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NOW

Transcript, April 28, 2006

God's Country?

BRANCACCIO:
Welcome to NOW.

...on the road this week in Lancaster, Ohio...a good spot to get a clear look at the condition of the fence between church and state in modern America. Some conservative Christian congregations around here have gotten very involved in this year's political races. They're so involved that there are accusations they have broken the law.

Supporters of the aggressive involvement of churches in elections say they have "absolute truth" on their side...what they see as the absolute truth of the bible to guide how government deals with issues ranging from abortion to same-sex marriage.

Bryan Myers produced our report. PARISHINERS SINGING:
"Lord you are good, your mercy endureth forever..."

BRANCACCIO:
On Easter Sunday morning, the faithful are gathered at a church in suburban Ohio. Nearly two thousand strong, they've come to celebrate Christ's life and the miracle of his resurrection.

But for this congregation, Easter Sunday means more than a dose of God. It also means a dose of politics.

JOHNSON:
"...Creation is a fact, secular evolution is an academic fiction."

BRANCACCIO:
Russell Johnson is the senior pastor here at Fairfield Christian church. Located in central Ohio, just outside of Columbus, Fairfield is one of a new breed of Christian "mega-churches." Fairfield ministers to some 10,000 people each week.

JOHNSON:
"The secular evolutionists want the tax-payer to support their dogmatic approach to origins, fiction financed by tax payers."

BRANCACCIO:
But Johnson does more than just talk politics on Sunday mornings. He's working to turn his brand of religion into a political movement. That's made him one of the most important figures in Ohio politics today. And since Ohio is a so-called "swing" state, that makes him a force that could influence the political future of America.

JOHNSON:
"With god, all things are possible. Say that with me, with god, all things are possible."

BRANCACCIO:
Johnson runs an organization called the "Ohio Restoration Project." We caught up with Johnson later in the week at a meeting of church elders. The meeting was described as bible study, but yes, that's an electoral map of Ohio over Johnson's shoulder.

The goal of the Ohio Restoration Project is to elect candidates who agree with conservative Christians on issues like abortion and gay marriage. To do that, the project has recruited a network of so-called "patriot pastors" to register 100's of thousands of new voters in churches throughout Ohio. The messageóevangelicals cannot sit on the sidelines of politics.

JOHNSON:
"Evangelicals who say, yes, I'm pro-life, but it's a private matter. It's those kind of people who enabled Hitler to take care of Auschwitz."

BRANCACCIO:
For Johnson, this coming Tuesday is d-day. That's when Ohio holds it's primary for governor. The real battle is on the republican side, between two candidates: Ohio attorney general Jim Petro, widely recognized as the establishment's choice, and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a conservative Christian.

BLACKWELL CAMPAIGN AD

BRANCACCIO:
That is the same Ken Blackwell, who as Secretary of State, directed Ohio's voting in the 2004 election. Johnson told us many times he's not taking sides. But it doesn't take much to figure out the church goers he's targeting are likely to vote for Blackwell.

BRANCACCIO:
Blackwell is the only candidate pictured on Johnson's website. And on the day we visited, a newspaper published by Johnson's group was hot of the presses, to be mailed to half a million homes across Ohio. These newspapers provide a guide to the candidates' stand on issues important to conservative Christians.

JOHNSON:
"If they are running for dog catcher, they have a survey on them..."

BRANCACCIO:
And there is more. Look at this videotape, obtained by "NOW." It's of a rally Johnson held in February outside of Canton, featuring Ken Blackwell.

BLACKWELL:
"Our times demand your engagement. Our times demand your prayers.

BRANCACCIO:
Hundreds of local religious leaders listened as Johnson praised Blackwell in no uncertain terms.

JOHNSON RALLY:
"When it came time to look for a leader, we found one, Ken Blackwell, who said yes, it's the right thing to do, marriage is defined by the bible as one man and a woman, and I will stand with you."

BRANCACCIO:
Johnson finished by giving candidate Blackwell what the Ohio restoration project calls its "courageous leadership" award.

JOHNSON RALLY:
"I want you to join me in thanking a leader of leaders, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell."

BRANCACCIO:
To date, Johnson has held six such rallies throughout Ohio. Blackwell has been the only candidate ever to appear. And at each one, Johnson presented the same award to Blackwell.

Because of that, Johnson is accused of breaking the law. You see, the Ohio Restoration Project operates as a non-profit ministry. It has the same kind of tax exemption as a church. As such, it's barred from supporting one candidate over another.

