Religious Ohioans warm to Romney

Chris Togneri
| Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — The Rev. Homer Harden says he never mixes politics and the pulpit. This election cycle won't be any different.

“Billy Graham was one of my heroes, and he never told people who to vote for,” said Harden, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “He encouraged people to vote, to educate themselves about the candidates and issues, but he wouldn't push one candidate or the other. I thought that was good advice.”

Yet Harden and his 167 church members will seek higher guidance before voting Nov. 6 for either President Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

“Before they get in that booth, they're going to stop and say a little prayer,” Harden said.

In this crucial swing state, many look to the revived auto industry or to Hamilton County's role as a bellwether, or to how the candidates' messages play with blue-collar workers in the state's northeast manufacturing hub.

Few people talk about the religious vote in places such as St. Clairsville in Belmont County, across the Ohio River from West Virginia.

Traditionally a Democratic stronghold, the county might vote for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in 40 years, analysts and residents say.

“That area is definitely trending Republican,” said Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University. “I think Obama is seen as sort of a radical, and that could be problematic with culturally conservative voters. They might be in the habit of voting Democrat, but they're more like Archie Bunker voters. He was in a union, but he had no use for those on the far left. Maybe that's what's going on in Belmont County.”

Romney's Mormon faith, which many people acknowledge they do not fully understand, appears to be a non-factor among supporters.

Jeff Vrotto, 39, who runs a small woodworking business, said “the Book of Mormon is kind of out there,” but not so far out that he'd vote for Obama.

“Obama hasn't done anything for us in four years,” Vrotto said. “I'm not voting for him, and I'm a Democrat. Taxes are too high under him. Romney has to win and repeal Obamacare.”

Sheila Smith, 59, who owns a home care agency, is another registered Democrat who will vote for Romney, albeit with reservations.

She backed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and said she prefers his strict conservatism. Smith staunchly opposes abortion and gay marriage, and does not understand churchgoers who support either.

“Yes, there are religious people who will vote for Obama. I don't know if it's because they think it's OK to kill babies and allow gays and lesbians to get married, which is blatantly wrong,” Smith said. “There are people out there who go to church but basically do anything they want. Then there are people who walk the walk.

“We are Bible-believing Christians in this area, and we are very concerned about the Democratic push towards liberalism.”

Smith believes the Mormon faith is “a debauched religion,” but she considers Obama the most damaging president in American history.

“He tells people what they want to hear while sliding the knife into their backs,” she said. “He wants a complete transformation of the country from a republic over to Marxism. Bible-believing Christians understand this.

“I have children and grandchildren, and I'm scared to death for them.”

She is not alone.

Alisa Turnewitsch, like others here, erected a sign in her yard reading: “Stop the War on Coal. Fire Obama.”

Though it accurately expresses her disdain for the president, it's “not good enough,” she said. “I've been looking on eBay for a sticker that says, ‘America' so I can place it over the ‘coal' part because Obama's done much more damage than that. He's waging a war on America, not just coal.”

Turnewitsch thinks Obama is killing the American dream.

“He's taking away people's initiative. He wants to create sponges instead of hard-working Americans. He's transforming the country, and it's scary.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Bill Bryant, whose pro-Obama yard is a rarity in St. Clairsville.

“I wonder if Obama goes over people's heads,” said Bryant, 75. “That worries me. It's going to be close. I think we've got a horse race.”

After the first presidential debate, which most pundits said Romney won, Bryant thought Obama came off as the better candidate.

“He was cool and collected. He was presidential,” he said. “But the media punditry wanted blood, and they didn't get blood.”

Bryant said a strong local Tea Party is driving the anti-Obama sentiment, and Belmont County Tea Party head Kelly Conway agrees. The group is responsible for the many “Fire Obama” signs.

“We haven't gone out to one household — no, no, no. They come to us asking for the sign,” he said.

Romney's religion does not matter, Conway said.

“What I believe, I believe very strongly. But I also believe we have freedom of religion, and that covers Mitt Romney,” he said. “His values are phenomenal; he's got a great family. I find no fault with Mitt Romney, and I think he'll be a great president.”

Many Obama critics believe the president is Muslim — offering as evidence a June 2009 speech in Cairo in which he sought “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and an April 2009 greeting at the G-20 summit in London when Obama bowed before the king of Saudi Arabia.

“It was not a mistake,” Smith said. “He was being submissive.”

Like Pastor Harden, the Rev. Brad Call of Thoburn United Methodist Church avoids discussing divisive politics during services. He said he sometimes fails, noting some sermons revealed his support of Obama's health reform law.

“We have a moral responsibility to care for one another, even if it sometimes is costly or inconvenient to do,” Call said. “If you don't think that we should be taking care of the poor, the destitute, you're missing a pretty important part of what the Bible says. But I don't think I changed too many people's minds.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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