2016-07-27
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.

Whiteman, the pastor, disagreed. "I think it's more important the person be competent than that they're a Christian," he said, a remark that Steffy said "frankly comforted" her. Steffy talked several times of her frustration with "single issue" supporters who love the president solely for his Christianity. The week the war began, Steffy said, "I thought, 'This is going to be my last Sunday at church because they're all going to go rah-rah.'" To her surprise, the church had invited four speakers, including a Muslim, to present differing perspectives on Iraq. "It was wonderful," says Steffy.

These views may not sort well with common notions of evangelical attitudes, but that image is often based on the group's southern wing, which is more outspoken and generally more politically engaged. According to a recent poll by U.S. News & World Report and "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," slightly fewer than a third of white evangelicals live in the south. In the north and midwest, "you have a lot of strong religious beliefs, but you don't have a lot of 'Let's go convert people' thinking," says G. Terry Madonna, Pennsylvania's top political guru, who directs the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall.

Certainly, religious devotion is intense in Lancaster. By some estimates, there are more churches per capita here than anywhere in the United States. But here, as in the other swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, and Iowa, evangelical beliefs don't fit neatly into a box. The war in particular has become a wild card. These states contain old-fashioned Protestant cultural (as opposed to ideological) conservatives, who are swayed by the traditions of the "peace churches"-Amish, Mennonite, Brethren and Quakers. "If they're not directly part of it, then they're influenced by it," says religion and politics expert John Green, of the University of Akron in Ohio. "There are pockets like that in all the Midwestern swing states."

Green said Bush has been courting a nearby Ohio Amish community's votes, and in July, the president met privately with about 30 Amish during a campaign trip here.

Other faith groups pay attention to other causes. Members of the Reformed Church in America, strong in western Michigan, aren't happy with the unbalanced federal budget, and emphasize traditionally Democratic social issues like poverty and worker's rights, in addition to abortion. Members of the Holiness tradition, which includes some Methodist, Wesleyan and Nazarene churches, also care about these broader social issues. All these groups have a pro-environment streak, stemming from their belief that Christians should be good stewards of God's creation. Bush's early calls for drilling for oil in Alaska may have disenchanted them.

The Bush team may be getting the message. In extensive nightly national polls, says Green, they have picked up nuanced views suggesting that simple declarations of faith may not be enough to secure evangelicals' votes. In a shift, Bush last week admitted he'd made mistakes in the war.

If evangelicals can be counted on to line up with the GOP, it's on "values" issues. At Lancaster County Bible Church, Don Hershey, the systems analyst, said abortion and gay marriage-issues that "have a biblical basis in terms of right or wrong"-affected him strongly. He said preventing gay marriage has taken precedence lately because he felt, "a lot of progress has been made in the pro-life arena."

Jim Whiteman, the spiritual formation pastor, said he usually bases his vote on abortion. "That baby is a living being, and that's the ultimate non-compassionate response to put that child to death. I get annoyed sometimes that I'm sympathetic to the views of candidates that might be pro-choice. I get pulled in a direction I'm not always comfortable with." Brenda Coffin, the life coach, also called herself pro-life, making exceptions only for incest, rape and the life of the mother.

But even on these core issues, says the pollster Madonna, northern evangelicals can exhibit "a live and let live attitude." Abortion "is not a black and white thing in certain cases," admits Coffin, a view that was echoed by Mary Steffy, who said she is "in favor of life" but conflicted. "Even within the bounds of scripture, the answer is very often 'it depends,'" she said.

Steffy was also conflicted about gay marriage. "I don't believe generally speaking gay people choose to be gay. Why would they choose that, given the price it's going to cost them? I don't like to call it marriage, but I think they have a right to civil liberties."

Ben Donahower, 20, a government major at nearby Franklin & Marshall College and the group's lone Democrat, held a similar view. "Holy matrimony has very distinct religious qualities to it, and I think churches should be opposed to homosexual relationships," he said. "But I also think there are some values you have to give to people as people, and when it comes down to it, they're going to live their lives how they want. We should be trying to effect change in their lives. And then they'll change their behaviors..I think we need to draw a line between what is moral for them as people and what is entitled exclusively to heterosexuals."

Donahower is also pro-life-and, like Whiteman, in a difficult situation when he gets into the voting booth. "I tend to say, "I disagree with your pro-choice position, but all your other issues I do agree with.'" But unlike Whiteman, he said, he ends up "defaulting to the Democrat."

Donahower pointed to "community" as his most crucial value. He lives in a neighborhood where he doesn't know many people, and that situation has led him to think more about the need for better social connections. Among the policy issues that arise from community, he said: smart growth initiatives that curb suburban sprawl, policing, homeland security, and economic development. "Families are bedrock because there is this social capital there where if one person is down another person can be there," Donahower said. "You can also have that on your block or street."

"I consider myself a conservative Christian," Donahower said. "I think you need to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior to make it to the 'nice place.' And I believe in an afterlife. I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and we need to follow it as it's written."

There was a big "but," however. "I find George Bush-and it saddens me as a Christian-hypocritical," Donahower said. "Because he's pro-life. But you have to have a consistent life ethic. Here's a governor who [when he ran Texas] put people to death right and left. Everybody has the opportunity to see the light of truth in God, no matter if they're a hideous criminal. . That inconsistency bothers me. And the war in Iraq isn't pro-life."

As Bush assiduously courts his Christian base, the campaign may have to learn the limits of church support. In June, Pennsylvanians sharply criticized the Bush campaign sending a mass email to evangelical pastors asking to use their church halls for party organizing. "We're going to have some tables and registration forms and that's about the extent of it," Whiteman says of LCBC's voting effort. "But we don't even use the voter guides put together by the Christian organization that puts together the scorecard." The Christian Coalition's well-known voter guide is too partisan, he says.

Bush may also have to attend to some subtle cultural differences. One of the president's most powerful signals to evangelicals is his use of biblical and other religious phrases that strike chords with churchgoers in his part of the world. In his 2003 state of the union address, he spoke of the "wonder-working power" of Americans, echoing a signature Baptist hymn, "There is Power in the Blood." In Lancaster County, most natives, even those at Lancaster County Bible Church are likely never to have heard of "There is Power in the Blood."


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