WILLIAMS:
They are crossing the line. And they're becoming entangled in the government.

BRANCACCIO:
Eric Williams is a pastor of the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus. The UCC is a protestant denomination that tends to run liberal. For example, it supports positions like equal protection under the law for gays and lesbians.

WILLIAMS:
What the church can do is speak out on important issues. What I think is different in this case is that we have a couple of churches and their affiliate organizations that are championing a particular candidate.

BRANCACCIO:
And you think that's wrong?

WILLIAMS:
I believe that is wrong. And more than that, I believe that it's gonna harm the fabric of our society.

BRANCACCIO:
Williams is so convinced Johnson is violating the tax code, he's filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, the complaint names Ohio-based televangelist Rod Parsley, who also runs a" get out the vote" group. Parsley, too, has publicly shown his support for Blackwell.

PARSLEY:
"He's a man of great conviction, consistently standing for family, life, marriage, and faith throughout his public service."

BRANCACCIO:
And Williams is not alone in his view that Parsely and Johnson are up to no good. Thirty other Ohio religious leaders, Christians and Jews alike, joined him in signing the IRS complaint.

BRANCACCIO:
What is the systematic problem that you're worried about?

WILLIAMS:
I think one of the geniuses in this, our nation, is a democracy that allows for and encourages plurality, great diversity. When certain churches, certain religious organizations begin to have undue influence on politicians, on candidates, on legislatures, I'm worried down the road they're gonna impact legislation that may serve that unique religious view but is going to be imposed on everyone.

BRANCACCIO:
Your group has been called, the phrase was used, secular jidhadists. What's your reaction to that kind of label?

WILLIAMS:
Those are talking points for them. It's part of their agenda to paint a black and white for or against extreme views.

BRANCACCIO:
I was talking to Eric Williams and you know, he says he reads the bible. He wrestles with his conscience. Yet, he comes to some very different conclusions than you.

JOHNSON:
I don't mind him coming to different conclusions. That's his right as an American. Please know that. But, I've never asked the IRS to take away his non-profit status because he disagrees with me. For him to try to use the IRS to muzzle us or to intimidate us is a charade. We will not be bullied. We will not be intimidated by...

BRANCACCIO:
Are they bullying you? Those 31 ministers?

JOHNSON:
I think, going to the IRS is an attempt to try to intimidate.

BRANCACCIO:
Mark Everson is commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. He says the law is very clear about what churches can and cannot do.

EVERSON:
You can't do something as an organization or in an officials capacity within an organization that advantages or disadvantages one candidate or the other.

BRANCACCIO:
Everson says people of faith have the right to speak out, but he's bothered by an increase in illegal activity by churches. In 2005, the IRS launched a much publicized investigation into a liberal church in Pasadena, California after a pastor there delivered a sermon favorable to John Kerry. Recently, Everson addressed the issue head on before a group of civic leaders in Ohio.

EVERSON SPEAKING AT CITY CLUB:
"The law states that charities, including churches, are not allowed to participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."

BRANCACCIO:
Everson will not say how the IRS is handling the complaint against Johnson, but says the IRS is determined to crack down on abuses. A tax exemption, he reminds people, is a privilege, not a constitutional right.

EVERSON:
The danger here is if we do not follow this law, that Political campaigns will masquerade as charities or as churches.

BRANCACCIO:
Despite the complaint to the IRS, Johnson seems undeterred.

JOHNSON:
You know, in Germany, many of the churches were positioned next to railroad tracks. And as Sunday mornings, the trains were making their way towards Auschwitz, the Jewish families would cry out to the churches for help. It became so disruptive that the German churches, many of them decided they would start singing during the rail times.

And if the people cried louder, they sang their songs louder. It's not enough for people in the pews to sing louder songs while a culture is going on a direction away from God.

BRANCACCIO:
Johnson is an "evangelical" Christian. For him, the truth is the literal truth of the bible. According to Johnson, the bible is absoluteóno to homosexuality, no to embryonic stem cell research, and no to evolution.

And, says Johnson, it is not enough to just believe God's word. One must act on it, not just in church, but in the public square.

BRANCACCIO:
Why should we believe your vision as opposed to another vision based also on biblical reading?

JOHNSON:
Candidly, there are some things that are essential. There are some things that are true, right, not for sale. Marriage between a husband and wife is one of them. Killing unborn babies and harvesting body parts is another.

BRANCACCIO:
Among true believers, that kind of talk has made Johnson something of a folk hero. And membership in evangelical churches nationwide is growing. One in four Americans now identify themselves as an evangelical Christian.

