2016-07-27
Ephrata, Penn.--Last summer Anna Mae Ressler, a GOP committeewoman from this postcard-pretty Pennsylvania town, got a directive from the Republican National Committee: Invite your pastor to a free luncheon to learn the ins and outs of legal political organizing in churches.

Her minister came, as did 100 others from the area, and heard a pitch from a controversial activist named David Barton, author of the book calling separation of church and state a "myth" and founder of Wallbuilders, a Texas group whose goal is "restoring America's religious, moral and Constitutional foundations." While campaign workers handed out registration kits for use in church-based voter drives, Barton presented a slide-show of American monuments, described America's Christian heritage, and explained why he thought it was fine for pastors to endorse President Bush from the pulpit.

"This really is a spiritual battle," says Ressler, who this week is calling the 1,312 Republicans in her precinct, urging them to vote. "The Lord gave President Bush to us in a miraculous way the last time."

This time, though, they're planning to give God some extra help. The churches in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, have conducted massive voter registration drives in their narthexes, handed out sermons and prayer pamphlets, put voting literature in their tract racks, and held weeks-long voter education programs with conservative speakers. They're now gearing up for round-the-clock prayer vigils for the president.

The frenetic activity in Lancaster parallels efforts to mobilize evangelical Christian voters around the nation. The Bush campaign has a goal of mobilizing an additional 4 million evangelical voters this year. Lancaster County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats three to one, is one of nine Pennsylvania counties in this pivotal swing state that the RNC has targeted for a strong showing. The president campaigned here in July; a few weeks later, former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, now a top Bush-Cheney operative, hosted a pastor's luncheon to describe what churches can do legally to register and motivate voters; in September, White House Office of Political Affairs director Matt Schlapp held a closed-door meeting with 275 Lancaster GOP activists.

The first step was voter registration. "Our voter registration people have worked with churches to encourage non-partisan voter registration drives, realizing that we will probably get three-quarters to seven-eighths of them as Republicans," said Lancaster County Republican chairman David Dumeyer, standing outside the Lancaster County GOP trailer at a huge annual agricultural fair.

Ressler spent the fair trying to sign up new voters. "The Christian community sees this as a very pivotal election," said Ressler, a redhead wearing a blouse decorated with American flags. Shaking hands with registered voters as the fragrance of fried oyster sandwiches and funnel cakes drifted nearby, she said: "George Bush is trying to keep alive America's heritage...This business of talking about separation of church and state is so ridiculous because there is no such thing in the constitution."

For the first time in several years, Ressler is calling Republicans in her precinct who never vote, pleading with them to fulfill their civic duty.

After the RNC luncheon last summer, the Worship Center in Leola-which attracts about 1,600 people to its weekend services--organized a voter registration area and offered brochures for a four-week program called Prayer & Patriotism. Though officially non-partisan, the program featured all conservative speakers from groups like the Pennsylvania Family Institute; Faith and Action, whose mission is to "reintroduce the Word of God into the public debate surrounding legislation and policy matters;" and the Rev. Peter Marshall, an evangelist whose ministry focuses on "the urgent necessity of Christians recovering the original American vision."

The Bush campaign gave the county GOP a goal of registering 7,000 new voters. To the surprise of local party officials, they got more than 15,000 registrations--in large part by papering evangelical churches with voter registration forms. "That's the strategy, there isn't any doubt," says G. Terry Madonna, Pennsylvania's top political pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Political Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "That's what the party is telling them to do, and they are following through."

On Election Day, Ressler will coordinate what is called the "striker-caller program." When Republicans who've pledged to vote sign in, their names will be crossed off a list. Late in the day, those who haven't yet shown up will get a phone call. Ressler will also hand out voter guides assembled by a local group affiliated with the Christian Coalition. But, she says, the guides are less important this year than the strategic shift they represent: "George Bush put forth more of an effort in the churches this year."

At Dove Christian Fellowship in Ephrata, another large and politically active church in Lancaster County, members will hold a round-the-clock vigil of "Prayer and Fasting for Our Nation" from Oct. 31 through election day.

For Dumeyer, Ressler, and other Republicans here, reelecting the president has a decidedly missionary feel. Says Dumeyer: "Individuals are giving their own personal witness or testimony as to what they should be doing in order to bring this about."

Why do they feel so strongly about reelecting Bush? Dumeyer has one answer. "God is not indifferent to the United States," Dumeyer says. "There is a reason George Bush is where he is in this time of crisis, and we as Republican committee people, we as officials, our purpose is to deliver the election for George W. Bush. It's a kind of religious fervor you don't often find in politics."

