Ohio pastor Russell Johnson is girding for a battle of biblical proportions.
“There is a warfare for the heart and soul of America,” says Johnson, pastor of a burgeoning fundamentalist Christian congregation in Lancaster. “This is a battle between the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell. Millions of souls weigh in the balance and the church stands at the Critical Crossroads of history.”
What is Pastor Johnson’s strategy for addressing this crisis? He and an array of powerful Religious Right leaders across Ohio are trying to form a church-based political machine to dominate the state Republican Party and eventually seize control of the governor’s office and other governmental posts.
Called the “Ohio Restoration Project,” Johnson’s scheme seeks to enlist 2,000 “Patriot Pastors” to help spread the church’s message of a society in moral jeopardy and to register at least 300,000 new voters before the state’s 2006 elections.
In a letter originally posted on the web site of his Fairfield Christian Church, the pastor asks supporters to “pray that God will raise up a harvest of Patriot Pastors who are dedicated to making a difference in this hour of American history.” Furthermore, Johnson wrote, “what happens in Ohio in the next 18 months could very well make an impact on what happens in America in the next 20-30 years.”
Johnson’s project has caught the attention of state and national media, as well as some of the country’s leading Religious Right figures. In late March, The New York Times devoted extensive coverage to the plan.
In Johnson’s view, the state’s GOP has done too little to advance the Religious Right agenda, which he sees as bringing organized religion back into the public schools and rolling back all kinds of civil rights advances. He told the Times that Ohio’s Republican Party “is out of touch with its base” and “acts as if it lives in Boston, Mass.”
Johnson is working hard to change the GOP’s orientation. His congregation of about 2,500 has already opened the church’s doors to the Fairfield County Republican Party’s apparatus. In early March, the Republican Party Central Committee conducted a “special meeting” at the church to fill precinct vacancies. In mid April, the Fairfield Republicans held a “Reagan Dinner” fund-raiser at the church, at which Fox News Channel pundit and former U.S. congressman John Kasich provided the keynote address.
Moreover, the Lancaster Eagle Gazette noted in an early April piece that several members of Johnson’s church have already ascended to public office, including a county judge, the county sheriff and at least three city councilmen.
Steve Davis, chairman of the Fairfield County Republicans, told the newspaper, “It’s been very helpful for the churches to help spread the word.”
Pastor Johnson is not alone in his quest to influence the outcome of elections and advance the Religious Right agenda. According to reports in several Ohio newspapers, including The Columbus Dispatch and the Toledo Blade, other prominent religious conservatives are coordinating with the Lancaster pastor.
Rod Parsley, an Ohio televangelist whom the Times describes as “a rising star in the religious broadcasting world,” is on board with Johnson. Parsley opened his mega-church, in Canal Winchester, just outside Columbus, to the Ohio Restoration Project on May 9 for a prayer breakfast to help recruit Patriot Pastors. The Dispatch reported that the event, the third in a series of similar meetings, lasted more than four hours and was attended by Johnson, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.
“Our nation is in crisis,” Parsley told his audience of more than 1,000 Ohio pastors. “The moral foundations…are crumbling around us.”
Like Johnson, Parsley, pastor of the World Harvest Church and founder of a Religious Right lobbying group called the Center for Moral Clarity (CMC), is confident that evangelicals made the difference in the 2004 general elections. He is just as determined to rouse more of them to become intimately involved in politics in the future. He also shares Johnson’s strident views on the state of American values.
For Parsley, a tall man with a bellicose preaching style, the outcome of the 2004 general elections, where 11 states, including Ohio, passed anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments, the timing for a re-energized Religious Right movement could not be better.
“What we saw in that election was that conservatives shined the light and the majority of Americans agreed with those values far more readily than they did with the values of the liberal left,” Parsley told the Dispatch earlier this year.
According to The New YorkTimes, Parsley “will be an inspirational speaker” for Johnson’s Restoration Project. Parsley’s CMC web site claims that his Columbus church has 12,000 members and offers television broadcasts that are seen by millions.
The Ohio Restoration Project has also won the support of several Religious Right heavyweights, including James Dobson, who hope to strengthen their influence in the nation’s heartland. Dobson and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, have signed on to attend more events to help Johnson and Parsley.
