Monday, July 17, 2006

Megachurches build a Republican base

Megachurches build a Republican base
By Andrea Hopkins

LANCASTER, Ohio (Reuters) - It's not Sunday but Fairfield Christian Church is packed. Hundreds of kids are making their way to vacation Bible school, parents are dropping in at the day-care center and yellow-shirted volunteers are everywhere, directing traffic. In one wing of the sprawling church, a coffee barista whips up a mango smoothie while workers bustle around the cafeteria.

"There are people here from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day -- sometimes later," senior pastor Russell Johnson says as he surveys the activity.

The 4,000 members of Fairfield Christian are part of the growing evangelical Christian movement in middle America. In a March survey, a quarter of Ohio residents said they were evangelicals -- believing that a strict adherence to the Bible and personal commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ will bring salvation.

The fastest-growing faith group in America, evangelical Christians have had a growing impact on the nation's political landscape, in part because adherents believe conservative Christian values should have a place in politics -- and they support politicians who agree with them.

In that March survey, more than 82 percent of the Ohio evangelicals who attend church at least once a week said they approve of bringing more religion into politics.

"Christians stepped back too far. I prayed in school but my kids can't pray in school," said volunteer Lisa Sexton, 42, a Bible school volunteer. "I should have spoken up earlier."

Political analyst John Green said evangelical growth has had a major political impact in Ohio, a key swing state that narrowly decided President George W. Bush's election victory in 2004.

"Evangelical Protestants have become much more Republican in recent times, although 40 or 50 years ago more of them were Democrats," said Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

"There was a particular intensification of evangelical links to the Republican Party during the Bush administration in 2000 and 2004."


Sexton believes every word in the Bible, rejects evolution theory, and supports the Iraq war, the Republican Party and Bush -- in part because he is a born-again Christian.

"I trust his opinion because of his beliefs," she said.

Signs of growth are everywhere at Fairfield Christian. The facilities will soon encompass 325,000 square feet -- about twice the size of an average Wal-Mart superstore.

Outside one window a jackhammer pounds away, part of an endless construction cycle at the suburban church about 30 miles southeast of Columbus. At the North Campus, 16 miles (26 km) away the main facility, there is another church, 41 acres for baseball, soccer and recreation, and plans for a retirement center.

Johnson seems involved in it all as he tours around the main church, greeting everyone by name. The pastor also is chairman of the Ohio Restoration Project, a faith-based group that wants to increase the role of religion in public life.

In that role, Johnson is being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service for possible violations of a law that prohibits churches and charities from participating in political campaigns. He denies breaking any law.

Church members are supportive.

"I appreciate the fact that the church is politically involved," said Kyle Hatfield, a 30-year-old father of two who believes the separation of church and state has gone too far.

"It was not our forefathers' intention to prevent churches from being involved," he said. "Our forefathers did not want to force people to belong to a church, but that has been tweaked to mean churches cannot be involved."