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Evangelical Pastors Gather To Learn Another Calling: Politics

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Hundreds of conservative evangelical pastors across the country are being trained to run for political office. The project is part of an effort to mobilize an "army" to do battle in the culture wars.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Hundreds of evangelical pastors are in Orlando, Fla. this morning. They're there to attend a special training session on how to move from the pulpit to politics. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, himself a former Baptist pastor, is the keynote speaker. It's one in a series of workshops being held around the country in an effort to build a movement of pastor politicians who will promote conservative ideas at all levels of government. Here's NPR religion correspondent, Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The organizer, David Lane, calls these Issachar workshops after one of the 12 tribes of Israel, a tribe that, according to the Bible, was led by men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do. Lane himself is a born-again Christian, a self-described political operative with a network of contacts in the conservative movement and a determination to change America.

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DAVID LANE: Lord, here we are, a nation founded for the advancement of the Christian faith and the glory of God.

GJELTEN: Lane opened this recent Issachar workshop in South Carolina with a prayer for mercy, listing what he saw as some national sins, from deficit spending to abortion.

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LANE: Fifty-five million babies dead, red ink as far as the eye can see, homosexuals praying at the inauguration...

GJELTEN: About 300 ministers are in the audience. Pastors know how to preach, and they spent a lot of time doing outreach. David Lane figures they'd make good politicians. He'd like to see them advance what he called biblical values across the country at a time when the secularism seems to have the upper hand.

LANE: Some of these values are going to rein supreme. We want people with our values to represent our values and interests in the public square and be elected to office and represent our issues. That's what we're doing.

GJELTEN: Even if the clergy don't run for office themselves, they can still mobilize. Chad Connelly, director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee, told the pastors at this meeting that they need to engage the vote in their churches.

CHAD CONNELLY: So number one, my ask is can you register a hundred percent of people in your pews? Yes, you can get pretty close. Number two, can you preach biblical values and make sure people connect the dots they don't understand, y'all? They don't know how to ascertain the facts and understand the issues of the day as God talks about them. So number two, preach biblical values. Number three, make sure they go vote those biblical values every single time.

GJELTEN: Connelly is a former state Republican chairman in South Carolina. But now he works at the national level, and he came this day equipped with polling data that show, he says, that if conservative ideas don't have traction, it's because conservatives are not voting in the numbers they should.

CONNELLY: Five percent more Christian evangelical people who are serious about the word of God voting biblical values, we change the nation. We change the nation forever.

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MARK HARRIS: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.

GJELTEN: Evangelical pastors do know how to fire up a crowd. This is Mark Harris from the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.

HARRIS: (Singing) Hide it under a bushel?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No.

HARRIS: Oh, that was pathetic. No wonder the liberals are kicking our tales. Come on.

GJELTEN: Harris ran for the U.S. Senate last year in the North Carolina Republican primary. He didn't win. Maybe he should have aimed lower. The pastors here are taught that it's good to start with the city council or school board. They got advice on how to establish a finance committee, how and why to target certain precincts, how to arrange photo ops. Some denominations frown on their clergy becoming active politically. The Catholic Church prohibits it. But evangelical pastors are showing interest in this training. Gary Click told his congregation in Fremont, Ohio last Sunday that he may run for county commissioner there.

GARY CLICK: There were some people who after church said, well, we're for you. We're behind you all the way. I've had a number of them say, you know, when are you going to run for something, Pastor? There are some others who seem to be a little hesitant and wondering how that's going to affect my time in the church and so forth as well as. So it's something that we'll have to walk through.

GJELTEN: The Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage angered Click and other conservatives. The decision may prompt more pastors to run for office regardless of whether they can do anything about the ruling on the local level.

CLICK: It's a starting place. And you're right. You can't overturn the Supreme Court from the county commissioner's desk. But you can get some things done. And you can create a movement. And you can certainly educate people a lot more from that position.

GJELTEN: Pastor Click wants to attend one of David Lane's upcoming workshops. Lane says he has a hundred thousand pastors on an email list. And though he doesn't identify his funders, he clearly has a war chest. He says if he can persuade just 1 percent of his ministers to run, he'll have a thousand politicized pastors ready to change the country. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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