John C. Green, a professor of political science at Ohio’s Akron University, told Church & State that Johnson and Parsley are, in varying degrees, influential figures within the state’s conservative religious communities.
Green described Johnson’s Fairfield church as “a bit more active in political matters than most churches” and “known as a successful congregation in religious terms.” Parsley’s CMC was founded last year, Green said, and “is influential among evangelicals in Ohio and elsewhere; Johnson is probably a bit less so, but reasonably well known in the state.”
If Johnson’s project is able to “achieve its ambitious goals,” Green said it could have a major impact on the governor’s race.
“Evangelicals and other religious conservatives will surely be a factor if the GOP primary remains a three-way race,” he said.
One of the Ohio Restoration Project’s top goals is to elect Blackwell, described in the media as the most conservative among the GOP gubernatorial candidates.
Beyond sending a staunch conservative to the governor’s mansion in Columbus, members of the Restoration Project are also aiming to become big-time players among the nation’s Religious Right leaders.
Parsley, in particular, is looking to make a national name for himself, and his CMC’s web site is heavily devoted to congressional issues, such as packing the federal courts with socially conservative jurists and passing a federal anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The CMC’s web site proclaims, in a promotion of Parsley’s Silent No More book, that the pastor’s “entire life and ministry” have prepared him to lead “a moral reformation of America.”
On April 16, Parsley kicked off a multi-state book tour with a rally at his church, where prominent ultra-conservative pundits Ann Coulter and Alan Keyes joined him. According to a Columbus Dispatch account of the event, Parsley, Coulter and Keyes “argued that the notion of separation of church and state is a lie – and that it’s time for conservative Christians and ‘values voters’ to be more involved in” politics.
Indeed, according to the newspaper, Parsley bellowed, “We are the largest special-interest group in America, and the world and the nation are about to find out that we have a voice.”
In an April 5 promotion of his book, Parsley sounded as shrill, if not more so, than televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. According to the e-mail missive, “America is facing its most dangerous hour…a threat far greater than another terrorist attack on our shores, a nuclear holocaust or chemical warfare.” So buy his Silent No More book, the promotion urges, and help the televangelist “reclaim this nation.”
And this most dire threat emanates from, according to Parsley’s e-mail, “the infiltration of the enemy into our very legal system, and of course, the homosexual agenda and the deception of Islam and Allah.” (In his book, Parsley writes, that he “will rail against the idea that the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same thing.”)
Another statewide Religious Right group, called Citizens for Community Values (CCV), is joining in Johnson’s ambitious project. According to Johnson, God is using CCV President Phil Burress to pass anti-gay laws and take other actions to protect “Biblical marriage.” The Gay People’s Chronicle, a Cleveland newspaper, wrote recently that Burress has spearheaded “nearly every” anti-gay action in Ohio for more than a decade. In late June, Burress told the Dispatch that his group would provide training for up to 1,000 Christian conservative activists from Ohio’s 88 counties to help Johnson’s project.
Johnson sees a nation gone awry. He blames public schools, arguing that the nation’s youth must be taught Religious Right values and hopes the Ohio Restoration Project will prove a model for other states to follow in fighting the nation’s alleged ills.
In the letter initially posted on his church’s web site, Johnson argued that the nation’s culture has “become increasingly pagan” and the stakes in turning the tide are enormous. Johnson insisted on the need to “restore godly principles in culture.”
“Restoring the teaching of biblical creation to children is a foundational truth that is essential to a vibrant faith,” Johnson wrote. “Reclaiming the teaching of our Christian heritage among America’s youth is paramount to a sense of national destiny that God has invested into this nation.”
Johnson’s original letter describing the Ohio Restoration Project ticked off a string of supposed injustices. Those included public schools that “have banned Creation, Bible reading, and prayer” and the advancement of civil rights for gays that “make inroads with every passing week and with it will come a flood of demonic oppression.”
Johnson cannot simply rail against what he and his followers believe are the nation’s sins. More must be done, he wrote.
“The Ohio Restoration Project is an effort to enlist Patriot Pastors to shine a light in the dark hour,” proclaims Johnson. In both his letter, which was subsequently removed from the church’s web site, and in information posted on the Ohio Restoration Project’s web site, Johnson provides greater detail of his goals.
