The cameras were rolling last October as Rod Parsley took to the Statehouse steps in Columbus to announce the kickoff of his grassroots group, Reformation Ohio. Bolstered by a bused-in crowd of supporters, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, rappers, and a dance troupe, Parsley grabbed the microphone and sounded the call to arms.
"A Holy Ghost invasion is taking place!" he called. "Man your battle stations, ready your weapons, lock and load. Let the reformation begin!"
Some analysts credit Parsley for helping President George W. Bush win Ohio in 2004. As pastor of the 12,000-member World Harvest Church, Parsley used his platform to campaign for a state ban on gay marriage. When those he rallied entered the polling booth, most also pulled the lever for Bush, who won the state by only two percentage points.
Parsley has ambitious goals for the November election, which features hard-fought Ohio gubernatorial and Senate races that could also shape the presidential election in 2008. But he's not doing it alone.
Fellow pastor Russell Johnson lacks Parsley's charisma, but he has mastered the art of organizing. His group, the Ohio Restoration Project (ORP), recruited nearly 1,800 churches with "Patriot Pastors" and deputized them to draft new "values voters."
The ministers signed 410,000 Ohio homes onto Johnson's mailing list, and the ORP can tap 100,000 prayer warriors through e-mail in a moment's notice. This is more than just a group of voters ready to punch some ballots. According to ORP outreach materials, it is a "mighty army" ready to do battle.
While Johnson reaches white evangelicals and fundamentalists, Parsley appeals to both African Americans and Pentecostals. Together, the two men have forged a political machine that aims to remake Ohio politicsand the nation.
Russell Johnson taps the door of the hotel bar as he strides past. "This'll be shut down, of course," he says before leading the way through the faded Rodeway Inn. The décor suggests a certain nostalgia for the 1970s.
Johnson speaks of closing the bar with the confidence of a man who owns the propertywhich he does. His church, Fairfield Christian, just purchased it for $1.9 million, with plans to convert it into a conference center.
His 3,000-person church is less "mega" than Parsley's, but Johnson can't be accused of thinking small. A short man who resembles James Dobson in profile, Johnson soon plans to add more classrooms and an artificial waterfall to his church. He brings the same expansive vision to the Ohio Restoration Project.
From his base in Lancaster30 minutes down Highway 31 from ColumbusJohnson oversees both his church and the ORP, which aims to cleanse the "arteries of our culture" from the "toxin of dogmatic secularism." This political angioplasty will be performed by the statewide network of Patriot Pastors.
Their top policy concerns are (1) the right to life (i.e., an end to abortion), (2) maintaining a godly definition of marriage, (3) preserving a parent's right to discipline and educate, and (4) defending the rights of Christians and their churches to "teach biblical values in the public square."
This stance lines up with a Republican agenda, a fact made more clear by Johnson's concern that Ohio families are struggling beneath the "weight of excessive taxation and government waste," that a "secular jihad" is overtaking the country, and that the media treat Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden "with more respect than the leader of the free world, George W. Bush."
The ORP has attracted plenty of critics, some within the Republican Party and plenty more without. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, calls it "the most dangerous model I've seen in years." Apparently operating on the theory that if Barry Lynn is upset, they must be doing something right, the ORP trumpets this quote in its promotional brochure.
Fifteen minutes into a revival service in Botkins, Ohio, the side door opens and Rod Parsley enters with an entouragesecurity, staff, personal assistant, and Parsley's daughter. On stage in the not-quite-complete sanctuary of Only Believe Ministries, 25 people lead worship, backed by an even larger choir.
Parsley doesn't "do" small, even when he visits other churches. Parsley tells CT that in 30 years of ministry, ever since he dropped out of Circleville Bible College and launched World Harvest as a Bible study in his backyard, the church has been putting "bricks on bricks" for all but 18 months.
Despite a national presence (he stood beside President Bush at a June press conference to support the Marriage Protection Amendment), he still concentrates most of his political efforts on Ohio, where he has founded two groups.
Reformation Ohio focuses on evangelism and voter registration, with a goal of preaching the gospel to 1 million Ohioans in the next three and a half years. The other group, the Center for Moral Clarity (cmc), deals with issues like defending the American flag from desecration and confirming conservative federal judges.
Parsley is a stunning speaker when seen live, a physical dynamo with a linebacker's build and charisma so powerful that entire congregations lean forward when he speaks. Some newspapers have dubbed him the "raging prophet." Parsley's preaching is like a river fed by the three streams of evangelism, politics, and money. Once he starts speaking, boundaries between the three are fluid, like they are in Botkins.
Parsley spends 15 minutes explaining how the cmc has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court regarding an upcoming abortion case. He runs through several emotional tales of children who survived abortions as their pictures flash on the screens above. But amicus briefs don't write themselves. Soon the donation envelopes go around; $40 gets you a World Harvest Reformation Bible and a copy of the brief.
