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Week of 1.25.08

Transcript: God and Politics 2008

BRANCACCIO: We're back on the campaign trail, and this week we're looking at the role evangelical voters will play in this year's elections.

Ever since Ronald Reagan pulled loads of evangelicals into the Republican Party, no Republican has won the presidency without them; evangelicals gave George Bush his margin of victory in the must-win state of Ohio last time around.

But what about this year? Many of the promises the Republicans made to evangelicals on issues like abortion and gay marriage have gone unfulfilled. Many evangelicals say it's time to rethink their relationship to politics and politicians.

Karla Murthy produced the latest in our series of Adventures in Democracy.

BRANCACCIO: Think evangelical mega church in the Kansas heartland and this rock 'n roll scene may not be the first image that comes to mind.

Guitars, drums and lyrics projected on the big screen...

It's the Saturday evening service at Central Christian, one of many big evangelical churches in the city of Wichita.

It sure isn't the old Jerry Falwell style of evangelical church. In recent years, Central Christian has been going through a transformation.

WELSH (sermon): How are we going to accomplish great things for the Lord in 2008, how are we going to fulfill all these spiritual resolutions and spiritual plans

BRANCACCIO: Pastor David Welsh is a newcomer here—and he's changing the face of the church. He recently took over from another pastor who'd led Central Christian for over 20 years.

WELSH: I don't think evangelical Christians, especially the ones who are here at Central Christian—they don't want to hear political sermonizing.

BRANCACCIO: Sermons on the hot political issue of the day—like abortion or gay marriage—is what this church used to be known for. But when the former pastor retired, so did a lot of the political rhetoric. The church wanted a new leader with a new message. Pastor Welsh is less like to go on about the evils of abortion and more likely to crack wise about his own need to shape up.

WELSH (sermon): My personal physician suggested that I lose a few pounds. And my first thought was, I got to find a doctor who will mind his own business. (laughter).

BRANCACCIO: Make no mistake, Welsh is deeply conservative but he doesn't see the need to focus on politics from the pulpit.

WELSH: I do not personally see myself active in—in the political arena, simply because that's not my calling. My calling is—is to serve the Lord.

BRANCACCIO: But many pastors in Wichita have made a name for themselves in that political arena. From the dramatic wars over abortion to the marriage amendment controversy—pastors here have been at the frontlines of these political fights in Kansas. But there's a huge shift going on as some of the most prominent and politically active evangelical leaders in Wichita are stepping down- and a new generation of pastors is stepping up.

Going into this election year, many of these new leaders say they are more skeptical about mixing their faith with politics in the public square.

GREEN: I think what we're seeing is the evangelical community is in flux.

BRANCACCIO: John Green is a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

GREEN: This community is still going to but around in the next several years it's still going to be important in both religious and political terms. But its public face may be different than it has been in the last few years.

BRANCACCIO: What's happening here in the heartland could shake up election year politics across the country. Evangelicals are known as the bedrock of the Republican Party... Just last weekend in South Carolina, six out of ten Republican primary voters identified themselves as evangelical Christian. But here in Kansas at least, that bedrock has developed some fault lines.

GREEN: This voting block is absolutely crucial for the Republican Party. And given the debate that's going on in the evangelical community, there is some prospect that evangelicals may not be as solidly Republican as they were.

BRANCACCIO: The alliance of the evangelical community to the Republican Party began three decades ago. With the founding of groups like the Christian Coalition and the moral majority, these leaders saw American culture as corrupt, permissive, liberal...and sought to shake it up through political action.

RALPH REED: Let's make it clear that as long as we're here, the Rep. Party is going to remain unapologetically Pro-Life and Pro-family! Thank you very much...

JERRY FALWELL: The silent church, the silent pulpit, the conservative church silence, is history and the sleeping giant of conservative, religious Americans is standing up.

JAMES ROBISON: We must begin to literally penetrate every area of our society. Yes even the political area!

