Swing State Evangelicals

Evangelicals in the North and Midwest will still vote for Bush--but they are not going to behave like happy Texas Baptists.

BY: Deborah Caldwell

 

Manheim, Penn.-The mammoth Lancaster County Bible Church sits like a shopping mall alongside a four-lane highway that cuts across Pennsylvania's green countryside. The mega-church with more than 4,000 members boasts its own Starbucks-style café, a bookstore and gigantic parking lot with its own waste-water management plant and volunteer traffic control monitors.



The church's senior pastor, David Ashcraft, is a graduate of the nondenominational Dallas Theological Seminary, perhaps the most conservative seminary in the nation. His flock takes Scripture seriously, describing the Bible in the church's bylaws as "inerrant in the original writings.and final authority in faith and life." Members believe Christ will return in the clouds at the Rapture, gather up all born-again Christians, and condemn the unsaved to hell. To join, members sign a statement confessing their personal faith in Jesus Christ.

LCBC is precisely the sort of place President Bush counts as a bastion of support in his effort to take this battleground state from John Kerry this fall. On paper, the task seems simple: the community surrounding the church is among the most Republican in the nation: the GOP holds a 3-1 edge among Lancaster County's 350,000 residents. If the Republicans can urge these voters to the polls on Nov. 2, Pennsylvania, which went to Al Gore by five percentage points in 2000, will go back into the win column.

Groups like LCBC's congregation are the key. "They don't want to just win the evangelical vote, they want to win it big," says religion and politics expert John Green of the University of Akron. "The campaign perceives evangelicals as a group where they have to pump up the vote."

Yet during a visit to LCBC on the eve of the Republican National Convention, Beliefnet found that however conservative their theology, the church's members are not ready to defer to conventional wisdom. Questioned about abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research and other issues the GOP expects to sway evangelicals, a small group who agreed to discuss their voting preferences saved their most heated debate for the war in Iraq.

"I'm a registered Republican, but I'm overwhelmingly against the war," said Mary Steffy, 57. "America is responsible for killing far more people than were killed on 9/11. And my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to pay for this war."

For our conversation, Steffy, a mother of two and grandmother of six who directs Lancaster's mental health advocacy group, was joined by four other parishioners-a systems analyst, a spiritual formation pastor, a college student, a life coach, and stay-at-home mother. One is a Democrat, four are registered Republicans--three of whom plan to vote for the president this year. Steffy, who voted for Gore four years ago, is the sole Republican who says she won't vote for Bush in November.

Steffy's strong misgivings about the war were answered by Don Hershey, 44, the systems analyst, who called it "totally necessary" to combat terrorism. The other participants were less certain. "If Bush knew then what he knows now, I don't know whether he'd choose to do what he did," said Jim Whiteman, 45, the church's spiritual formation pastor. "I wasn't an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion of Iraq, but I wasn't against it." Brenda Coffin, 45, the life coach, said she believes Bush "did the right thing in protecting us," though later in the conversation she added, "the war went a little out of control" and said "there's room for improvement."

Surprisingly, given how often we hear that evangelicals support the president's outspoken faith, Coffin was the only participant who liked Bush's public religiosity. "It's great to have someone who isn't afraid to include God in his speech, and to show that in his issues and the way he conducts himself and what he stands for," she said.

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