Emboldened by 2004 election results that favored many conservative Christian candidates, the Reverend Rod Parsley, senior pastor of the World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, will be “Silent No More” about what he considers to be the victimization and suppression of evangelical Christians by laws that stifle their expressions of faith. Parsley is working with Pastor Russell Johnson and 900 other pastors to form a powerful religious-political coalition called the Ohio Restoration Project (ORP). They aim to establish a team of 2000 “Patriot Pastors” to guide their congregations in support of conservative Christian candidates, who will presumably move the Ohio legislature toward a legislative agenda based more on biblical text than on constitutional law. Toward that end, the ORP is diligently working to get one of its strongest proponents, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, elected governor. But Parsley’s call to action has led other religious leaders in Ohio to speak out against the efforts of the ORP.
“I know I’m not the only pastor that feels this way — the real silent folks are people of faith who are stunned by the direction this country has taken,” said the Reverend Doctor John C. Lentz Jr., pastor of Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “The Ohio Restoration Project is dismissive of non-Christians and of the poor. It’s incredibly hurtful, and I find it insulting to my faith. Parsley’s interpretation of what is moral and correct is just that — an interpretation. The danger is when they say it is the Truth, with a capital T. Then you end up with a narrow definition. Combine that with rampant nationalism like the religious right is trying to do, and you get exactly what the Taliban does with the Koran.”
The ORP is using shifts in the political climate and a narrowly focused theology to wield its influence. According to the ORP Web site:
Now more than ever, we are convinced that God has blessed this nation with resources to share the light of God’s Word with a world lost in darkness. America has had a mission to share a living Savior with a dying world.
And why Ohio? In an interview with Focus on the Family, Parsley noted that “Ohio is a hotbed. I believe very much in the geographic locating abilities of the Holy Spirit.”
This does not sit well with Lentz. “This isn’t America’s mission. It’s not Ohio’s mission. There’s nothing in our charters, our constitutions that says we’re supposed to create a Christian nation. I find it insulting the way they are misreading the Constitution and misreading Scripture in order to advance their ideas.”
Lentz adds, “The implications of the ORP are dangerous. Many non-Christians are terrified by this. I have a Jewish friend who called me and asked, ‘What are we to do?’”
However, developing a strategy has not been an easy task. “The problem is that progressive Christians have given the language of faith to the Right. Now when we use it we ‘sound too Republican’; and when we try to come up with new ways to express ourselves, we end up sounding like a group that’s just trying to be nice to people.”
A complicating factor is the willingness of such pastors as Parsley to blur the lines of separation between church and state. According to Section 26 U.S.C. 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Tax Code, houses of worship and other nonprofits may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” It may be that the ORP is not technically guilty of violating this rule, but Blackwell’s participation in the ORP and Parsley’s ringing endorsements of the secretary of state’s bid for governor — while not spoken from the pulpit — tread very close to violating this core rule. During the 2004 presidential campaign Parsley noted, “Everything in my life prepared me for this project, and I feel very privileged to have traveled throughout Ohio with Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, setting up crusade meetings in big churches where more than 50 percent of the congregation were African-Americans. As we traveled I saw people literally changed when they were informed.”
Blackwell is slated to make a series of 30-second commercials for the ORP’s “Ohio For Jesus” rally to be held in the spring of 2006. He is also scheduled to be the keynote speaker for the event that organizers hope will include evangelical leaders such as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and Tony Perkins; former Nixon administration special counsel Charles Colson, who became a born-again Christian activist while serving seven months in prison in 1974 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in the Watergate-related Daniel Ellsberg case; controversial evangelist Franklin Graham; and Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values. The rally is designed to energize Patriot Pastors into becoming “Informed, Registered, Involved and Encouraging others to be involved” according to the ORP Web site.
The high-energy, large production-value event is characteristic of Parsley. The author of God’s Answer to Insufficient Funds lives a lavish lifestyle that he presents as a success story to the viewers of his television show Breakthrough, broadcast to a worldwide audience.
It is this lifestyle that Lentz claims is twisting Parsley’s message. “Preaching the ‘prosperity gospel’ is playing on people’s insecurities while leading them like sheep to the slaughter.” He notes as well:
Don’t people of faith see this vast discrepancy? Where in Scripture is there a theology that says wealth is a blessing? Nowhere is success considered a blessing in the Gospel, but [many of the mega-churches] are all about success. They’re all high-energy, all MTV, media-savvy, slick productions. But they’re closed-minded to knowledge. They’re anti-intellectual, anti-poor. And they’re going to hurt this country if we don’t speak out against them.
I think that there are many good-hearted people who go to these evangelical churches, who aren’t really aware of what their pastors are up to. I think if they really knew what was going on, they’d speak up against it.
[Ed. Note: This story comes from a lengthy conversation the author had with his longtime neighbor, the Rev. Dr. Lentz, after the two had read a June 5th front-page Cleveland Plain Dealer profile on Parsley, which is no longer available on-line.
For another take on Parsley and his Ohio Restoration Project, see "Ohio Players," by Media Transparency's Bill Berkowitz.]
Contributors to this article: Biblio, XicanoPwr, Susie Dow, SawcieLackey, DEFuning, Sue in KY, JeninRI, Standingup and lilnubber.