BRANCACCIO: These leaders, like the noted televangelist—James Robison—helped give the evangelical movement its trademark approach to politics.

GREEN: The Christian right had a very strident style, a very hard-edged political style. Very controversial, it was very confrontational and it—was focused on arguments about good and evil and about right and wrong, about morality and immorality.

BRANCACCIO: Green says, as the leaders of the Christian right rose in prominence, their style and more importantly, their conservative political agenda became the dominating feature of the evangelical movement.

GREEN: Well, the stereotype of evangelical Protestants, particularly white evangelical Protestants, is that they're very Republican and they're very conservative. And they're very focused on social issues, such as abortion and same sex marriage.

BRANCACCIO: But that stereotype is beginning to change. Immanuel Baptist Church was founded almost 100 years ago. It sits in Wichita's downtown. It's neighborhood has had its ups and downs, and so has the church,

TITUS: In the past, yeah, we have been known more for what we're against than what we're for.

BRANCACCIO: Andy Titus and his wife Calah both sing in the choir at Immanuel Baptist. Andy has been going to this church since he was a little kid. In the last decade, his church had become known more for being a loud political voice in the community... but he says that's changing. He says the church is now more focused on one of the Central Christian tenets—to help people in need.

TITUS: Social ministry is a big part of us now and that is becoming really who we are as—not so much just saying we love you but actually proving it in what we do. And we're really focusing now on trying to be the hands and feet that go and share instead of just the mouthpiece.

BRANCACCIO: It's a big change from how it used to be at Immanuel Baptist.

TERRY FOX at Immanuel Baptist Church: "We don't want gay marriage in Kansas, Amen." That's what this is all about.

BRANCACCIO: Pastor Terry Fox was the voice of Immanuel Baptist for over 10 years. Fox recently founded this new church. He's one the best known conservative Christian leaders in Kansas. For Fox—politics remains the road to change.

FOX: When I—started my ministry I made up my mind then that I didn't mind political. In fact, I don't know how you can preach the Bible and not be political.

BRANCACCIO: He's famous in Wichita for his high-wattage ministry and his reputation for making provocative statements from the pulpit.

TERRY FOX: (sermon) Sin, sin and rebellion against God is like a cancer. I've said many times, liberalism is like a cancer! ....

BRANCACCIO: When Fox arrived at Immanuel Baptist back in 1997, the congregation was dwindling. But Fox built the church into a major operation with six thousand members. He says- the church also gave him a platform to spread his political views.

FOX: Whether we like it or not, anybody who reads the Bible halfway seriously is gonna say that homosexuality is a sin. There are passage after passage after passage that teach that—that that is perversion. It's a sin.

BRANCACCIO: He accuses pastors today who fail to sermonize on abortion and homosexuality as being scared of controversy and are not preaching "the whole Bible."

FOX: I say to pastors all over America, "Quit being sissies, you know. Preach. If you're not gonna preach all the Bible, then go to Penney's and sell shoes or—or go to Hyundai and sell Hyundai's."

BRANCACCIO: Pastor Fox believes that the role of the church is to fight against what he sees as the erosion of Christian moral values in society. So when the opportunity came up to get an amendment passed in Kansas—to ban same sex marriage, pastor fox took his church into battle.

TERRY FOX at IBC: ...and I believe God's going to get the victory for this one.

BRANCACCIO: What got Fox up in arms was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In 2003, the court had struck down a Texas law that banned private consensual sex between adults of the same gender.

This was seen by critics as a first step on the way to legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Many conservative Christians were outraged by the ruling.

With a new sense of urgency, Pastor Terry Fox began a campaign to get a marriage amendment passed in Kansas. Fox began mobilizing pastors and formed a state wide network of churches to fight what they called an "attack on biblical marriage." He urged his own congregation to hold their state legislators accountable for getting the ban on same sex marriage on the ballot.