This plea for money is a staple of Parsley's services, with people urged to stand up, raise their hands, or hold their cash in the air. Parsley routinely exhorts church members and viewers of his television show to donate (or "sow a seed") with the expectation that God will bless them 30, 60, or 100 times.
Parsley has written that "the power to create wealth is one of God's gifts under the covenant" and that James 5:3, 7 promises "that in the last days there is going to be a great transfer of wealth [to Christians]."
He is living proof of the "success" of this prosperity gospel. News reports and property records have detailed his 7,000-square-foot home, his San Diego vacation property, and his two $60,000 vehicles. In high demand as a speaker, Parsley travels everywhere by private jet, even to Botkins, a small town two hours by car from his base near Columbus.
Parsley knows how to rally the Botkins faithful before leaving: an altar call, a slaying in the Spirit, a plea for voter registration.
"It's a Holy Ghost invasion!" he shouts as he wraps up the evening, recycling the cry from the Statehouse steps. "Lock and load! Man your battle stations!"
As Ohio Goes, So Goes the Nation
There are better times than 8:00 A.M. on a weekday to sing "We'll Work Till Jesus Comes." For Parsley, who has just flown to Washington for a national conference, the low-energy crowd is an opportunity, not a problem. He seizes control of the room with his first words; tired eyes pop open, slumping backs straighten.
"We are the largest special interest group in the country," Parsley thunders as he launches into a speech pulled all but verbatim from his latest book, Silent No More.
In its heyday, the Omni Shoreham's fabled Blue Room was a nightclub that played host to John F. Kennedy and Liza Minnelli. Today, it's a tan-carpeted conference room in a $300-a-night hotel, playing host to yet another D.C. conference.
Organized by Texas pastor Rick Scarborough and his Vision America organization, it's an excellent venue for seeing if Ohio's military imagery translates well to a national audience. The title suggests that it will300 people have assembled to learn about the "War on Christians."
For an event that Scarborough financed largely with his American Express card, it has attracted a stable of A-list conservative talent, including Congressman Tom DeLay, Senators John Cornyn and Sam Brownback, Gary Bauer, Janet Parshall, and Alan Keyes. Each speaker has arrived at personal expense in order to sound the alarm: Christians in America face a sustained, coordinated assault on their values and their rights, but they don't have to take it. The numbers are on their side.
It's a claim echoed by several speakers in private conversation. Many of those described as members of the Christian Right do not accept that label. Pointing to consistent polls that show most Americans oppose gay marriage, for instance, they claim that it is more accurate to speak of their movement as the "Christian mainstream."
Given this fact, accusations of wholesale persecution might seem odd, but Scarborough simply points the finger at judges.
"Every step down the road to Gomorrah has been initiated by a federal judge," he tells the faithful. He's echoed by many others, including Phyllis Schlafly, who says, "Practically any problem we have today is the fault of the judges."
Judges are accused of dismantling school prayer, introducing abortion, and allowing gays to marryall over the express will of the people. Throughout the conference, speakers return to the theme of "activist judges" like a burglarized family obsessing over their losses, which is exactly how they feel. The thought of these black-robed autocrats inspires an almost visceral sense of outrage.
Radio host Janet Parshall sounds a softer note. "People who hold an antithetical worldview are not the enemy," she says. "[Jesus] did not have to hang five minutes longer for the gay activist or the feminist."
The message is timely. Though everyone in the room claims to expect persecution, there is surpriseand real angerwhen it actually happens.
Gary Bauer arrives at the War on Christians conference in a sparring mood. Unlike most other speakers, he doesn't sound convinced by the conference's title.
"You want to know what a war on Christians is?" he asks rhetorically. "Be a Christian in Sudan. Be an unregistered Christian in China."
Camera crews file in near the end of his talk, but they haven't come to see Bauer. They've come for DeLay, widely expected to announce that he will not seek another term in Congress.
Scarborough introduces his friend and fellow Texan as a man appointed by God, persecuted and long-suffering like Job. "The most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life is take his faith seriously in the public office," Scarborough says. The standing ovation erupts through the Blue Room like thunder.
DeLay admits to being a "self-centered jerk" when he came to Congress two decades ago. He talks about cleaning up his act and recommitting his life to Christ. He sees America as a place granted a special destiny by God. "We are a providential nation," he says, "serving the cause of justice and freedom everywhere in the world."
This was not what the press had hoped for. When DeLay headed for his waiting suv, the cameramen packed up their gear and headed on to the next story. They missed further musings on the providential beginnings of America, a theme made powerful by the way it tapped into a widespread sense of something precious having been lostor stolen.
"We're not asking for some Taliban style of theocracy; we just want to get back to what we originally had," says Concerned Women of America president Wendy Wright. "We want what the Founders gave us."
Mostly. But they don't want the "wall of separation between church and state," a phrase first penned by Thomas Jefferson. Scarborough sells a booklet titled "In Defense of Mixing Church and State." Other speakers express a desire to knock down the wall separating the two, or at least punch some bigger holes through it.
