Candidates focus on faith
Blackwell, Strickland proud of their religion
By Howard Wilkinson, The Cincinnati Enquirer, July 16, 2006
Ohioans have never heard so much about God and faith from their candidates for governor.
Republican Ken Blackwell has been seen often at campaign events toting the Bible under his arm, he delivers Sunday morning sermons at evangelical mega-churches and counts Ohio's most high-profile pastors of the "religious right" among his closest friends.
Democrat Ted Strickland reminds voters often that he is an ordained United Methodist minister, tells the listeners of Christian radio stations he will be guided by "biblical principles" as governor, and points to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount as the best guide for making public policy.
Both quote scripture as freely as policy wonks rattle off census data.
It sounds, at times, like a contest for "pastor-in-chief."
Some of this can be explained by the nature of the two candidates, each of whom takes his religious faith seriously. The rest can probably be explained by pure politics.
"If Blackwell and Strickland had been running in the '70s and '80s, they probably wouldn't be talking this way," said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "Now, both sides realize there are votes to be harvested by talking about faith."
Blackwell has been a speaker at meetings of the Ohio Restoration Project, the brainchild of the Rev. Russell Johnson, pastor of a 2,500-member evangelical church in Southeastern Ohio. Johnson set out to create an army of more than 2,000 "patriot pastors" around the state who would, in turn, build a force of "values voters" to dominate Ohio politics, starting with the 2006 gubernatorial election.
"Both parties know that the values voters made the difference in Ohio in re-electing Bush," said Phil Burress, founder of the pro-family Citizens for Community Values.
Burress, who supports Blackwell, defines "value voter" as "people of faith, who have the values import to evangelical Christians, whether it is a pro-life belief or believing gay marriage is wrong."
Strickland has a different view of who the "values voters" are, appealing to voters of different faiths who are more interested in helping the needy than in social issues such as abortion or gay marriage.
"I think tax policy can be a moral issue," Strickland said. "A tax policy that rewards the wealthy and burdens working people is morally wrong."
Both candidates, throughout their political careers, have been known to speak openly about their faith and quote Scripture in stump speeches, but neither has been in a campaign where faith is such a centerpiece issue.
Blackwell, a member of a Pentecostal Apostolic church in College Hill, speaks frequently of his belief that faith and religion "belong in the public square," saying God's presence in public policy is "essential to a self-governing people who believe in limited government."
Strickland said he does not disagree - "God is omnipresent; He can not be stricken from public life" - but said he fears that Blackwell applies his own religious beliefs to every public policy issue.
"In a pluralistic society, where we have so many different faiths, I find it of concern that anyone who wants to govern 11 million would use his belief system to impose public policy," Strickland said.
'WALK HUMBLY WITH YOUR GOD'
He was an associate pastor at a church and was later assigned to be a pastor at a Methodist children's home in Kentucky.
In his public speeches, Strickland often invokes Scripture, particularly Micah 6:8, a verse that hung on a plaque in his congressional office: "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?"
But, despite his deep beliefs, Strickland readily says that though he is a United Methodist, he doesn't belong to a church and only occasionally attends services.
"I don't equate my personal faith with any particular ritual of faith," Strickland said.
Blackwell, on the other hand, attends his church regularly and has been known to speak from the pulpit at churches around the state.
On the Sunday before Independence Day, Blackwell laid out his "belief system" in front of the congregation of the Springdale Church of the Nazarene, where he was the featured speaker for the 9:30 and 11 a.m. services and delivered a 20-minute sermon.
There was no campaign pitch; Blackwell was introduced as Ohio's secretary of state, not the GOP candidate for governor. Standing onstage in front of the church's 25-member orchestra and a giant TV screen, Blackwell said that human rights "are not grants from any government but gifts from God."
"There is not any government on the face of the earth that can give you your human rights," said Blackwell, to a chorus of amens from the congregation.
"Our nation is built on God's law," he said. "Our way is the way God has designed for us."
And he shared his grandmother's advice on prayer, which provoked a laugh from the church-goers: "She said prayer is like bathing. Once in a while is not good enough. It has to be a daily routine."
In an interview with The Enquirer, Blackwell said his belief in "God on the public square" is "part and parcel of who I am."
"As a political leader, I bring my total person to the job," Blackwell said. "And, yes, my religious beliefs do influence my decisions."
But, Blackwell said, those Ohioans of different faiths - or no faith - have nothing to fear from him.
"I'm not interested in creating a theocracy," Blackwell said.
Green said that there was a time, not long ago, when Ohio voters could not imagine their candidates for governor preaching Sunday-morning sermons or advertising their candidacies on Christian radio with a faith-based message.
"People used to think it was inappropriate to talk about your beliefs in public," Green said.
Gubernatorial candidates of recent decades have spoken only rarely about their religious beliefs. Former governor - and now U.S. senator - George Voinovich would occasionally speak of his faith, but it was hardly a centerpiece of his campaigns.
"It's hard to imagine (former four-term governor) Jim Rhodes talking religion," Green said of the late governor who campaigned on a more worldly theme of "jobs and progress."
"But if Rhodes were running today, he just might."
The change, he said, probably came at the national level of politics, with candidates like George W. Bush openly proclaiming their religious beliefs and using that to appeal to like-minded voters.
"It might have been disconcerting at one time to hear this kind of thing," Green said. "But, now, people have almost come to expect it."
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