The following article, featuring one of our Columbus churches, appeared in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle:
Candidates’ final appeal to sway a divided electorate
ON THE OHIO TRAIL: Religious voters torn between candidates
Zachary Coile, Chronicle Political Writer
Monday, November 1, 2004
Westerville, Ohio — Inside Grace Brethren, an evangelical Christian mega-church in the suburbs of Columbus, more than 1,000 parishioners listened to a sermon Sunday about the value of charitable giving. Outside, volunteers for President Bush were sticking religious-themed voter guides on every parked car.
“Vote your values,” urge the guides from the Ohio Republican Party. “This Nov. 2, it is critical to support the candidate who works to strengthen the family and the culture of life.”
The president has pinned his hopes of winning the election on millions of evangelical and conservative religious voters in Ohio and other swing states, where slogans like “culture of life” and “protecting marriage” are energizing voters.
“We’re strong Bush supporters,” said Jennifer Reale, a member of the church. “It’s values. On the big issues, we’re aligned with him.”
But interviews with dozens of churchgoers at several Columbus area congregations Sunday suggested that this year’s heated campaign has left a significant number of religious voters conflicted.
While many Christian voters said they support Bush because of his positions on same-sex marriage and abortion, others have grown disillusioned with his policies on the economy, health care and the Iraq war.
Michelle Corpron, a 35-year-old evangelical Christian at Grace Brethren, said social and religious issues are secondary for her this year. She recently lost her job at a local electronics assembly plant and is concerned about joining the ranks of Americans without health insurance.
“I think we need a change,” said Corpron, who intends to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry. “We need someone who can do better on the economy and health issues.”
Bush, a born-again Christian, has aggressively courted religious voters by signing a ban on partial-birth abortion, endorsing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, opposing embryonic stem cell research and publicly discussing his faith. The Bush campaign has also used churches around the country to register new GOP voters.
The president’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, has said Bush nearly lost the 2000 election because 4 million of an estimated 20 million evangelical voters stayed home. This year, however, religious conservatives are showing no signs of apathy.
“I want a president who believes in God, who believes in traditional marriage, who believes babies have a right to live,” said Susan Purdy, a Bush supporter and member of Grace Brethren.
A few miles south off Interstate 71, at Good Shepherd Baptist Church, an African American church in the blue-collar neighborhood of South Linden, the election talk is more about Iraq and job losses than about social issues.
“If we stay in Iraq, the way I feel about it now, we’re going to be in a world war,” said David Simpson, 52, a retired utility worker. “To go in there and say, ‘We’re going to change that country,’ it’s ludicrous. You’re just not going to do that.”
Rev. Rayford Harper, the church’s pastor, said many of his elderly church members are also concerned about rising prescription drug costs — an issue he said favors the Democrats. But he said his congregation of Baptists may be more in line with the president than Kerry on social or moral issues.
“A lot of people will vote for Bush because they see this Christian morality,” Harper said. “Kerry has not come out and done that.”
Also on the Ohio ballot Tuesday is Issue 1, a proposed ballot measure that would define marriage as between a man and woman and preclude same-sex marriages or civil unions. Many Democrats see the measure as an effort to boost the turnout of religious voters to help Bush.
But despite polls showing the measure ahead nearly 2-1, a number of GOP leaders — including Gov. Bob Taft and the state’s two Republican U.S. senators — have opposed the initiative, saying it could threaten domestic partners benefits not just for gays and lesbians, but for other unmarried couples, including seniors who live together.
“It’s a big issue with evangelicals,” said Ron Whiteside, a deacon at Northwest Bible Church, a conservative congregation north of Columbus. “I think it’s going to motivate a lot of people — both for it and against it.”
At Good Shepherd, Ansul Robb said he and other African American church members are uncertain about whether to support the measure.
“The Bible states that marriage is a man and a woman, not a couple,” said Robb, a Kerry supporter. But he said he fears the initiative could block gays and unmarried couples from having certain rights and benefits. “It’s so open- ended on how far it really can go.”
The opposition among many religious voters to same-sex marriage explains why Kerry has sought to downplay the issue, stressing that he opposes gay marriage but also opposes the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage backed by the president.
Across the street from Good Shepherd is St. Augustine and Gabriel, a Roman Catholic church that in recent years has become an almost entirely Asian congregation because of an influx of Vietnamese immigrants.
The Bush campaign sent two Vietnamese volunteers to address the congregation a month ago, reminding them that Kerry, a Catholic, is pro-choice. The Kerry campaign also sent a representative, who talked more about the Democrat’s positions on the economy and health care.
Jason Nguyen, a 32-year-old computer programmer, said he listened carefully and agreed with Kerry’s views on the war in Iraq and tax cuts. But, as a Catholic, he said he will vote for Bush because of his views on abortion, marriage and stem cell research.
“Kerry is a very smart guy, and he knows the issues,” Nguyen said. “But he has to stick with his faith.”