We Believe Ohio to Challenge Christocrats' Monopoly on Public Space

By JewsOnFirst.org, May 11, 2006

Under the banner of "We Believe Ohio," mainstream clergy in Columbus are organizing their communities to reclaim the public space that two powerful religious right leaders have crowded with anti-gay "moral" issues. Founded late last year, the organization has grown rapidly to include more than 110 Christian and Jewish congregational leaders.

Their goal, said Rev. Tim Ahrens, co-convenor of We Believe Ohio in Columbus, is to make sure "there's room in the public square for a lot more voices than those strong voices" of the religious right.

That space has been appropriated by two local pastors, Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church and Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church. The two are widely credited with turning out the vote for George Bush's narrow victory in Ohio in 2004. They are also credited with propelling Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell to a primary victory last week.

Patriot Pastors
Parsley has risen quickly to national prominence. He is a member of the elite religious right coordinating body, the Arlington Group. He and Johnson have ginned up support from right-wing Christians by focusing on anti-gay issues. They recruit "patriot pastors" who agree to register voters and recruit activists.

Last month 56 Columbus clergy complained to the Internal Revenue Service that Parsley and Johnson are illegally using their tax-exempt organizations to benefit partisan political causes, most notably Blackwell.

Those organizations are powerful. In 2004, said Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ and a leader of the group that filed the complaint, "more people voted for Amendment 1 [a religious-right ballot measure banning same-sex marriage] than voted for Bush."

The real moral issues of the day
"We are living with this every day, watching these two churches," said Rabbi Misha Zinkow of Temple Israel. Zinkow signed the complaint to the IRS and is involved with We Believe Ohio. He told JewsOnFirst that he believes "the real moral issues of the day have been submerged" by Parsley's and Johnson's narrow morality message rather than "poverty and homelessness that religious people should think about."

Ahrens cites a similar list of issues - jobs, housing, health care, education, feeding the hungry -- that We Believe Ohio will emphasize, as sermon topics and political action items.

Getting those issues out into the public square will be a challenge. Ahrens said "We're finding people in churches outside the metropolitan areas who have almost been shut down" by the prevailing religious right attitude "that you're not Christian unless you believe the way they do. That's not true. As Christians we're trying to define a faith and a savior that we believe includes all people."

Williams also emphasized the need to broaden civil discourse so people are able to express opposing views.

Their next wedge issue
He said he believes that Parsley's and Johnson's next "wedge" issue will be banning adoption by homosexual parents. He expressed concern about what would happen to the LGBT men and women in his congregation "if Rev. Johnson has his way."

"Clearly the next six months are going to be critical," Zinkow said,." He said the Jewish community would likely be active in the gubernatorial race.

We Believe Ohio has a goal of getting 80 percent of its members' congregations out to vote in November, Ahrens told JewsOnFirst.

Asked if We Believe Ohio members risked violating their institutions' tax-exempt status, as some have accused Parsley and Johnson of doing, Ahrens replied, "We follow the law. It's not hard at all. We don't invite candidates from only one perspective. We don't close our doors; we open them."

High stakes
We Believe is expanding to other cities in Ohio. A Cleveland group will launch next week and, according to Ahrens, a group is forming in Akron and there's interest in forming a group in Cincinnati.

A statement on We Believe Ohio's website says "the stakes in Ohio are frighteningly high."

TOPIC: Groups, People & Background