Pastors embrace opposing views, each other
By Jim DeBrosse, The Oxford Press (Oxford, Ohio), October 06, 2006
The rift between religious right and left ended with a surprising hug Sept. 26 after an hour of sometimes pointed exchanges between the Rev. Russell Johnson of the conservative Ohio Restoration Project and the Rev. Eric Williams of the more liberal We Believe Ohio.
The two Columbus-area pastors, tangled in a dispute over how far churches can delve into politics without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, met for the first time at Sinclair Community College in an election forum on faith and politics.
The forum was the first of four elections forums being co-sponsored by "The Dayton Daily News" and Miami's radio station WMUB.
Williams of the North Congregational United Church of Christ was one of 31 Ohio clergy who filed a complaint this year with the IRS, charging that two evangelical churches, including Johnson's Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, were giving organized support to Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell in the Ohio governor's race.
Johnson declined to say whether the IRS is investigating his church, but blamed Williams and the others for legal fees his church is incurring.
"We never asked for the IRS to take away your (tax-exempt status) because you disagreed with us," he told Williams.
Williams said the clergy filed the complaint out of "concern for the law" because Johnson and the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in suburban Columbus were influencing voters with open endorsements and voter materials "supporting a single candidate."
"It wasn't just a Sunday morning drop-in" invitation for a candidate to address a congregation, Williams said.
Johnson has denied his church is violating tax law.
Johnson said not allowing reading of the Bible or teaching of creationism and Intelligent Design in public schools is "a secular jihad against people of faith that must come to a close" and that not allowing schoolchildren to sing "Silent Night" was a violation of their religious freedom.
The two other panelists -- the Rev. John Putka, political scientist at the University of Dayton, and Andrew Cayton, a professor of history at Miami University -- sought a middle ground.
Putka said the Constitution specifies only that government not favor or discriminate against any religion, but that religious leaders, like any citizen, have a right and, at times, a duty to express their political views.
"To put the law before our moral conscience is what made the Third Reich possible," he said.
Cayton agreed with Johnson that the nation's founding fathers felt "religion and morality were very important to a functioning republic, but the difficulty is when you get down to the specifics. (The Constitution) doesn't say anything about the Bible or anything about particular values."
He said the line between separation of church and state requires constant discussion, negotiation and refinement.
Johnson and Williams agreed.
"I sense that Ohio is better off when we're talking to each other and not about each other," Russell said.
To which Williams added, "Amen."
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