Evangelicals Say They Led Charge For the GOP

By Alan Cooperman and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page A01

As the presidential race was heating up in June and July, a pair of leaked documents showed that the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign was urging Christian supporters to turn over their church directories and was seeking to identify "friendly congregations" in battleground states.

Those revelations produced a flurry of accusations that the Bush campaign was leading churches to violate laws against partisan activities by tax-exempt organizations, and even some of the White House's closest religious allies said the campaign had gone too far.

But the untold story of the 2004 election, according to national religious leaders and grass-roots activists, is that evangelical Christian groups were often more aggressive and sometimes better organized on the ground than the Bush campaign. The White House struggled to stay abreast of the Christian right and consulted with the movement's leaders in weekly conference calls. But in many respects, Christian activists led the charge that GOP operatives followed and capitalized upon.

This was particularly true of the same-sex marriage issue. One of the most successful tactics of social conservatives -- the ballot referendums against same-sex marriage in 13 states -- bubbled up from below and initially met resistance from White House aides, Christian leaders said.

In dozens of interviews since the election, grass-roots activists in Ohio, Michigan and Florida credited President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, with setting a clear goal that became a mantra among conservatives: To win, Bush had to draw 4 million more evangelicals to the polls than he did in 2000. But they also described a mobilization of evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics that took off under its own power.

In battlegrounds such as Ohio, scores of clergy members attended legal sessions explaining how they could talk about the election from the pulpit. Hundreds of churches launched registration drives, thousands of churchgoers registered to vote, and millions of voter guides were distributed by Christian and antiabortion groups.

The rallying cry for many social conservatives was opposition to same-sex marriage. But concern about the Supreme Court, abortion, school prayer and pornography also motivated these "values voters." Same-sex marriage, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, was "the hood ornament on the family values wagon that carried the president to a second term."

How Conservative Turnout Soared

Whether evangelical turnout rose nationally this year, and by how much, is unclear. Without question, however, Bush's conservative Christian base was essential to his victory.

According to surveys of voters leaving the polls, Bush won 79 percent of the 26.5 million evangelical votes and 52 percent of the 31 million Catholic votes. Turnout soared in conservative areas such as Ohio's Warren County, where Bush picked up 18,000 more votes than in 2000, and local activists said churches were the reason.

Over the summer, the Rev. Bruce Moore, pastor of Warren County's Clearcreek Christian Assembly, gave two sermons explaining a Christian's responsibility to vote. Then he passed out voter registration cards. His 400 congregants circulated them among like-minded friends, registering hundreds more voters.

"On this election, because of the issues before the state of Ohio and the nation, they were passionate," Moore said.

"It was all hands on deck. I have never seen a rush for voter registration cards in my life as a minister."

Nationally, the backdrop for the mobilization of social conservatives fell into place when Massachusetts's highest court sanctioned same-sex marriage in November.

Some Christian leaders perceived not only a threat to biblical morality, but also a winning political issue. Same-sex marriage "is different from abortion," said the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark.

"It touches every segment of society, schools, the media, television, government, churches. No one is left out."

Yet Bush was slow to endorse a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In a January conference call, Rove promised impatient Christian leaders that an endorsement would be forthcoming, and it finally came Feb. 24, nearly two weeks after same-sex couples began lining up for nuptials in San Francisco.

"A few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization," Bush said. "Their actions have created confusion on an issue that requires clarity."

For several months after the Massachusetts court decision, evangelical leaders lamented the lack of a popular outcry. That changed July 14, when the Senate rejected the federal marriage amendment. Media reports described the vote as "a big election-year defeat" for the White House. It was, in fact, an election-year bonanza.

Backers of the amendment clogged the Senate switchboard with calls. Perhaps most important, social conservatives shifted their focus to amending state constitutions. They launched petition drives to put amendments banning same-sex marriage to a popular vote, and those drives resulted in grass-roots organizations and voter lists that later fed the Bush campaign.

Ultimately, 13 states approved marriage amendments this year, including 11 on Nov. 2.

