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Election 2008

Electing Religion in Ohio

Mhari Saito

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Northeast Ohio Values Voter director Diane Stover
(Diane Stover)
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In the afterglow of the 2004 election, Ohio's evangelical movement was re-energized. It finally seemed like the country's leaders were paying attention to socially conservative values: a pro-life, small government and anti-gay marriage world view. In the spring of 2005, more than a thousand ministers filled the pews of the World Harvest Church, a mega-church surrounded by cornfields in central Ohio.

"For too long the values that we have held dear have been trampled underfoot while we are the largest special interest group in Ohio and in America," preached pastor Rod Parsley. "Today, I for one say enough is enough."

Parsley was talking to religious leaders about what role they could play in hardball politics. Their eyes were set on the 2006 Ohio governor's race. And even though conservative ministers like Parsley carefully avoided official endorsements, it was clear their guy was Ken Blackwell. He came to national prominence as Ohio's controversial chief elections official in 2004. He is known to carry a Bible to events. But Blackwell was looking to lead his state at the wrong time. Scandals among Republican leaders at the federal and state levels were starting to anger voters. A few days before the election, some Buckeye evangelicals like Reverend Richard Nathan broke ranks over the war in Iraq.

"Many evangelicals are saying how did it come to be that we who claim to follow the prince of peace are the staunchest advocate of war of any demographic group in America?" Nathan asked from his pulpit. "And even those of us who come from a just war tradition are beginning to say how can some of our recent wars be just?"

Blackwell lost, scoring only 39 percent of the vote. And Ohio's religious right found themselves under attack. Liberal ministers filed a complaint with the IRS, alleging that two Ohio pastors were using their churches for partisan politics. One of them was Pastor Russell Johnson. He won't talk about a possible IRS investigation. But he says conservative evangelicals are still a force to be reckoned with in Ohio.

"We believe we are citizen soldiers here on the home front, and we need to get ready, get ready to vote," he says.

The problem for values voters in 2008 is who to rally around. Fifty-year-old business woman Diane Stover spends most of her free time studying the Presidential candidates. She shares what she learns with her email list of nearly 1000 voters, people who say they are looking for candidates that share their moral beliefs--and not necessarily Republicans.

"The party has let us down on the values side, but we're holding out hope," Stover says.

Stover sits in her suburban Cleveland home. On her fridge sits her favorite red coffee mug, with the words "Culture Warrior" printed on the side. She got it from Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly's website. She doesn't actually drink coffee out of it. She keeps it around as a reminder of what's important to her.

"There's a battle going on between the progressive way of thinking and the traditional way of thinking. And I got the mug - I think it's a good one for me," she says.

Stover's been watching the political chess game on the right as evangelical leaders throw their support behind different candidates. And she's already thinking hard about her toughest scenario: having to choose between a Democrat like Hillary Clinton and a pro-choice Republican like Rudy Giuliani.

"If he were the nominee, I wouldn't be jumping up and down all excited," she admits. "He wouldn't be representing the values I have, but I'd push the button for him if it's him and Hillary Clinton."

Judging by the bumper sticker on Stover's car, she's most interested in former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. The ordained Baptist minister is the dark horse, now moving ahead in the polls, thanks in part to support from values voters.

"He doesn't have the money of other candidates--but when he can get his message out, that's what they want to hear, and look, he's surging," Stover says. "So America's largest voting bloc does have an opportunity to put people in office."

At least, that's what values voters are hoping to show in 2008. The question for Stover is whether a conservative candidate like Huckabee can survive the early primaries. Ohio's presidential primary isn't until March 4th of next year, a month or more after many states will have already voted.

More stories from our Election 2008 series

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