Talking with Scarborough as waiters clear the cups and napkins, it's clear that the conference has been a great success. His new book, Liberalism Kills Kids, sits in stacks on the book table. He has the ear of senators and members of Congress. His editorial in USA Today will appear tomorrow.
But was proclaiming a "War on Christians" putting it a bit too strongly? "We were accused of using hyperbole. I confess we did," Scarborough says with a grin. "Our desire was to get the press exercised."
The military metaphors did stir up major media. They also kicked up opposition back in Ohio. Tim Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church in Columbus, returned home after a week of vacation last fall and found Parsley's "lock and load" statement in the local paper. The account sparked his decision to assemble a group of central Ohio pastors appalled by such aggressive rhetoric.
The group, We Believe Ohio, wants to encourage a different kind of political action focused on social justice. "When Jesus is speaking so often and so clearly about care for the poor and stewardship of the earth, I don't see that reflected in their work," Ahrens says of groups like the ORP.
In terms of size, We Believe Ohio won't derail the ORP any time soon. As of early June, the organization counted little more than 300 pastors on its membership rolls.
But there is one organization that dwarfs both Parsley's and Johnson's and has more political power than either: the Internal Revenue Service.
The IRS became a part of the drama back in January. A group of 31 Ohio clergy filed a complaint about Parsley and Johnson, who were accused of endorsing Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell. Tax-exempt organizations are not allowed to endorse candidates.
Neither pastor endorsed Blackwell from the pulpit, but Blackwell has sat at the head table during World Harvest events. He has flown on the World Harvest plane. He wrote a blurb for Parsley's new book. He has appeared around the state at multiple ORP rallies; at each one, Johnson has presented him with a "courageous leadership award."
The government has taken an interest in the issue. IRS commissioner Mark Everson came to Ohio in February and reminded churches, "We can't afford to have our charitable and religious institutions undermined by politics."
The IRS has contacted the ORP about its political involvement. While legally separate, the ORP and Fairfield Christian overlap significantly. Johnson is the founder/chairman CEO of ORP, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. A "Patriot Pastors" banner hangs in the church's lobby. "We're dialoguing with [the IRS] yet; we're still working through that," Johnson tells CT. He can't say for sure whether the matter will be wrapped up by the November elections. Parsley declines to comment.
The conservative pastors believe they are being persecuted. The Left, Johnson says, wants to "nail us to a cross, beat us bloody red, and say, 'This is what happens to those churches who take a stand.'" And Johnson and Parsley are not the kind of men to be cowed.
Christian vs. Christian
Ohio is a national weather vane, a state that shows which direction the political wind is blowing. This year the forecast calls for stormy weather, because this is not just Christians vs. culture. This is Christian vs. Christian.
It's apparent even among the candidates in the Ohio gubernatorial race, where Blackwell's opponent is Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland, an ordained minister with an M.A. from Asbury Theological Seminary and a plaque of Micah 6:8 on the wall of his D.C. office.
Many mainstream evangelicals find themselves caught in the middle, finding that neither side fully represents them.
Michael Moriarty, pastor of Hope Church in Mason, Ohio, can't agree with the theology of many members of We Believe Ohio. But he's even more troubled by the conservatives.
"Christians are called to love people and reflect the heart of Christ," he says. "If we enter the public square using this abrasive, Rambo terminology and these kinds of tactics, we contribute to cultural ills. We become Terminators rather than transforming agents of grace."
The unease with contemporary society that drives this conservative movement comes as no surprise to John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron. Society is now "really diverse, where no one particular point of view ever prevails," he says. "I often tell my students that on many, many issues, there is no majority, there's just a bunch of minorities going for each other's throats, and it produces a tremendous amount of anxiety."
That anxiety has been channeled into activism in Ohio. It's too early to say whether Johnson and Parsley can "reform" and "restore" the state, but late summer polling showed Strickland beating Blackwell by 20 percentage points.
For Christian conservatives, the current political struggles have an apocalyptic tinge. America's destiny is a door grinding slowly upon the hinges of history, which are "moving on our watch," as the ORP puts it. Scarborough says, "We are closer to victory than we have ever been in my adult lifetime."
But even as conservatives hope for victory, they fear all could go wrong. The "secular jihad" remains strong. A minor pause, a slackening of tension, and the enemy could push back against destiny's door and shove Christians into the darkness.
Talk show host Janet Folger worries about the "criminalization of Christianity" that could result from hate crime laws, while Russell Johnson foresees a time not far off when "we could see ministers taxed or punished or imprisoned for preaching the Bible in America."
It's a fierce vision of the future, but one that works supremely well as a rallying tool. Come Election Day, the results will be on display for the nation to see.
Nate Anderson is a writer living in Wheaton, Illinois.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Rod Parsley's World Harvest Church site tells about his vision and project.
The Ohio Restoration Project website has information about the Patriot Pastors movement.
We Believe Ohio website also has information.
The New Yorker also covered the movement earlier this year.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more