TERRY FOX: (sermon) Politics in Kansas changed when the church engaged!

BRANCACCIO: After two years—the marriage amendment was finally put to the people. In 2005, Kansans voted overwhelming in favor of the amendment. It was a huge victory.

But just the next year, a surprise. One Sunday morning at Immanuel Baptist, Pastor Terry Fox announced he was stepping down.

FOX: There were people at the time that I think honestly were tired of having a political pastor.

BRANCACCIO: Many in the congregation supported Fox's views on homosexuality and abortion, but some said they were worn out by all the political rhetoric. And Immanuel Baptist had been losing members.

FOX: They were tired of the message. The deacons there, the leadership was quoted saying they were tired of hearing abortion 52 weeks a year. Well, I never—I never preached about abortion 52 weeks. But I appreciate the reminder. And I'll be sure to do it now.

BRANCACCIO: When Fox left Immanuel—so did a couple hundred members of the six thousand congregation. Fox began Summit Church which for now meets at this Best Western hotel on the outskirts of town.

BOSWELL: (sermon) What God promises is first of all, he promises to transcend the past.

BRANCACCIO: Charles Boswell is the new pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church.

BOSWELL: The church when I came needed some healing. It had become basically somewhat polarized and divided. Much like our nation in some regards.

BRANCACCIO: Boswell wants to take the church in a different direction. He says many in the congregation were uncomfortable that their church was known more for Terry Fox and his hot button politics than as a place to come and worship.

BOSWELL: I think that—the political agenda—became so dominant—that we lost our effectiveness and influence in this city, in my opinion.

BRANCACCIO: He says the church is now more focused on social ministry in the local community... like working with kids, providing school supplies and holding food and clothing drives,

BOSWELL: God did not give me or Immanuel Baptist Church a gavel. Where we are the sole convictors and condemners of our community. And so the paradigm shift here that we're—creating at Immanuel Baptist Church is one where we hope to love people where they are. And to help them become all that Christ intended them to be.

BRANCACCIO: Boswell sees the changes at Immanuel Baptist as breaking the mold of the old evangelical church... a mold he was taught to follow as a young pastor—but that ultimately didn't fit.

BOSWELL: I woke up one day. Looked in the mirror, getting ready to come to church and I totally freaked out. Because I saw myself looking like a preacher.

BRANCACCIO: He says once upon a time he felt pressure to conform to a certain rigid style to earn the right to lead.

BOSWELL: Short hair, tie, coat, no jeans. No jokes—It was mostly factual information that was coming from the—from the preachers. It wasn't—four steps on how to have a happy life. Or what does the Bible say about—how to have a successful marriage? I think the church today wants to know give me some—some tools, give me something that will work in my life.

BRANCACCIO: Today—Boswell points to a new generation of evangelical leaders who have paved the way for pastors like him. Bill Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Association that includes over 12,000 churches... and Rick Warren of Saddle Back Church in California—author of the best selling book—The Purpose Driven Life.... These pastors have become extremely successful leaders and built huge followings—by expanding their message beyond the core issues of abortion and gay marriage.

BOSWELL: We see more and more today, Evangelical churches moving toward helping the poor—caring about AIDS, and caring about the environment than we ever have before. That's unprecedented in Evangelical church.

GREEN: Their idea of—of being a good citizen and being active in politics is broader. And it's less confrontational and more cooperative.

BRANCACCIO: Green says that these changes are coming as some in the evangelical community have become disenchanted with the political process.

GREEN: They've tasted some success with the recent Republican victories. But along with this comes some discontent.

BRANCACCIO: Perhaps the greatest victory for evangelicals in politics was the election George W. Bush. Karl rove famously strategize that for Bush to decisively win the 2004 election, they needed to get the 4 million evangelical voters that stayed home in the previous election to come out in force—and they did. But Green says—that even with an evangelical Christian in office—not much of their agenda has come to fruition.

