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When the Rev. John Edgar cast his ballot Tuesday (Sept. 30) as part of Ohio’s early voting program, he had two things in mind: his faith and the economy.
He checked the box for Sen. Barack Obama.
“Particularly with his background as a community organizer, (Obama) will be concerned about what happens to the least of these among our brothers and sisters,” said Edgar, 55, the founding pastor of the United Methodist Church for All People in Columbus.
Like other clergy interviewed for this article, Edgar stressed that he was speaking as a private citizen, and would not use his pulpit for political partisanship.
The Obama campaign is keenly aware that winning Ohio and other crucial Midwest swing states will require the support of a lot more people like Edgar. In fact, for all the talk about Catholic and evangelical voters this campaign, Joshua DuBois, Obama’s director of religious affairs, calls the United Methodist Church the “sleeper” vote.
“It’s a large, diverse denomination with a rich history and significant presence in many key battleground states,” said DuBois. “Methodists have been leaders in connecting the values of faith with the values of public policy, and obviously that’s something Sen. Obama does with great frequency.”
United Methodists make up a relatively small slice — about 3 percent to 9 percent — of the total population of Midwestern states such as Ohio, Indiana and Iowa. The church has a larger presence in the South, where it tends to reflect that region’s conservatism.
In the Midwest, though, mainline Protestants tend to be more centrist, and outnumber evangelicals in many areas. Siphoning off a smidge of these voters could pay large dividends in a close election, political scientists say.
DuBois said the Obama campaign is targeting Midwest United Methodists through town hall meetings, house parties and conference calls with notables like Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a former UMC pastor, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., an active UMC minister.
Sen. John McCain’s campaign refused repeated requests for comments about its faith outreach efforts.
United Methodists are important players in the Midwest, said Mark Silk, co-author of the book “One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Differences Shape American Politics.” And with the GOP’s aggressive courtship of conservative evangelicals, many mainline Protestants are open to new suitors.
“This is really where the action is,” said Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
With about 8 million members in the U.S., the United Methodist Church is the country’s largest mainline Protestant church, but it defies easy categorization. It’s the church of both President Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton; it officially supports abortion rights and affirmative action but opposes gay marriage.
About 47 percent of United Methodists identify as Republicans or lean conservative, while nearly 42 percent say they’re Democrats or lean liberal, according to a study released in June by the non-partisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
In 2004, a solid majority of mainline Protestants (which includes United Methodists) voted for President Bush. This year, more than 35 percent of mainline Protestants say they’re still persuadable, according to John C. Green, a senior fellow at Pew.
The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of a Houston United Methodist megachurch and personal friend of Bush, is working to persuade a few fence-sitters to vote for Obama. Caldwell said Obama embodies Methodism founder John Wesley’s belief in “personal piety and social holiness.”
In his personal life, Obama is an “upstanding citizen who honors his family,” Caldwell said, and in his career, he chose public service over private gain.
“That speaks to the DNA of Wesleyanism: getting involved in the community … letting the word become flesh,” Caldwell said.
Jeanne Van Zoeren, a lay Methodist from Michigan who has stumped for Obama in Indiana and her own state, said the balance of Obama’s social philosophy mirrors Methodism.
“Methodists are very strong in social justice activities,” with individuals reaching out to help the needy, she said. “On the other hand, we also believe, as Barack Obama does, that government has a responsibility for oversight in society.”
Other Midwest United Methodists aren’t sold on Obama.
The Rev. Chet Harris, senior pastor of Dueber United Methodist Church in Canton, Ohio, said the Illinois senator “leans too far toward socialism for me.” Harris said he plans to vote for McCain.
About 200 miles south, at Faith Community Church of West Chester, the Rev. Norm Coleman said he likewise plans to vote for the Arizona senator. “I don’t know about Obama’s Christianity, that’s what brings me into question about him.”
Finally, there are those like the Rev. Ken Chalker, who says he’s uncertain about his ballot but certainly sick of the political advertising bombarding the Buckeye State.
“I am so cynical about it,” said Chalker, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Cleveland. “I know that’s not good, but I am.”
By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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