Republicans Zig; Will Christian Conservatives Zag? Conservative Christian voters are widely credited with helping bring the Republicans to victory in 2004. But as midterm elections near, religious conservatives appear to be splintered in different and surprising directions.
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Republicans Zig; Will Christian Conservatives Zag?

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Republicans Zig; Will Christian Conservatives Zag?

Republicans Zig; Will Christian Conservatives Zag?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Two years ago, evangelical Christians went to the polls in huge numbers and provided a big boost for President Bush and the Republican Party. Since then, the evangelical movement has evolved and its focus has broadened beyond the signature issues of same-sex marriage and abortion. And the lobbying and sex scandals in Washington have raised concerns that the GOP may not be able to count on such a strong evangelical turnout this year.

Today and tomorrow, we're going to hear about the role of faith in the upcoming election. Here's NPR's Rachel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

RACHEL MARTIN: Wednesday night at Potter's House Church of God outside Columbus, Ohio, and 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.

Mr. STEVE LORENTZ (Guest Pastor): In the Kings and the Chronicles you read about the men and it says he did that which was right, and he did that which is evil. You know, there's only two ways to do it, folks. It's either good or bad, right or wrong.

MARTIN: This is the kind of clarity that has defined evangelical Christians in many ways. So in 2004, the choice was clear for evangelical voters. Almost 78 percent of them voted for George W. Bush. The president's 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 here at this church, aren't so clearly aligned with the GOP.

Mr. JERRY DAVIS (Administrative Pastor): My name is Jerry Davis. I'm administrative pastor. Neither party really represents my Christian beliefs. The Republicans could do more for the poor. The Republicans could stand up more for what's right. Democrats, you know, to me are totally lost on the social issues that are important: abortion, gay rights.

Mr. CARLOS ROBERSON (Church Member): My name is Carlos Roberson. As a man of God, I believe in, you know, there's no such thing as a Democrat and a Republican. I'm looking for an individual who has and who has displayed the most of having a relationship with the Lord.

MARTIN: Roberson and other evangelicals say this election season such moral fortitude is even tougher than usual to find. The scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff that brought down Ohio's 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 has dealt yet another blow. And on top of all of that, the Christian conservative movement itself is experiencing some growing pains.

Michael Cromartie is the vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. 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.

Mr. MICHAEL CROMARTIE (Ethics and Public Policy Center): As evangelicals have gotten involved with politics, they've also become concerned about the environment. They're obviously concerned about the war on terror. They're concerned about, however, sexual trafficking in Africa.

MARTIN: 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.

(Soundbite of podcast)

Dr. JOEL C. HUNTER (President, Christian Coalition): You're listening to 40 Questions about Religion and Politics with Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of...

MARTIN: Hunter is the newly elected president of the Christian Coalition. He's challenging the same religious conservative movement that birthed the organization and he's getting the message out in new ways, like his daily podcast.

(Soundbite of podcast)

Dr. HUNTER: Which important issues have been most ignored by the Religious Right? Well, there's several of them, really. Poverty. The Religious Right just keeps going, well, you know, let them lift them up by their own bootstraps and so on and so forth.

MARTIN: But some chapters complain that the new agenda leans too far to the left and distracts from the group's primary mission. So 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's 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.

Mr. CHRIS LONG (Ohio Christian Alliance): When you have the Federal Marriage Amendment, which is out chief concern, for family interest being ignored, that was a very alarming trend for us. And such we saw fit to sever the ties with the national office.

MARTIN: In 2004, Ohio was one of 11 states that banned same-sex marriage, and 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.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. LONG: Mr. Blackwell.

Mr. KEN BLACKWELL (Ohio Gubernatorial Candidate): Hey, Chris. How are you doing?

Mr. LONG: Ken, good. Thanks for joining us...

MARTIN: The Cleveland-based program is a chance to showcase conservative political candidates, like Ohio's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Kenneth Blackwell, who's just called in on his cell phone from the campaign trail.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. BLACKWELL: ...a true pro-life candidate, one who has defended the sanctity of marriage...

Mr. MARTIN: 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.

Mr. CROMARTIE: There's less of a dependency on big name personalities like Pat Robertson or James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, but instead there's a dependence on the local pastor and the local leader and the state-wide chapter.

MARTIN: 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.

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

Mr. RYAN HICKS (Christian Evangelical): I'm pro-life and I believe that there should be a marriage amendment, marriage between a man and a woman. I believe in morality, and I would do anything I can to push that agenda.

MARTIN: 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 come November 7th.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

NORRIS: Tomorrow, the Democratic Party struggles with religion and how to talk about it.

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