Republicans Zig; Will Christian Conservatives Zag?

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Two years ago, Evangelical Christians went to the polls in huge numbers and provided a big boost for George Bush and the Republican Party.

Since then, shifts within the Evangelical movement have broadened its focus beyond the signature issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, and lobbying and sex scandals in Washington have raised concerns that the GOP may not be able to count on such a strong evangelical turnout.

You can see that evolving relationship in churches like Potter's House Church of God outside Columbus, in the battleground state of Ohio.

On a recent Wednesday, the gymnasium-like sanctuary is filled with a couple hundred worshippers. With a microphone in one hand and a Bible in the other, guest pastor Steve Lorentz drives home a cornerstone message.

"In the Kings and the Chronicles you read about the men and it says he did that which was right or he did that which is evil," Lorentz tells the crowd. "You know there's only two ways to do it folks. It's either good or bad — right or wrong."

This is the kind of clarity that has defined evangelical Christians in many ways. In 2004, the choice was clear for evangelical voters. Almost 78 percent of them voted for George W. Bush. The president's public faith and the gay marriage debate mobilized evangelicals. And here in Ohio, they helped push President Bush over the top.

Two years later, some evangelical Christians, like those at Potter's House Church, aren't so clearly aligned with the GOP. Administrative Pastor Jerry Davis says neither party truly represents his Christian beliefs.

"The Republicans could do more for the poor, Republicans could stand up more for what's right," he says. "Democrats to me are totally lost on the social issues that are important, abortion, gay rights."

Carlos Roberson, who attends the church, agrees. "As a man of god, I believe there's no such thing as a Democrat and a Republican," he says. "I'm looking for an individual who has displayed the most of having a relationship with the Lord."

Roberson and other evangelicals say in this election season, such moral fortitude is even tougher than usual to find.

The scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff that brought down Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney, and Mark Foley's recent fall from grace have given many evangelical voters pause.

Most recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's appointment of an openly gay man as the U.S. ambassador on the AIDS epidemic dealt yet another blow.

And on top of all this, the Christian conservative movement itself is experiencing some growing pains, says Michael Cromertie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy center in Washington, D.C. He says recent shifts within the evangelical movement have expanded the Christian conservative agenda beyond the so-called "life" issues the movement was founded on.

"As evangelicals have gotten involved with politics, they've also gotten concerned about the environment, they're obviously concerned about the war on terror, sexual trafficking in Africa," Cromertie says.

That broad horizon has caused a rift in one of the movement's bedrock organizations — the Christian Coalition founded by Pat Robertson. The group is trying to re-invent itself by embracing issues like the environment and poverty, even taking on legislation to regulate the Internet.

Joel C. Hunter is the newly elected president of the Christian Coalition. He's challenging the same religious conservative movement that gave birth to the organization. And he's getting the message out in new ways, including his daily podcast.

One on recent program, he criticized the religious right for — as he put it — ignoring such important issues as poverty and AIDS.

But some chapters complained that the coalition's new agenda leans too far to the left and distracts from the group's primary mission. Earlier this year, chapters in Iowa and Ohio splintered off, followed by Alabama and Georgia.

At the Ohio chapter's office in Cleveland, Chris Long heads up what is now called the Ohio Christian Alliance. He accuses the Christian Coalition of losing its focus and abandoning its defining issues — abortion and a federal ban on same sex marriage. "And so we saw fit to sever the ties with the national office," he notes.

In 2004, Ohio was one of 11 states that banned same-sex marriage. That issue still dominates the Ohio Christian Alliance's mission.

Since the split with the Christian Coalition, the Ohio chapter has been freed up to push its agenda more vigorously with issue guides, voter education forums and a new radio show hosted by Chris Long. On one recent program, he chatted via cell phone with Ohio's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ken Blackwell, who promised that he would work hard on issues of importance to Evangelicals.

"For those folks who want a true pro-life candidate, one who has defended the sanctity of marriage and a person who's actually fought to make sure God and faith haven't been chased out of the public square, then we're going to provide my candidacy and my leadership," Blackwell said on the program.

Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says the spilt within the Christian Coalition illustrates a larger shift in the Evangelical movement as a whole.

"You're seeing something of the circulation of the elite leadership off the stage," he said. "So there's less dependency on big name personalities like Pat Robertson, or James Dobson or Jerry Falwell but instead there's a dependency on the local pastor or the local leader in the state wide chapter."

While there's no real concern Evangelicals will jump ship and rally behind Democrats, Cromertie says, the real question is whether they'll feel as compelled as they did in 2004 to show up at the polls.

At Potter's House church, 19-year-old Ryan Hicks says he's working hard to make sure they do.

"I'm pro-life," he says, "and I believe that there should be a marriage amendment, marriage between a man and a woman. I believe in morality and I'll do anything I can to push that agenda.

For Hicks that means licking envelopes and working the phone banks, helping his local Republican party get out the vote in Ohio. So while the party faithful like Hicks are now working overtime to rally the base, other evangelicals are still deciding whether to answer the call on Nov. 7.

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