because those terms "have become identified with a certain partisan political attitude."
Asked how his faith instructs his policy viewpoints, Strickland said, "I try to have my own personal values reflect what I think are central teachings. I have Jewish friends who would rely on other religious teachings, but I cannot imagine, as a Christian, Jesus Christ engaging in some of the divisive kinds of rhetoric and partisan political actions that we see happening in Ohio."
Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political-science professor emeritus and a Democratic activist, said he expects Strickland to speak more about how values play into public policy decisions and Blackwell to focus more on core religious based values.
The mail poll of 2,697 registered Republicans and 2,501 registered Democrats taken April 19 through April 28 has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
A sampling of remarks from poll participants:
Douglas Rauch, 34, Steubenville, registered nurse:
"I almost always vote for Republicans. The reason why I'll probably vote for Strickland is because Ted Strickland is a religious man and he was a pastor. I like his background."
Milford Edds, 71, retired factory worker, Dayton, supports Blackwell because of his focus on his religious beliefs:
"I just think that if you've got someone in there that is religious they are going to kind of think about doing the right thing instead of just doing what they want to do."
Rich Kelly, 57, letter carrier, Jefferson (Ashtabula County), considers himself an evangelical Christian and attends an Assembly of God church:
"Being conservative doesn't necessarily mean being a Christian. If Jerry Falwell knocked on my front door, I'd turn my dogs on him. He's a pompous buffoon."
Sally A. Wilke, 36, stay-at home mom, Thornville:
"I think that public leaders need to pay a little more attention to religious leaders and get a little more input. Maybe if they had a little more guidance from religions leaders there wouldn't be as many scandals."
Judy McGill, 47, retired from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Lancaster:
"Our religious background shouldn't be any influence on what our government does . . . If you are in love with a man or a woman, it shouldn't matter. What does it matter if someone's sexual preference isn't the norm? "
Dave Laverty, 71, part-time golf course worker, Bay Village:
"I don't think it's my business if Blackwell goes to church. You can figure out his values without hearing what church he goes to."
Benjamin Perkins, 22, unemployed, Batavia, said he's disillusioned with GOP economic policies yet equally upset with Democrats over their support for abortion and gay marriage.
"This country was founded on Christianity. If you read the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, those were written by Christians. The first settlers in this country were Christians. If you don't believe in God, fine, but don't try to make rules for the rest of us."
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