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Politics and Pulpits Combine To Sway Swing-State Voters

By Paul Farhi and Vanessa Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page A07

FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio, Oct. 24 -- David Barton said the theme of his sermon was morality, not partisan politics, but there was no mistaking which way he believed the righteous wind was blowing.

Ticking off a blur of congressional voting statistics about abortion, school prayer, same-sex marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance, Barton led a thousand congregants at Potter's House Church of God in this Columbus suburb right up to his unstated conclusion: The Democratic Party has been on the wrong side of issues dear to conservative Christians.

President Bush speaks at a campaign rally in Alamogordo, N.M. He rarely speaks at churches, but others push his issues from the pulpit. (Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters)

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"The culture war in this country is tied at halftime," said Barton, a visiting minister and author. "I'd be worried, but the good news is I know the rest of the team -- all of you -- is going to be showing up to play in the second half."

Religion and politics mingled in churches all across swing-state America on the second-to-last Sunday before Election Day. Just as conservative preachers such as Barton were rallying the faithful in central Ohio, the candidates, their wives and their surrogates were doing likewise, filling strategically located pews in Florida, Pennsylvania and other battleground states to rally the religious for President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.

Although all were united by Jesus, where they sat reflected, in large part, where they were coming from. Democrats, who are counting on massive support from African Americans, tended to turn toward inner-city churches. Conservatives, meanwhile, have been drawing strength from evangelical congregations scattered across the suburbs, exurbs and rural stretches of a dozen or so highly contested states.

In Philadelphia, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) campaigned for Kerry in two black churches, telling the congregations that "the heart and soul of the African American community comes alive in worship." At each stop, he delivered a message that sought to tap both the spiritual and political connection between blacks and the Democratic Party and, more specifically, the Kennedy brand of liberalism.

Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) started his day at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, where the Democratic vice presidential nominee urged "record turnout" on Nov. 2 and asked the congregation to consider the impact the next president might have on the Supreme Court. His wife, Elizabeth, attended services at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Pittsburgh.

Bush would likely find plenty of solace at Potter's House, on the southwest fringe of Columbus, in a growing suburban neighborhood of broad lawns and newly sprouted mini-marts. By 10 Sunday morning, its parking lot was filled to near capacity by mostly young, mostly white churchgoers, many with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers on their cars. One car sported a sticker reading "Don't Buy the Lies," with a red slash mark printed across Kerry's name.

"Obviously, I'm going for Bush," Jason Blann, 29, a member of the church's band, said out in the parking lot. "As far as the issues, it's all morality based. Our decisions are based on biblical morality."

Inside the spacious vestibule before services began, volunteers handed out voter guides from the Christian Coalition of Ohio. The pamphlets do not endorse a candidate, but a side-by-side comparison of the candidates' positions on a selective list of issues -- abortion, gun control, educational vouchers, "affirmative action programs that provide preferential treatment" -- makes the differences plain.

There is nothing subtle, however, about how the coalition and the leadership at Potter's House feel about Issue 1, the state's proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Support for the ban is displayed openly on the church's Web site, and in the coalition's pamphlet: "Vote 'YES' on Issue 1 on November 2nd," it reads. "This is not about politics," says Pastor Tim Oldfield from the pulpit. "This is about light and dark. . . . You need to go and vote for Issue 1."

John C. Green, a specialist in politics and religion at the University of Akron, says churches such as Potter's House and ballot measures such as Issue 1 are "absolutely critical" for Bush in Ohio.

Green estimates that 35 to 40 percent of Bush's support comes from evangelical Christians in Ohio, and that turnout among this bloc could increase by as much as 8 to 10 percent as a result of the passions about the measure. A 10 percent increase among conservative Christians would translate into as many as 150,000 additional votes for Bush. In 2000, Bush's margin of victory over Al Gore was about 166,000 votes. "Issue 1 is making it much easier to get these people out on Election Day," Green said.

But where conservative Christians see cultural issues at stake in this election, Democrats have been focusing on messages of economic equity and social justice.

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