Unabashed church pastors put politics front and center
In the coming months, the Rev. Tim Throckmorton will step up to his southern Ohio pulpit and declare before hundreds of heedful churchgoers the candidate he wants to win the 2016 presidential election.
He does not care that doing so is technically illegal.
The evangelical Protestant senior pastor at Crossroads Church in Circleville joined more than 1,600 pastors nationwide who delivered politically charged sermons last year in unapologetic defiance of federal rules prohibiting tax-exempt church leaders from endorsing or opposing politicians.
“We basically break the law, and then we mail our sermons to the IRS, since we believe it's between pastors and God, and the government should have no restrictions on that,” said Throckmorton, 52, a fiery local celebrity who writes weekly newspaper columns, hosts Christian radio shows and puts out books and DVDs on “Godly American heritage.” He said the Internal Revenue Service has never asked him to stop.
He co-founded Awake 88 — a campaign to mobilize voters across Ohio around conservative values via a roaming Winnebago — and travels the country urging pastors to run for office and weigh in on hot-button issues.
“We need to recognize that many of the ills that befall us as a nation are because the church has been silenced,” Throckmorton said.
A diverse spread of religious leaders nationwide is wading unabashedly into the political arena at a time when Americans are shying away from organized religion in droves.
Franklin Graham, heir to his 97-year-old father's Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in 2016 will begin a 50-state crusade dubbed the “Decision America Tour,” to get people to “honor God with their vote.” His Pennsylvania visit is not scheduled, according to the Decision America website.
Relatively nascent interfaith alliances such as the Georgia-based Faith & Freedom Coalition have pumped millions of dollars into political events leading up to the primary season, ranging from high-octane presidential campaign forums to low-key discussions among local church leaders — such as a conference on “religious freedom” that drew public officials and about two dozen pastors, including Throckmorton, to Grace Community Church in Bridgeville last month.
“We are worried that we are losing our values and our compass, so my concern is to do my part to educate people on our godly heritage and our history,” said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, a featured speaker at the Bridgeville event.
Mobilizing the faithful
Four decades since the dissolution of the Moral Majority — a powerful force in helping Ronald Reagan clinch the presidency in 1980 —growing numbers of pastors, small faith groups, religiously affiliated nonprofits and national religious advocacy behemoths are using their resources and influence to shape the presidential race.
The contenders for the presidency — particularly Republicans appealing to the religious right — are vying aggressively for their support to get to the White House.
“Any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander-in-chief of this country,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said this month at the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, like Cruz a Republican candidate for president, told a crowd of 7,000 at a mega church near Dallas in mid-October: “People of faith make better leaders.”
“It's time for us to bring God back to our country,” retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told the same audience, which gave standing ovations to Carson and fellow candidates Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and Cruz.
Democratic field leaders Hillary Clinton, a United Methodist who used to teach Sunday school, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is Jewish but says he's not “particularly religious,” have slammed GOP candidates for using religiously rooted arguments to justify what they view as discrimination against gays and Muslims.
Most recently, Clinton blasted Cruz, a Southern Baptist, and Jeb Bush, an Episcopalian-turned-Catholic, for asserting that only Syrian refugees who are Christians should be allowed entry into the United States.
“We've seen a lot of hateful rhetoric from the GOP,” the former first lady and secretary of State tweeted Tuesday. “But the idea that we'd turn away refugees because of religion is a new low.”
‘Attack' on religion
Faiths and denominations that clash on theological issues are banding together to defend themselves from what they fear is a national attack on “religious freedom.” Their sense of urgency is fueled by the likes of the legalization of gay marriage, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, and wariness over accepting Syrian refugees.
“This is the beginning of a coalescing of people who are laying down differences that they have had,” said Sam Rohrer, a former state and federal lawmaker and president of American Pastors Network, a nonprofit that urges church leaders to promote “biblically based solutions to our worsening culture divide.”
“Moral absolutes have been attacked, have been thrown out, have been ridiculed,” he said. “We have really become adrift as a society in the quest and the desire for moral certainty, which leads to lawful credibility.”
The attack-on-religion rhetoric is targeted at the nation's conservative base, even as data show nearly one-quarter of Americans do not identify with any religion.
“What we are watching is the decline of Protestant privilege in this country,” said Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at Wake Forest University's School of Divinity in North Carolina. “It's not so much that there is persecution, but that there is pluralism at almost every level of American life.
“That's leaving many Protestants, particularly evangelical Protestants, to feel that their values are being undermined.”
Rise of the ‘nones'
Twenty-three percent of American adults make up the growing ranks of the so-called “nones” — those who do not identify with a religious denomination, including those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” the latest Pew Research Center data show. That's up from 16 percent of Americans who identified as “nones” in 2007.
They don't seem to be a group candidates are targeting, perhaps because “nones” are less likely to vote than their religious counterparts.
“In the presidential race, our voice is simply not heard as far as I'm concerned,” said Roger Schlueter, co-chair of the Secular Coalition of California, founded in 2012 under the national umbrella group for atheists and agnostics in Washington. “We know that the GOP is pretty tightly tied into the evangelical wing of Christianity, and the Democrats not so much, but they don't talk about that at all.”
Compared to most of the world, America remains among the most religious. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. adults say they believe in God, down slightly from 92 percent in 2007.
American voters remain wary of candidates who don't believe in God. In a Gallup poll this year, fewer than 60 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist presidential candidate.
“Most people are religious at some level, and religiously rooted moral messages have resonance with a lot of people,” said Allen Hertzke, religion and politics professor at the University of Oklahoma.
GOP front-runners Carson and Donald Trump have pounced on opportunities to tout religion as an important factor in shaping their world views — and to raise questions about the nature of their opponents' religious commitment.
“More recently, the conversation has turned toward Carson's Seventh-day Adventism and/or whether or not Carson makes a very good Adventist,” said Timothy Gabrielli, theology professor at Seton Hill University. “Carson himself suggested that a good Muslim couldn't be a good president, echoing the concerns from the '60s about John F. Kennedy being a Catholic in the White House. In these cases, religion becomes a ‘gotcha' opportunity for detractors.”
Back in Ohio — a must-win state for any president — Throckmorton, a Republican, says he has not made up his mind about the candidates.
“The field is ripe. I've got a personal like, but I haven't endorsed anybody yet,” he said. “I've met a number of them. They seem very interested in Ohio, of course.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.