GREEN: There is a certain frustration that this level of politics and this hard-edged style of the Christian right has not, necessarily, produced results in public policy on these key social issues that have motivated evangelicals.

BRANCACCIO: Pastor Gene Carlson has experienced that disappointment firsthand.

CARLSON: The political process—when you combine religion with it doesn't always turn out like you want it to.

BRANCACCIO: Like some of the churches in Wichita, Carlson has gone through his own personal transformation. He was the pastor at Westlink Church in Wichita and a major leader in the anti-abortion movement here.

BRANCACCIO: Carlson first got active in the summer of 1991. The abortion fight landed in Wichita transforming the city into a battleground. The radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue had come to town to shut down abortion clinics—and with them came thousands of protestors that staged sit-ins, blocked clinics and filled the streets. It became known as the "Summer of Mercy" and is still talked about as a watershed moment in the social history of America.

CARLSON: As I look back on that Summer of Mercy that was something that not only Wichita dealt with, but it ended up the whole country was talkin' about, "What do you think about abortion?"

BRANCACCIO: During one Summer of Mercy protest, religious leaders planned a blockade in front of an abortion clinic, and dozens were arrested and sent to jail, including Carlson.

CARLSON: We hoped the future would hold after that event, was that—Roe vs. Wade would be challenged and changed or whatever. But—it—nothing really ever happened by way of changing Roe vs. Wade.

BRANCACCIO: And that upsets you? It has disillusioned you?

CARLSON: Oh, I—I think it's—it's—if it hasn't disillusioned me it's helped me to realize the—you know the—the—the political solution may not be where it's at.

CARLSON: "When you—when you mix religion and politics you tend to end up with politics." (LAUGHS)

BRANCACCIO: But what did you mean by that?

CARLSON: Well, it seems like, you know, it never comes out in the end the way you started in the beginning. And it's so compromised that you kind of wonder sometimes, you know, what's happened to the spiritual and moral side of the issue.

BRANCACCIO: Carlson says that he still cares deeply about the abortion issue, but he says that people need to care about all children—and that means worrying about issues like the overload of kids in the foster care system. Some of his new thinking has led Carlson, a registered Republican beyond the party.

CARLSON: For years—I realized that even here in—in this city and—and in our church there was some kind—kind of unhealthy perceptions that we were a Republican church. And that's not—I don't think that's good. I didn't like that. You know we're not a Republican church.

BRANCACCIO: What's the problem with that?

CARLSON: Well—no—no party's gonna reflect really what we believe.

There are some Democratic issues that are moral or spiritual as well as Republican issues it's better I think to stand back and say, "Okay, on this issue we're here and this issue we're there."

BRANCACCIO: This primary season, Carlson has been watching the Democratic debates and has been intrigued by what he's heard from candidates like John Edwards. But none of the democratic candidates stand where Carlson does on abortion.

BRANCACCIO: If a candidate does not support a ban on abortion, how can you justify in your own mind being at least intrigued by some of the messages coming out?

CARLSON: Well, I—I am intrigued. And that definitely becomes an issue. Difficult issue. The problem with a person who says, "I won't vote on anybody that's not against abortion," well, then, you know, you don't—kind of reduces your field (LAUGHS) of candidates, maybe. You know? That's an important issue, but there's other issues too.

BRANCACCIO: With more than nine months to go before the general election, Carlson has yet to land on any one candidate for president.

CARLSON: I think that maybe I could go for the President that said—"Don't ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you could do for your country." The guy stepped up to the plate I might vote for him.

BRANCACCIO: I think he was a Catholic guy though, Pastor?

CARLSON: Oh, yeah that the big—now the (LAUGHTER) big issue is Mormon, of course, but you know we—we lived through that. We could probably live through a Mormon, right?

BRANCACCIO: The Mormon in question- former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney just won the Republican Primary in Nevada last weekend—so a Mormon president is still a possibility. But to what extent is Gene Carlson's personal transformation representative of where the evangelical community as a whole is going?

