Despite the subsequent controversy over widespread abnormalities on Election Day 2004, late in the evening of November 2, Ohio voters had delivered the final dart to the heart of the presidential hopes of Senator John Kerry. Since then, Christian evangelical ministers in Ohio have teamed up to form a network that will build on their constituency's extensive contribution to President Bush's victory, as well as the passage of Issue 1 -- an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. The goal: help Christian conservatives take over the state's Republican Party.
The Rev. Rod Parsley and the Rev. Russell Johnson are key players in the effort to wrest control of the GOP from so-called Party moderates. Their job has been made easier by the fact that Republican Party officials have been enmeshed in a series of political scandals, including the state's Republican Governor, Bob Taft. (For more on the governor's troubles, see, MoveOnTaft.org, a website jointly established by the conservative American Policy Roundtable and the liberal Ohio Citizen Action.)
Americans must be “Christocrats” -- citizens of both their country and the Kingdom of God -- the Rev. Rod Parsley told his congregation at the World Harvest Church, located just outside Columbus, Ohio. “And that is not a democracy; that is a theocracy,” he said. “That means God is in control, and you are not.”
Headed by Rev. Parsley, a 48-year-old televangelist and author, the World Harvest Church, described by The Columbus Dispatch, as “a nondenominational congregation with a regular weekly attendance” of between 10,000-12,000, is one of many politicized megac66hurches popping up all across the country.
The World Harvest Church's Center for Moral Clarity has launched a three-year project called Reformation Ohio. “Its goals,” according to the Columbus-based newspaper, “are to register 400,000 new voters, organize black Ohioans who share conservative views on issues such as gays and abortion, and conduct get out-the vote rallies, all while leading 100,000 Ohioans to Jesus.”
In suburban Columbus, the Rev. Johnson, the senior pastor of the evangelical Fairfield Christian Church, was busy recruiting 2,000 “Patriot Pastors” to get out the evangelical vote for the Ohio primary in May 2006.
According to the Cleveland Jewish News, the Rev. Johnson sees “the 2006 election as an apocalyptic clash between a virtuous Christianity and the evildoers who oppose Christianity's values.”
“This is a battle between the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell,” says the Rev. Johnson on his church's website, urging other evangelical clergy to get into the political fray and get involved with the electoral process.
“Before the 2004 presidential election,” the Cleveland Jewish News reported that the Rev. Johnson “denounced tax-supported schools that have banned the teaching of creationism, Bible reading and prayer. He blasted the ‘pagan left’ for its warfare against the very definition of marriage. He decried ‘homosexual rights’ that will come with ‘a flood of demonic oppression.’”
Rev. Johnson envisions a Christian America. “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 wrote on his church website.
Both the Rev. Parsley and the Rev. Johnson are close to J. Kenneth Blackwell, the controversial Ohio Secretary of State, himself entangled in a series of controversies revolving around the November 2004 presidential election. Since Governor Bob Taft cannot run for re-election due to term limits, Blackwell has declared himself as one of several Republican candidates for the state house.
“Health and Wealth” Theology
The Rev. Parsley is not a newcomer to politics; “in the late 1980s, his church picketed the Bexley Art Theater” because they were showing “what Parsley said were obscene films . . .[and] World Harvest members protested when the gay advocacy group Stonewall Union was allowed to hand out literature at the Ohio State Fair,” The Columbus Dispatch reported.
During the November 2004 election, the Rev. Parsley “took a leading role in the push to pass Issue 1.”
“Parsley advocates what some call ‘health and wealth’ theology,” The Columbus Dispatch reported. His theology “emphasizes that the Bible teaches that God wants people to prosper financially and physically. The latter is tied to belief in the power of God's word to heal.”
Rev. Parsley is certainly prospering financially.
Operating on an annual budget of $38.5 million, Rev. Parsley's ministries include his nondenominational church; a school and Bible college; his television show, Breakthrough; the Center for Moral Clarity; a mission program and a ministerial fellowship. According to The Columbus Dispatch's survey of the auditor's records of Franklin County, “the church/school complex has been appraised at about $26 million, and the nearby Bible college campus is worth nearly $2 million.” In addition, according to Fairfield County auditor records, Parsley's estate, which “also includes the home of his parents,” is appraised at nearly $2 million.
The Columbus Dispatch described the Church's operations:
* The Harvest Preparatory School “has about 700 students, offers classes for preschool through 12th grade and is on the church grounds on Gender Road.”