Meet David Barton. He's on a mission to insert evangelical fervor into politics around the country. Barton is president of an organization called "Wallbuilders." Wallbuilders is dedicated to exposing what it calls "the myth" of constitutional separation of church and state.

FOUNDATIONS OF AMERICAN GOVERNMENT VIDEO:
"It is evident from their writings that the founding fathers would have never tolerated the separation that we've embraced today." BRANCACCIO:
Wallbuilders produces and sells videos like this one, promoting the belief that the founding fathers intended America to be governed as a Christian nation.

FOUNDATIONS OF AMERICAN GOVERNMENT VIDEO:
"They also forcibly opposed any separation of biblical principle or values from society or public affairs."

BRANCACCIO:
In the run up to the 2004 election, Barton traveled the country, boldly encouraging pastors to preach politics from the pulpit. In October 2004, Barton told the on-line publication "Beliefnet" that it was okay for pastors to stand in front of church and say, quote, "John Kerry is not fit to be president." Barton went on to say most pastors would be "shocked" to learn how much they could get away with.

BRANCACCIO:
And who was Barton working for all that time? The National Republican Party. As a paid consultant for the Republicans, Barton held nearly 300 meetings with pastors and church groups.

In Ohio, Pastor Russell Johnson told us his work has been encouraged by Barton. But Johnson's connections to the Washington political scene don't end there. Johnson is also a member of the "Arlington group." The Arlington group is a coalition of the nation's most powerful conservative Christians, including James Dobson of focus on the family, and Tony Perkins of the family research council. They want to take Johnson's concept nationwide. Similar projects are now underway in Texas and Pennsylvania.

BRANCACCIO:
Are you a front for the Republican Party?

JOHNSON:
You know, God was pro-life before there ever was Republican Party. God was for marriage from the Garden of Eden before there was ever an American election. To me it's about the future of America. What kind of country are we gonna be?

BRANCACCIO:
If this revolution, as you sketch it out, does occur, how would America look different?

JOHNSON:
Basically, we are gonna see increasingly a conservative court system. It's in process. I think you're gonna find democrats scrambling to speak the language of faith.

BRANCACCIO:
No revolution is complete without its foot soldiers. Kevin and Becky Loving are members of Johnson's Fairfield church. Kevin is an electrical engineer, Becky a homemaker. They have a memory of an America that once found greatness in god, and have deep anxieties about the culture at large.

BECKY LOVING:
My concern is if I sit back and do nothing, then my granddaughters will be living in a world where everything is tolerated, and everything is given voice, and everything is okay.

BRANCACCIO:
Inspired by Pastor Johnson, they're now working as volunteers for the Restoration Project. Kevin stuffs envelopes, and Becky travels to government building throughout Ohio, praying that elected officials will see the light of God's wisdom.

BECKY LOVING:
I do believe that yes, that there is an absolute right and wrong. And that absolute right or wrong has to be found in the word of God.

PETRO:
To effectively govern, you have to build consensus, and consensus means that there is a give and take.

BRANCACCIO:
Ohio attorney general Jim Petro is Ken Blackwell's opponent in the Republican primary. Blackwell declined to be interviewed for this story, but we were able to catch up with Petro at a campaign event.

PETRO:
To those who might self-righteously say that there's nothing that they would compromise on, that's foolish. There really has to be a touch of compromise in every consensus that's built to achieve an ultimate goal.

BRANCACCIO:
The contest in Ohio is more than just another state election. It's a microcosm of the struggle for the soul of the Republican party nationwide. Don't forget that in 2004, it was a strong turnout by Christian voters that got credit for swinging Ohio to President Bush. And Blackwell has emerged as the front runner in Tuesday's primary.

BLACKWELL:
"Frequently I am asked if I carry my faith into the public square..."

BRANCACCIO:
During our visit, Pastor Russell Johnson even shared his view that Blackwell might someday be a candidate for vice-president.

CONGREGATION SINGING

ANNOUNCER:
NOW continues on Location with Public Broadcasting's David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO:
Religion and politics...the twain do tend to meet at one level or another in America...for more, we've got it on the pbs website, pbs.org.

Now you're about to meet someone who's spent lots of time thinking about some of the other big issues in the news this week.

BRANCACCIO:
Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor and columnist at the New Yorker Magazine, and also back when disco was king, the chief speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. Rick, welcome.

HERTZBERG:
Good to be here.

