Moderate US Christians face conservative Goliath
By Andrea Hopkins, Reuters, The Washington Post, July 13, 2006
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Rev. Timothy Ahrens had heard his share of fiery rhetoric from Ohio's religious right and seen conservative Christians turn out in droves to ban gay marriage and re-elect President Bush in 2004.
But when an evangelical pastor stood outside the Ohio statehouse last fall to declare he was "locking, loading and firing on Ohio" to campaign for more religion in public life, Ahrens decided it was time moderate Christians spoke up.
"People are fed up with having religion represented in such a skewed way," said Ahrens, senior minister at The First Congregational Church in downtown Columbus.
He called moderate church leaders together to counter the conservative presence in American politics -- and convince mainstream voters that Christians care about more than banning gay marriage and abortion and restoring school prayer.
"At our opening meeting, pastor after pastor said they have members ... who won't even tell people they are Christian any more, because Christian is such a dirty word," Ahrens said.
Out of the meeting was born 'We Believe Ohio,' a group of about 300 religious leaders who believe people of faith should focus on issues like poverty rather than sexual politics.
Ohio, a key swing state, narrowly decided Bush's victory in 2004. But this year Republicans are on the defensive with some of their key leaders embroiled in ethical scandals.
A March survey by the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics found 25 percent of Ohio voters are self-described evangelicals, 25 percent are Catholic, 25 percent are mainline or black Protestant and 15 percent are not affiliated with any religion -- in line with U.S. totals.
But the survey showed people who attend church at least once a week are more likely to vote Republican, while the less observant tended to be politically mixed. That could make it tough for moderates to make political inroads.
SSSHHH, WE'RE CHRISTIANS TOO
While the religious right has firm links with Bush, who speaks comfortably about his born-again Christianity, the We Believe movement tiptoes around issues of partisan politics.
We Believe activist Tom Brownfield said ministers are sometimes reluctant to raise issues that could divide their mixed congregations.
"An awful lot of Christians on the progressive side, and progressive Jews, for that matter, are very uncomfortable with the role of religion in politics," Brownfield said.
Not coincidentally, many Democrats feel the same way.
The Democratic candidate for Ohio governor, Rep. Ted Strickland, said he applauds We Believe Ohio's speaking up. But even Strickland, who was a Methodist minister before he was congressman, is careful about making a link.
"I think there may be some synergy, but I don't know that there is any connection," he said. "I think it's best that this remain a religious movement rather than a political movement."
Ahrens said his group's primary goal is increase voter turnout at the November mid-term election, when Democrats hope to seize control of the House of Representatives and Senate.
We Believe Ohio has attracted little more than derision from local evangelical leaders, whose churches are flourishing in the suburbs and rural areas of central Ohio.
"I think they'll be about as effective (politically) as they are at growing their churches," said Russell Johnson, pastor of Fairfield Christian Church in nearby Lancaster.
Ahrens is undeterred.
"We're being laughed at and scoffed at: 'Oh you're too little to play this game'. But we're not going to go away."
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