* The World Harvest Bible College was founded in 1990 and has about 500 students. “The college grants a diploma of arts in religion . . . [and] is sanctioned by the state under the Board of Proprietary School Registration, which oversees private technical schools and vocational schools.”
* Breakthrough began as a weekly program in Newark, Ohio in the early 1980s and is now broadcast daily on 1,400 stations around the world, becoming “a staple” of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, whose website claims it is “Largest Worldwide Religious Network.”
During program breaks, the Rev. Parsley pitches for donations, offering viewers copies of his latest book Silent No More, “and five DVDs of his sermons for $50.” He also requests money for a project he calls the Bridge of Hope, which helps the poor both in the US and overseas. (In mid-April, Parsley kicked off a multi-state book tour with an event at his church, where Ann Coulter and Alan Keyes joined him.)
“The show also touts a Breakthrough prepaid debit card. A part of the banking fees goes to Parsley's ministry every time the holder uses it.”
* Parsley has also developed the World Harvest Ministerial Alliance, “through which clergy members can pay to become affiliated.” A person can be ordained for $300; for those already ordained, $150 secures a membership in the 2,000-member group.
Parsley has refused to reveal his own personal wealth and the church has not responded to requests for financial information from Ministry Watch, a North Carolina-based organization gathering “financial information on religious organizations that solicit money nationwide.”
Rod Pitzer, the research director at Ministry Watch, told The Columbus Dispatch that, “World Harvest's refusal to provide financial data should be a ‘red flag,’ and he urges people not to donate to Parsley.” Of the slightly over 500 ministries currently being profiled by Ministry Watch, only 29 have refused to cooperate. Amongst the 29 are some big-name ministers, including Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Tim LaHaye, and Kenneth Hagin.
“We look at it from the standpoint of donors,” he said. “It's appalling not to give out additional information and just to be totally transparent, especially in this day and age. Any reasons not to do that are truly just an excuse.”
In late August, Ministry Watch has issued recommendations that donors withhold giving to the Benny Hinn Ministries, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
The Ohio Restoration Project
In late March, the New York Times reported that the newly established Ohio Restoration Project was “planning to mobilize 2,000 evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic leaders into a network of so-called Patriot Pastors to register half a million new voters, enlist activists, train candidates and endorse conservative causes in the next year.”
“In Ohio, the church is awakening to its historic role as the moral voice in the community,” Colin A. Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative group based in Pennsylvania that trains ministers in political activism, told the New York Times. “Ohio is in the vanguard of that nationally. I very much want Pennsylvania to be with them.”
The man behind the Patriot Pastors mobilization is the Rev. Russell Johnson. In a letter originally posted on the web site of his Fairfield Christian Church, Rev. Johnson asked 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.” Johnson added, “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.”
According to the Cleveland Jewish News, the ORP is planning what they call “Patriot Pastor policy briefings” in eight cities, including Cleveland and Canton/Akron. “The pastors are expected to host voter-registration drives in their churches. They will distribute voter guides provided by the Christian Coalition and the Center for Moral Clarity, to clarify the positions of various candidates, who at times, would like to remain vague and noncommittal,” the ORP website states.
The non-profit Patriot Pastors intend to raise a $1 million war chest in order to “build a database of 300,000 postal addresses and 100,000 e-mail addresses to recruit a network of like-minded Christian voters to be 21st-century Minutemen. These volunteers would help transport the elderly to the polls, provide childcare so parents can vote, and assist with voter registration drives and rallies,” the Cleveland Jewish News reported.
While the ORP plan says that it will not specifically endorse candidates, it will invite Blackwell to speak at pastoral meetings and to a statewide Ohio for Jesus rally scheduled for next spring. Along with the homegrown Rev. Parsley, other national Christian evangelical leaders to be invited include the Rev. Franklin Graham, Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson and the Prison Fellowship Ministries Charles Colson.
Party officials, embroiled in a series of political scandals, are watching with a wary eye. Robert T. Bennett, the Chairman of the state party, told the New York Times that, “This is a party of a big tent. The far right cannot elect somebody by itself, any more than somebody from the far left can.”
The Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the New York Times that the Ohio Restoration Project might have a significant impact: “This represents a new wave in organizing on the part of conservative evangelicals. From my standpoint, as someone who doesn't agree with their conclusions, this is a more dangerous model.”
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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