Some Democrats suspected that the ballot initiatives were engineered by Rove and the GOP, but religious activists say otherwise. In Michigan, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R) introduced a bill to ban same-sex marriage in October 2003 and assumed it would have the support of his party. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan became the amendment's main booster, spending nearly $1 million to secure its passage.

"I couldn't say anything publicly, because I would have been blasted for it, but the Republican Party was not helpful at all," Cropsey said. "It's not like they were the instigators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies, if anything."

Michael Howden, executive director of Stronger Families for Oregon, said it was a similar situation in his state. "There's been no contact whatsoever, no coordinating, no pushing" by anyone at the White House or in the Bush campaign, he said.

Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, recalled a meeting early this year when Christian leaders warned White House aides that the marriage issue was likely to appear on state ballots and be a factor in the presidential election. "The White House guys were kind of resisting it on the grounds that 'We haven't decided what position we want to take on that,' " he said.

The Enlistment of Religious Leaders

According to religious leaders, the conference calls with White House officials started early in the Bush administration and became a weekly ritual as the campaign heated up. Usually, the participants were Rove or Tim Goeglein, head of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Later, Bush campaign chairman Ken Mehlman and Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and the campaign's southeast regional coordinator, were often on the line.

The religious leaders varied, but frequent participants included the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, psychologist James C. Dobson or others from the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, and Colson.

"They did an extremely discreet job," Colson said. "It wasn't like: 'Do this. Contact these voters.' It was: 'Here's what's going on in the campaign.' It was just keeping people informed, and that's all they had to do. It was respectful of the fact that you're talking to religious leaders who are individuals, who should not be in the hip pocket of any political party."

The Bush campaign enlisted thousands of religious "team leaders" in its canvassing efforts. According to activists in battleground states, however, Christian groups were often out ahead of the campaign.

Gary Cass was in charge of registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in three Florida counties for Coral Ridge Ministries, the Fort Lauderdale-based broadcasting empire of the Rev. D. James Kennedy. On nights and weekends, he also volunteered for the Bush-Cheney campaign -- and found it far less organized than Coral Ridge's effort.

"I couldn't get answers. I had trouble getting a sign for my yard," he said. "It was a good thing we weren't coordinating with the Republican Party, because there wasn't anybody to cooperate with."

In Ohio, Lori Viars held a party for Moms and Kids for Bush at a local McDonald's. As co-chair of her county's GOP committee, she also spearheaded a registration drive at churches that began July 4. "By the time the Bush campaign said, 'You should do voter registration through churches,' we were already doing that," Viars said.

National religious leaders, and their lawyers, also made a concerted effort to persuade pastors to disregard the warnings of secular groups about what churches can and cannot legally do in the political arena.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, advised in mailings to 45,000 churches that their clergy should avoid endorsing a candidate by name from the pulpit. Other than that, "we told them they were absolutely free and should encourage their people to vote their convictions," he said.

Such entreaties appear to have worked. Sekulow said he believes that thousands of clergy members gave sermons about the election, and that many went further than they ever had before. The Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life" and one of the most influential ministers in the country, sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the candidates' positions on five "non-negotiable" issues: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.

Dobson, a powerful figure among evangelicals, endorsed Bush -- though he said he was doing so as an individual, not as chairman of Focus on the Family, whose programs are heard on 7,000 radio stations worldwide. "This year the issues were so profound that I felt I simply could not sit it out," Dobson said last week.

Far from sitting it out, Dobson created a separate nonprofit, Focus on the Family Action, which organized six stadium-size rallies to urge Christians in battleground states to "vote their values."

A values voter, Dobson said, is someone with "a Christian worldview who begins with the assumption that God is -- that he not only exists, but he is the definer of right and wrong, and there are some things that are moral and some things that are immoral, some things that are evil and some things that are good."

Although liberals may mock Bush for his good-vs.-evil approach to the world, it "is seen by many of us not as a negative but as a positive," Dobson said. "Here is a man who is simply committed to a system of beliefs."