GOP candidates fight for evangelical voters


ORRVILLE, Ohio – As “God Bless the USA” echoed through his rural church, Pastor Jerry O’Brien prepared for a sort of sermon on politics in America.

The church today is too disengaged, said O’Brien, who heads the Faith Harvest Fellowship in Orrville. He said Christians don’t know enough about elections or the politicians who seek to represent them.

“We need to educate our people, or the spirit of fear will continue to wreak havoc in our churches,” O’Brien said.

Enter Josh Mandel.

The former Ohio treasurer recently visited the Faith Harvest Fellowship to do her advocacy for the U.S. Senate, the latest in a series of campaign stops in churches across the state. Mandel is using these events to preach his own gospel, which is anti-abortion, pro-guns, and breathes life into debunked claims about the 2020 election.

At the heart of it all, he says, are the Judeo-Christian values ​​that will guide his decisions in Washington if elected.

“I believe that the only place where we are going to win back the hearts and minds of our children and save the country is in the churches, and that is why I am leading my campaign in the churches,” said Mandel, who is Jewish. . in an interview.

Although he has made it a hallmark of his campaign, Mandel is not the only candidate for the US Senate who uses religion to connect with Republican voters. And the Ohio Evangelical Base, which helped send former President Donald Trump to the White House, is now looking for a new warrior in Washington.

“God help our country,” said Jean Wood of Wooster. “Democrats are just leading us into a bad hole. It is so sad.”

Rise of white evangelism

Evangelicals are one of the most important religious groups in Ohio, especially among political conservatives.

According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of all Ohioans and 39% of Republicans consider themselves evangelical Protestants. They are scattered across the state, giving them a strong voice in elections and significant influence in Republican politics, said Kimberly Conger, a professor at the University of Cincinnati.

During this time, 19% of Democrats in Ohio identify as Evangelical Protestants and 64% are Christians.

Conger said evangelicals began to make their mark on the GOP decades ago and entered George W. Bush’s presidency satisfied with his values ​​and plans for the country. But September 11 disrupted Bush’s domestic agenda and left this base asking for more – a dissatisfaction that Trump took hold of.

As a result, 77% of white evangelical voters in the country chose Trump in 2016, a Pew poll found. Get out of the 2020 elections analyzed by the New York Times estimated that 82% of white evangelicals or born-again Christians in Ohio voted for Trump.

Research also shows that some white Americans who supported the former president began to identify themselves as evangelical between the 2016 and 2020 elections.

“When you have a biblical worldview, your anchoring spiritual truths are the most important thing,” said Pastor JC Church, who heads Victory in Truth Ministries at Bucyrus. “It’s not so much politics as it is personal beliefs and values.”

White evangelicals were drawn to Trump’s message that he would fight for the average person, Conger said. They feel besieged by a society with increasingly progressive views on abortion and same-sex marriage, and see issues like critical race theory as an attack on being American.

“They feel like a traditional understanding of the world is under attack, so they need those kinds of champions to fight for them,” Conger said.

Josh Mandel, center, asked to be prayed for by Pastor Jerry O'Brien, left, and James Garrett, Minister of Worship and Youth, at the end of his speech at the Faith Harvest Fellowship in Orrville on September 18 .

Fight for hearts and minds

Mandel hears this message and presents himself as a fighter who will go to Washington armed with a Bible and the American Constitution. At the same time, critics called him a racist for his comments on critical race theory and refugees and attacked him for comparing Vaccine order from President Joe Biden to the edicts of Nazi Germany.

“Some of my opponents amass a ton of support from politicians,” he said. “I can tell you that I don’t care at all about approvals from state officials, state senators, and members of Congress.”

Instead, Mandel garnered support from the Church and other pastors, as well as groups like the Ohio Value Voters and the Right to Life Action Coalition of Ohio.

“I believe we are way past the time of having leaders who lead with deep conviction, who stand with courage,” Church said.

Other Republican Senate candidates say they are better equipped to fight for the needs of this base. Former Ohio GOP President Jane Timken recently blew up his alma mater, Harvard University, for electing a chaplain president who identifies as an atheist. As part of her crusade against abortion, she visited pregnancy centers that are meant to deter people from getting the procedure.

Timken, a Catholic, said evangelical voters in Ohio have become increasingly outspoken in the political arena due to progressive policies.

“They are very concerned about these problems which erode their constitutional freedoms, and they are very concerned about the eradication of God from our country which has been pushed by the left,” she said.

“Hillbilly Elegy” author and venture capitalist JD Vance criticized the politicization of the church in a New York Times column in 2016 and said it “encourages us to point fingers at the faceless elites in Washington.” He has since converted to Catholicism and now touts Gospel bread and butter issues like abortion and a “patriotic” education for children.

Vance also gained approval from anti-abortion activist Penny Nance, who runs Concerned Women for America.

“JD’s pro-life, pro-family message resonates not only with evangelical Christians, but also with the majority of all Ohioans,” said spokesperson Taylor Van Kirk. “Ohio voters are finding out that he actually believes what he says and that he’s not just another politician.”

What sets Mandel apart, however, are years of listening to those voters as state elected officials and speaking their language, said a GOP consultant who is not affiliated with any campaign and asked for the anonymity to put it bluntly. Mandel has long been popular with social conservatives, the consultant said, and stumping in churches allows him to connect with a more receptive audience.

“The social conservatives are the base,” said the consultant. “They are not separate from the party structure. They are part of the party structure.”

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal, and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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