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.
"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.
At both of his stops in Philadelphia, Kennedy quoted the scriptures, choosing the chapter in Matthew that describes how Christ will hold men accountable for how they treated those most in need. "America will never truly be American if we keep ignoring these words. They are the basic rights of all our brothers and sisters," he said.
But for the most part Kennedy's comments were an indictment of Bush's record on education, health care, civil rights, the economy and the Iraq war.
"We have only nine days left before the election. The issue is jobs. The issue is our schools. The issue is our health care and our hospitals. . . . The issue is our security and how to find our way back to a more peaceful world," Kennedy said. "We have an opportunity in this election -- and an obligation as well -- to choose a president who shares our commitment and our values. I know John Kerry and I know he will be there for all in need," he said. "As the Gospel teaches us, 'By their deeds, ye shall know them.' John Kerry's deeds show what kind of leader he is today and what kind of president he will be."
At Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, a large and lively congregation in a working-class section, ushers passed out Kerry-Edwards fans. The fans read "Hope is on the way" on one side and "Help is on the way" on the other.
Worshipers applauded and called out their approval when Kennedy criticized Bush's management of the Iraq war and his economic policies, particularly his opposition to increasing the minimum wage. "The minimum wage is a women's issue, too, because 61 percent of all the workers who would benefit are women," Kennedy said, prompting several women in the audience to respond, "That's right!"
Bishop Ernest C. Morris, the pastor, is head of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, a group of religious leaders representing more than 400 churches that has endorsed Kerry. The city is overwhelmingly Democratic and African Americans are about half of the party's registered voters -- essential to Kerry's victory in the state. After Kennedy spoke, Morris told his congregation: "I cannot tell you who to vote for, but I can tell you that my mama always told me, 'Stay out of the bushes.' " The congregation laughed and applauded.
Kennedy also spoke at Zion Baptist Church, one of the city's oldest and most respected congregations.
Edwards told parishioners in Cincinnati that "the next president of the United States will very likely appoint at least one, two, maybe three justices to the United States Supreme Court, and we need to ensure that we have a president that will appoint justices to that court that allow us to continue the march toward equality and justice in America."
Edwards also quoted Martin Luther King Jr., as Kennedy had, and spoke of his upbringing as the son of a mill worker. "I come from a humble background, like many of you come from," Edwards said. "I've been very lucky and very blessed. And I didn't make this march alone. The Lord was with me every step of the way."
He was introduced by the Rev. Donald H. Jordan Sr., who urged the more than 500 present to vote for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, saying he did not care if doing so ran afoul of federal regulations that limit political speech from nonprofit religious institutions.
Williams reported from Philadelphia. Staff writer John Wagner, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.