Evangelicals on the march as pastor tells them: 'Vote your values'

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The Independent US

As he reflects upon the volatile mixture of religion and politics in Election 2004, Dave Landis picks his words carefully. "As a pastor I can encourage my congregation to register to vote, but I can't name a party or a candidate from the pulpit," he says with a smile in the cosy office of his Word of Grace Ministries in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "However I can encourage them to vote prayerfully, to 'vote your values.'" And no one will be hoping more fervently he does so than George Bush.

As he reflects upon the volatile mixture of religion and politics in Election 2004, Dave Landis picks his words carefully. "As a pastor I can encourage my congregation to register to vote, but I can't name a party or a candidate from the pulpit," he says with a smile in the cosy office of his Word of Grace Ministries in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "However I can encourage them to vote prayerfully, to 'vote your values.'" And no one will be hoping more fervently he does so than George Bush.

Arguably, the evangelical Christians are the most important single group of voters in the country. White "born agains" and evangelicals account for an estimated 27 per cent of the electorate, more than blacks and Hispanics combined. Here in Pennsylvania, one of the most closely contested states and narrowly carried by Al Gore in 2000, their share is 22 per cent.

Most important of all, three quarters of them support Mr Bush. Fire up this core social conservative element in the Republican base and get them to the polls on 2 November, and this President, the most famous born-again Christian of all, will have taken a huge stride towards a second term.

This is an election about many things - about Iraq, the war against terror, the economy and health care. But in an America that has rarely been more polarised, between liberals and conservatives, between the two halves of the country now labelled "metro" and "retro", it is also about values, about faith, about God.

"There are some non-Christians who would rather not have Christians vote. But we believe America was founded on Judaeo-Christian values and we're trying to defend that," says Pastor Landis. For evangelicals, "values are a more important issue than the economy, they transcend things like taxes. Money comes and money goes. If you vote for reasons of money, then money should be God."

And in his final debate with John Kerry, Mr Bush made his pitch. "Religion is part of me, my faith plays a big part in my life," he declared. "I pray a lot. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm's way. I pray for my family."

The political message could not have been clearer: if you're a real Christian, then vote Bush. And every sign is the appeal is being heeded.

In 2000, things were rather different. Maybe evangelicals perceived little difference between the candidates. Perhaps they were disgusted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that turned many evangelicals off politics entirely, or by the last-minute revelation that a youthful Bush had been convicted of a drunk driving offence - a mishap, claims Karl Rove, the President's political adviser, that turned a potential blow-out into the closest election in American history.

Either way however, by Mr Rove's calculation, 4 million evangelicals failed to show up at the polls. But in 2004, a vast campaign, in which the Word of Grace Ministries has played its own tiny but typical part, has been mounted to reach these potentially crucial voters. The strategy moreover seems to be working. According to one authoritative study, 2 million more evangelicals have registered to cast their vote. But improved organisation is only part of the story. For Christians, the choice is starker this time, for an election commonly described as the most important in recent US history. "John Kerry is more liberal than Al Gore, and people know that George Bush is a man of faith," Pastor Landis says.

There are new issues too. As usual, education and abortion weigh heavily, "but I think the biggest issue for Christians is opposition to gay marriage. The Bible is clear. There are no grey areas over things like this." When Christian America moves, it is a mighty army indeed. One glance at the Word of Grace Ministries brings home the vibrancy and energy of the church in the US, where more than 90 per cent say they believe in God, and some 60 per cent claim to attend services regularly.

The church is surrounded by small malls, neat middle-class housing estates and green rolling hills. Outside, work has started on an $800,000 (£450,000) extension, for a new Bible studies and children's education centre. The new construction is entirely paid for by donations from the congregation - "I teach the principle of tithing, and people believe in it," Pastor Landis says. (It helps of course that these donations are tax deductible. Were he to spell out his Republican preferences from the pulpit on Sundays, Word of Grace would lose its tax-exempt charitable status.)

On the tables is a glossy kit complete with a CD decorated with the American flag and filled with brochures and pamphlets stressing the importance of exercising the right to vote, and setting out exact instructions for what a pastor can and cannot tell his flock in the official surrounds of the church. "Outside of course, or at home, it's another matter," Landis says with a chuckle.

In the last couple of weeks of the campaign, the church will provide members with voters' guides, describing the voting records and positions of both major parties. The information, one may be sure, will be made available without comment or advice from the pastor. But everyone knows what that advice would be.

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