Obama could have a prayer among Ohio’s white evangelicals

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CINCINNATI — The Rev. Chris Beard is a theological conservative, make no mistake about it. He believes the Bible is the word of God. He believes the Holy Spirit speaks to him directly. He believes, as an article of faith, that abortion and same-sex marriage are wrong.

Still, when a group of religious leaders in Ohio held two days of meetings in Cincinnati recently to talk about economic and racial justice, issues usually associated with the political left, there was Beard, a fourth-generation Pentecostal preacher with a disarming smile, a shaved head and a set of convictions that knock holes in the stereotypes about white evangelical Protestants.

“Conservative biblical interpretation requires embracing the text,” Beard said during a break in a daylong symposium on racial equity, a special concern of his. That, he said, “might push us to what society calls progressive engagement.”

White evangelical voters are widely presumed to march in lock step with the right wing of the Republican Party. The reality is more nuanced. Some, like Beard, say their faith has led them to question conservative orthodoxy on issues such as immigration, the environment and racial and economic equity.

“Evangelicals,” he said, “are quickly discovering the whole Gospel. And that has implications for how we engage the public sphere.”

Words like that are music to the ears of President Obama’s reelection campaign, which desperately needs to make inroads among people like Beard and his flock, especially in such battleground states as Ohio. It is part of a broad effort in key states to scratch for every possible vote in what is expected to be a nail-biter election.

The meetings that Beard attended were officially nonpartisan, and there was no mention of either Obama or Republican Mitt Romney. Still, they were part of an effort by liberal groups to mobilize religious voters, union voters and others before the election.

“This is like one layer of an overall strategy of building progressive infrastructure in the state,” said Kirk Noden, executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, an umbrella group for liberal community organizers in Ohio. He said it was especially important to target white evangelicals.

“We can’t just say, ‘You don’t agree with us on 100% of the issues so we can’t talk to you,’ ” he said.

It will be a tough sell. Polling numbers show that Obama has actually lost ground slightly among white evangelicals since the 2008 election, when he made significant inroads among voters of faith. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 73% of white evangelicals polled were supporting Romney for president, compared with just 20% for Obama.

In fact, various polls indicate that Obama lags behind Romney among all white Americans who express a religious faith. At the moment, the president is in a statistical dead heat with Romney only because of the strong support he gets from black Protestants, Latino Catholics and Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious tradition. (The Pew survey found, rather astonishingly, that 0% of black Protestants polled supported Romney.)

While Obama will never win anywhere near a majority of white evangelicals, his hope lies in mobilizing what support he can among religious voters and keeping the focus away from divisive social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, on which his views run counter to theirs.

With that backdrop, the Pico National Network, an alliance of left-leaning religious organizations, announced plans recently for a national effort to mobilize voters this fall, led by groups of clergy in 10 states, including the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. The groups, known as Prophetic Voices, are intended to encourage “nonpartisan engagement ministries.”

Translation: They can organize get-out-the-vote campaigns and talk up political issues such as taxing the rich, but they can’t endorse candidates.

Discussion at the opening meeting of Ohio Prophetic Voices ranged over a variety of issues, including the economy, immigration reform, education and civil rights, including allegations that African American voters in Ohio have faced barriers to voting. There was talk about the plight of “returning citizens,” a term for people just released from prison.

“We don’t have a dog in the partisan fight,” said the Rev. Nelson Pierce, a Cincinnati pastor who is lead organizer for the AMOS Project, a local network of liberal-leaning congregations. “But we believe in democracy. We want everybody’s vote to count.”

Ohio Prophetic Voices features strong participation by African American pastors, some of whom said they detected a slump in excitement over the fall election, even though their congregations still overwhelmingly support Obama.

However, the organization has also made a concerted effort to reach out to white evangelicals, the group most associated with the Christian right. Several white evangelical pastors turned out for the event, and at times seemed a bit bemused by the unfamiliar surroundings.

Although polling shows little sign that evangelical voters are moving to the left, some of those in the movement see subtle signs of change.

“It’s not monolithic, especially with the millennials,” said Rev. Dave Workman, pastor at the Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, referring to the generation that grew up around 2000. “It’s changing rapidly, and they don’t want to be known as just a two-issue church.”

Those two issues, of course, are abortion and same-sex marriage.

Workman and others, including Beard, side with Republicans on those issues, as do most of their congregants. But they believe other issues are just as important.

Although he sees abortion as a “justice issue for a human being with a beating heart,” Beard also believes in “a whole pro-life position” that focuses on what happens after someone is born. “The Scriptures,” he said, “call on us to engage with the needs of the poor and the widow and the immigrant.”

All of that can lead a theological conservative to a more liberal political position.

Beard is not taking a partisan stand on the presidential election. His congregants who do are all over the political map. He estimates that a third are Democrats, a third are Republicans and a third are independent.

Beard’s church is an anomaly. When he became senior pastor of First Christian Assembly of God in 2001, the church was 98% white. He has pushed a theme of “racial reconciliation,” and today the church has a new name — Peoples Church — and a new hue, with fully half its members being nonwhite. A church, Beard said, should look like “the kingdom of heaven”: all colors.

Earl Hughes has been a member of the church since 1966 and has embraced its change. A retired teacher and school administrator, he is a political independent who voted for George W. Bush twice and for Obama in 2008.

This year, he’s not sure. He doesn’t approve of the president’s healthcare plan or his handling of the economy, and he wishes Obama had gotten the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan more quickly. “I feel like the way he’s addressed these issues has not been decisive enough,” he said.

At the same time, he likes Obama personally and believes the president demonstrates “family values.” He wants a president who will attack social injustices such as racism. Although Hughes opposes abortion, Obama’s pro-abortion-rights position is not a deal-breaker. As for Romney, Hughes doesn’t know enough yet to decide.

He is, in other words, precisely the sort of independent, religious voter Obama needs. At the moment, he doesn’t look like a good bet, but that could change. “I’m not anti-Obama,” Hughes said. “I’m just not pro-Obama right now.”

One in a series of occasional stories on the states that will determine the next president.