BRANCACCIO:
So, the subject here is political power in Washington. And Presidential press secretaries may come and go. Secretaries of defense may come and go. But do leadership changes at that level have the capacity to alter the destiny of the Bush administration?

HERTZBERG:
Well, we're talking about two different levels there. A leadership capacity at the-- level of press secretary, no. In fact, that sends the message that what the administration thinks is wrong with itself is the articulation of-- of what they're doing. And in-- if you think the problem is not the articulation but what they're doing, then that's sending exactly the wrong message.

If they had started by getting rid of Donald Rumsfeld, that would've shown-- an understanding of-- of what the real diagnosis is here. But they didn't. And so, this holds out very little hope for the kind of change that would actually change the direction of the political decline in this administration.

BRANCACCIO:
I was reading your piece in the magazine that's just coming out here. And you use quite a term. You refer to the South Americanization of America's political culture. Now, I shop at the Banana Republic. But-- but what are you talking about here?

HERTZBERG:
Well, it really for me it really goes back to the 2000 election and before. Because the 2000 election was a kind of what the South Americans call an "alta gope," a self-coup-- an overthrow of the government from within the government.

BRANCACCIO:
The overthrow of the government from within? What do you mean?

HERTZBERG:
Within the government, that is these five members of the Supreme Court installed him as president, even though he had not been successful in the vote of the people. And there's a lot of ways in which our national politics is looking South American.

We piled up a gigantic debt, huge fiscal irresponsibility, a growing gap between rich and poor, and these things, the fact that now we've got a general's revolt - of course, I was making a joke about this being a military junta.

BRANCACCIO:
The-- the general's revolt, the people speaking out, the retired general speaking out about Rumsfeld.

HERTZBERG:
The retired general speaking out, and columnists and commentators saying, "Oh goodness, this is a threat to civilian control of the military." Well, of course it's not. And this really isn't a military coup. But there is something that's not just funny but a little bit scary about the South Americanization of our politics.

BRANCACCIO:
Where is the Bush administration now in your estimation, in terms of its ability, its-- the political capital it has to get stuff done in its remaining years?

HERTZBERG:
Well, I think on the domestic front, they're down and can't get up.

BRANCACCIO:
Can't get up? It's over at that level?

HERTZBERG:
I think it's over in terms of getting any sort of real legislative initiative through Congress. Congress is not gonna do anything. And it's just not gonna happen on the domestic side.

On the foreign side, they retain enormous power. Unpopular there too, but they don't need Congress to make foreign policy. And given the metaphor of war, the idea that we're at war, and that this is a wartime President, enormous powers accrue to the executive. And-- and almost anything is possible on foreign policy.

BRANCACCIO:
Yeah. You pick up the paper or turn on the radio one morning. And there can be a headline that alters everything, from Iran, from North Korea.

HERTZBERG:
And I think a lot-- what worries some people, the more paranoid among us, is the possibility that the administration might use foreign policy as a lever to bring back its domestic popularity. That's not a good motive for making foreign policy moves. And it can be pretty dangerous.

BRANCACCIO:
Conservative columnist Robert Novak writing in the Washington Post this week was pleased that there are changes at the level of, for instance, a Presidential spokesperson. But saw them as coming, in his view, a year and a half too late.

HERTZBERG:
Yeah. That's probably about right. I mean, I know how these guys feel from my days in the Carter administration, what happens, the kinda panic that sets in when the bottom drops out and you can't seem to do anything about it.

BRANCACCIO:
You're comparing them to the end of the Carter years.

HERTZBERG:
I-- I don't-- I don't wanna be cruel. But it does look a little bit like that.

BRANCACCIO:
So if you're right and they are in a pickle, the Republicans, this is gonna mean that the Democrats will just coast right into control of Congress this fall, maybe a Democrat in '08.

HERTZBERG:
Well, it should mean that, shouldn't it? But it doesn't. It certainly doesn't mean that the Democrats are gonna get control of Congress. The way that the House is districted, gerrymandered and districted with the Democratic vote largely in cities, where it's concentrated. So there's a kind of - there are 80/20 Democratic districts; whereas, a lot of Republican districts in 60/40. Because of that, it's gonna take a real tidal wave to put the Democrats in control of Congress.

So it would have to-- would be a Reagan size or Roosevelt sized landslide is what would be required. Now, it could happen. It could happen. It was unthinkable a year ago, a year and a half ago. But it's quite thinkable now. Could happen. Probably won't happen.

BRANCACCIO:
Well, Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor and staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine, thank you.
HERTZBERG:
My pleasure.





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