We spoke to members of Wichita's Central Christian Church. They'll be getting their turn to caucus in just a couple of weeks.

PIERCE: The areas that are most important to me are the war on terror, and national security and immigration are very important to me. As well as the right to life.

HAGUE: Recently, I've been leaning more Republican than not. That probably has to do with the abortion issue than anything.

BRANCACCIO: That probably comes as no surprise, but Melissa Hague says she's also concerned by the war in Iraq. And as a doctor, has a different approach to immigration than you hear from some conservative hardliners.

HAGUE: Every day as a physician, I see people that are here for whatever reason, whether legally or not, and I want to do everything that I can to take care of them. And some of the policies that we have on immigration make that difficult.

BRANCACCIO: Most people we talked to still had not decided which candidate best represents their views. But some people were gazing over the political fence.

WAWRZESKI: It's the first time in my life that I'm looking at a Democrat and saying here's somebody that I'd actually might consider voting for a Democrat and saying you know, here's somebody that I might actually vote for.

BRANCACCIO: That somebody he's evaluating turns out to be Barack Obama.

WAWRZESKI: We want to have people that align with our types of religious beliefs. But, that's not the only thing. I'm looking for a leader that has experience but that has some good ideas, some new ideas.

BRANCACCIO: It's not exactly what you expect to hear at a conservative evangelical church in Kansas. But this election season has been anything but predictable.

Exit polls have shown that among evangelicals, the field is still wide open. Republican candidate Mike Huckabee—the Baptist minister from Arkansas, won the evangelical vote in Iowa. But just last week in Nevada, Mitt Romney the Mormon from Massachusetts came in first among evangelicals.

John Green says that the evangelical community has always been more diverse on issues than its reputation suggested.

JOHN GREEN: The pursuit of those particular issues, especially issues like abortion and same sex marriage, have led many evangelicals into the Republican Party.

And what we see today is a reassessment of that position. It doesn't necessarily mean that all evangelicals will run out and vote Democratic in the next election. Many of them will probably, through this reassessment, decide to stay with the Republican candidate. But this is an active debate.

BRANCACCIO: But for pastor Terry Fox—there is no debate. He's going to vote for a pro-life Republican—or no candidate at all. His congregation also has some big plans. They are currently renovating this fifty-three thousand square foot space, the new home for Summit Church.

FOX (sermon): Some of the Liberal commentators say, especially when I left downtown, said, 'praise God he's gone.' (laughs) Don't tell them what's happening at Summit! (applause) They have no idea what's comin'.

BRANCACCIO: Fox says he's not going to tell his congregation who to vote for, but he told us he invited former Arkansas Governor Huckabee to come speak at his church. He hasn't heard back yet. In the meantime, Pastor Fox says he will continue to preach his politics from the pulpit.

FOX (sermon): The culture and our world is going to hell. Amen? Amen.

BRANCACCIO: He says there's no hard feelings towards his old church—Immanuel Baptist.

TERRY FOX INTV: I think they have chosen a different route they wanna go. And they have a right to do that as a church. And I wish them the best. I—I—I hear different people say they're trying to figure out what their new purpose is gonna be. That's a good thing. They need to figure that out. But we know what ours is.

BRANCACCIO: But Pastor Charles Boswell says he knows what his mission is.

BOSWELL: If I'm trying to pastor this church and I had half the church on this side, and half the church on that side, how do I bring everybody together for a common cause? And I think we're having that issue as a nation.

BRANCACCIO: Pastor Gene Carlson has now retired from his church and has taken step back from politics this crucial election year. Instead, he will spend the rest of the primary season doing pastoral work overseas.

CARLSON: My commission is to preach the gospel. That's good news. What—and that's—that's the deliverance message. Politics is not gonna deliver us. Not gonna deliver us. Never will.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. At the whistle-stop here, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.