(The removal of the letter from the church’s web site and the creation of a separate Ohio Restoration Project web site suggests Johnson was clued in to the fact that federal tax law prohibits nonprofits, secular or religious, from endorsing candidates for public office. But nowhere on the Restoration Project’s web site is there detail about the group’s set-up or whether donations are tax deductible. The web site lists Johnson as Chairman of the Board and Debbie Smalley as the Project’s president.)
The issue of same-sex marriage is also a major concern for many members of the Restoration Project. Last year, Parsley, along with the CCV, helped mobilize and win support of a state constitutional amendment. The measure, State Issue 1, banned same-sex marriage and civil unions in the state. Shortly before the November elections, Parsley told the Dispatch that failure to amend the state constitution would lead to “the most horrific untested social experiment in human history.”
Emboldened by the victory of State Issue 1 and the re-election of Bush, Johnson, Parsley and others in the Buckeye State are convinced that they can propel other social conservatives to public office in 2006.
Johnson’s Restoration Project will lobby churches statewide to provide forums, help buy advertising and distribute voter guides for candidates that support the Religious Right’s agenda.
Johnson and Parsley, despite their claims to be involved in nonpartisan voter education, have had difficulty appearing neutral in political matters.
In fact, both preachers are unabashedly promoting Blackwell for governor over the other two Republican gubernatorial candidates, state Attorney General Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery. Blackwell, who will face Petro and Montgomery in the state’s March 2006 primary, is cited several times on the Restoration Project’s web site. Part of the Project’s efforts to influence the 2006 races include “Pastor Policy Briefings” in cities such as Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Akron and Toledo, and an “Ohio for Jesus Rally,” scheduled for early 2006.
Starting this spring, the Project plans to launch “Ohio for Jesus” advertising, which is to entail 30-second radio spots “featuring Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.” The “Pastor Policy Briefings,” moreover, are to be held from March through September 2005 and “feature prominent, dynamic Christian leaders.”
Additionally, the leaders of the Restoration Project are seeking to hold the Jesus rally at the Nationwide Arena, a 20,000-seat stadium in Columbus, and to feature the Rev. Franklin Graham, Parsley or Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship “in honoring James Dobson, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Tony Perkins and Phil Burress for their contribution to the Cause of Christ and their stand for Biblical marriage.”
Ultimately, the Restoration Project, according to the web site material, hopes to distribute four million voter guides in fall 2005 “for first the May Primaries in 2006 and then for November 2006,” and circulate videotapes of the pastor briefings to “7,497 Ohio Pastors.”
During 2004, Parsley campaigned across the state coordinating rallies for the anti-gay marriage amendment and on at least one occasion was joined by Blackwell. In a CMC press statement following the 2004 elections, Parsley lauded Blackwell for lending “his voice to the cause and call” of his CMC campaign.
And earlier this year, Parsley invited Blackwell to his Columbus church to join U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and other national Religious Right leaders and supporters “in celebration of the national effort to fight for moral values,” according to a Jan. 14 press release from Jones’s office.
Jones has long-championed legislation that would allow churches to function as political organizations while maintaining their nonprofit tax breaks. He used the occasion to trumpet his church-politicking bill (H.R. 235) and proclaim that he looked “forward to working with Pastor Parsley as we join together to restore faith and values to America.”
Johnson’s efforts have rattled some in the Ohio Republican Party and apparently already influenced the most moderate of the gubernatorial nominees to choose a far-right running mate.
The Ohio Republican Party Chairman Robert T. Barnett told the Times that his party’s dominance in the state could be imperiled if it became beholden to a single part of its base. Barnett claimed his party was “a big tent” and suggested that the “far right cannot elect somebody by itself, any more than somebody from the far left can.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the Ohio Restoration Project a troubling “new wave” on the part of Religious Right activists to use houses of worship to elect politicians.
“These groups are blatant about pushing houses of worship into the political process,” Lynn said. “They are equally candid about their desire to see other states follow their lead. They see this project as the start of a new national effort to make the country officially Christian. This movement could be potentially more harmful to church-state separation than the decades-long work of televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.”