Ressler's reading of the Old Testament shows that "the Bible is intertwined with the government. When Israel rose or fell, they rose or fell because of their government, because of their kings specifically. One bad king could tear the country down. One good king could raise it up....I see that happening in America. I never saw such a fervent desire to keep a man in office as I see with George Bush.. He never says a bad word about anybody, and yet this hatred is pouring out toward him."

And the Christian drumbeat is not just heard in Pennsylvania. Nationwide, dozens of evangelical pastors, conservative Christian lobbying groups, and Republican officials are working to mobilize religious conservatives.

  • In June, the Southern Baptist Convention unveiled its first-ever national voter registration drive, called iVoteValues.com, which includes a website and 18-wheel tractor trailer that has crisscrossed the nation, registering Christian voters.

  • The SBC campaign was adopted by Focus on the Family, whose founder, Dr. James Dobson, is an official endorser of President Bush. In August, Focus on the Family sent a mass mailing to its list of supporters that included two voter registration forms and instructions tailored to the recipient's state.
  • An Alabama gastroenterologist, R. Randolph Brinson, started a group called "Redeem the Vote." Based on the MTV effort, "Rock the Vote," Brinson's group features 35 Christian rock artists urging youth to vote. Though it is officially non-partisan, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican and a former Southern Baptist minister, is chairman of Redeem the Vote's advisory committee. The committee includes Jim Turnham, former chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party--but it also includes former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Ned Ryun, a former Bush Presidential writer and twin brother of Drew Ryun, the RNC's evangelical outreach coordinator.

  • Brannon S. Howse, founder of the rapidly growing and controversial "Worldview Weekends," is also involved. Worldview Weekends, which feature speakers such as David Barton and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, encourage Christians to overturn the separation of church and state and bring government under religious control. This year, Howse created a website called VoteChristianWorldview.com that features a photo of Barton on its homepage and a series of photos of Howse and his family visiting with President Bush at the White House. The website invites visitors to sign up for an email newsletter on "how you can help and pray for President Bush this election year."

  • The American Tract Society also affiliated with Redeem the Vote, is distributing get out the vote tracts-even at the Pentagon, where they are displayed in 32 racks throughout the complex.
  • Back in Lancaster, Dumeyer says local committee people will also be handing out values-based or even specifically Christian literature in their precincts as a way to urge constituents to vote.

    And all of these efforts, so far, seem to be working. When Pennsylvania's voter registration closed Oct. 4, Lancaster County had about 180,000 registered Republicans, while Democrats had about 80,000. The GOP even launched an unprecedented voter registration drive among the Amish, who don't usually vote-and managed to register at least 2,000 in Lancaster alone.

    Still, the Bush-Cheney campaign has charged Lancaster's GOP with delivering a whopping 125,000 votes for the president in order to offset support for Kerry in Democratic-leaning Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. An Oct. 12 Quinnipiac University poll showed the race neck and neck in Pennsylvania, with Kerry ahead of President Bush 49 percent to 47 percent.

    White evangelical Protestants, who are leaning 4 to 1 toward Bush in opinion polls, make up 20 to 25 percent of the electorate, or about 50 million potential voters, according to the Barna Research Center. Of those 50 million Christian voters, 57% voted for George W. Bush and 42% voted for Al Gore. Republicans are trying to change that number.

    People like Ressler remain key to the cause. Fifteen years ago, she got into political organizing, when, she said, "the Lord directed me" to the committeewoman post. "I've used these years to try to see that we get good, godly Christian people into office, and I've been successful, because I can point to an awful lot of people I've helped into office around here that honor God and obey God and worship God." She later served on the state GOP committee.

    At the agricultural fair, people were standing in line five deep near the GOP voter registration trailer to fill out their forms. Across the street, Hinkletown Mennonite Church was serving dinner from its trailer, dubbed "The Lord's Fair Share." On the menu were deviled clam patties, birch beer, and a sandwich called the "farm women's special," which included a hamburger, fried ham, lettuce, cheese, tomato, onion, and mayonnaise.

    Krysta Zola waited in line, hoping to score a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker. "I'm very Republican, but it's kind of new because I didn't pay attention to the news until now," said the 18-year-old hair stylist.

    At her church, she had heard her pastor oppose gay marriage and abortion and urge members to register. She knew she would follow the directive, believing what her pastor said was true. But her pastor, it turns out, had a backup: The local GOP had a grassroots team of Bush volunteers, and her boss's husband was part of it. He told her he would earn a Bush-Cheney pullover sweater if she'd register to vote. She said yes.


    Join Beliefnet Today!

    more from beliefnet and our partners