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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 09:20 GMT
State Of The Union: The Evangelical vote
By Tim Egan
In Montana

In the weeks surrounding the presidential election, the BBC has broadcast the reflections of commentators around the United States, offering a range of different viewpoints.

In the final programme in the series, New York Times correspondent Tim Egan says the conservative Christian community was crucial to George Bush's success.

The words on the 25-cent coin read, "In God We Trust" and schoolchildren across the United States pledge daily to a flag and "one nation - under God".

So it should come as no surprise that, when George W Bush was re-elected to a second term this week, it was largely because of people whose politics begin and do not end in church.

Assistant Pastor Ross Parsley leads a hymn at New Life Church
New Life Church was a frenzied hive of religious purpose where people wore buttons saying "I'm a values voter"
Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, famously said that the key to this election was turning out four million evangelical Christians who did not vote in the year 2000.

Well, this year - unlike four years ago - Mr Bush won the popular vote. And his margin was just short of four million voters.

Now, it would be foolish to assume that all those 3.5 million voters were evangelical Christians. They were not.

Mr Bush got some defections from the growing Hispanic vote - which usually trends Democratic - and he made gains among Catholics and in the Jewish community.

But the core of the president's support was Christian conservatives.

Three-quarters of all white voters who described themselves as evangelical Christians voted for President Bush, according to national surveys of voters as they left the polls on Tuesday.

And, this year, evangelicals made up one-in-five of all voters - a record.

Moral values

All year long we were told that the three big issues of this election would be the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism and the economy.

Time and again I heard people say the election was all about upholding the sanctity of marriage

But guess what? The number-one issue among people who voted for the president was "moral values".

You could practically hear people screaming from the big newsrooms in major cities in America as the voter preferences came in Tuesday: Moral Values?

Where did that come from?

I saw the inside workings of this astonishing church vote late last week, when I visited four swing states in the American West.

This is the new America, the fastest-growing part of the country. It's young, optimistic, in a hurry to get a piece of the pie.

In Oregon I saw the lifestyle exiles, people who left places like Los Angeles to be close to a trout stream.

Trade unions

In Nevada I saw the legions of new workers - largely Hispanic - pouring into Las Vegas, that city on steroids, growing by a thousand people a week.

Las Vegas
Las Vegas has been the fastest growing city in America for 30 years
They belong to big trade union groups like the Culinary Workers Union and this year they voted - unlike previous years, where their turnout did not match their promise.

They nearly carried the state for Senator John Kerry.

In Arizona I saw the new elderly - the Viagra retirees, living in active, gated communities that have been scratched into the desert.

But the most interesting site was inside a massive church compound in Colorado Springs, a metro area of nearly half a million people, an hour south of Denver.

It has become the centre of the Christian evangelical political movement in the United States.

Colorado Springs sits at 6,000 feet (1,828 metres) above sea level, snug against the brawny flank of the Rocky Mountains.

Prayer centre

As you drive into town, one of the first things you see as you emerge from the freeway is a tall cross atop a massive complex.

This is the home of New Life Church World Prayer Centre, which is big enough to be a shopping mall, or one of those warehouse stores that dot the suburban landscape.

On the day I visited New Life, workers were putting the finishing touches to a new church building that will hold nearly 8,000 people in an oval seating formation.

The church is just one part of what seems like a self-sustaining Christian colony, a factory of born-again converts.

There is a food court, dorm rooms for overnight stays, business and conference rooms, video and computer networks, school and athletic facilities.

Values buttons

The place was a frenzied hive of religious purpose and, because Colorado was in the midst of early voting, people wore buttons that said, "I'm a values voter."

Pastor Ted Haggard
Haggard has come a long way since the church in his living room
A pleasant, clean-faced young man named Rob Brendle - the associate pastor of New Life - showed me around.

"We're in regular contact with Karl Rove," he said, dropping the name of the man Democrats deride as "Bush's brain".

Pastor Brendle said it in the way someone in Los Angeles invokes an A-list celebrity.

New Life was started in the living room of a high-spirited young preacher named Ted Haggard.

It answers to no larger church or organisation. It was started 20 years ago.

Now Pastor Ted - as everyone at the church calls him - is president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

They represent 30 million Christian conservatives. That is a lot of souls and a lot of votes.

Sea of homes

Looking one way from the upstairs window of the New Life headquarters, you can see Pike's Peak - the 14,000-foot mountain that was inspiration for the song, America the Beautiful.

In the other direction is a sea of large, new, almost identical-looking homes, with multiple flagstone chimneys and park-sized back yards.

These new homes are full of "evangelical executives," as Pastor Brendle told me. These people run companies, give a lot of money to the churches, coach little league baseball. And they vote.

New Life is very much a bottom-line church. There's little room for nuance or ambiguity.

"We're not going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya," said Pastor Brendle, referring to the gospel song beloved of folk singers. "We have issues."

Those issues centre around homosexuals and abortion.

Marriage

Eleven states had measures that banned gay marriage on their ballots this year. And in 11 states the measures were passed by an overwhelming margin.

Because their church is a non-profit, non-taxed entity they cannot become overt political advocates

In the mother of all swing states, Ohio, 2.5 million anti-gay-marriage leaflets were distributed to 17,000 churches one week before the election.

Time and again in my travels across the battleground states this year, I heard people say the election was all about upholding "the sanctity of marriage", as they called it.

You never heard this in the major urban areas.

And some political operatives in the coastal cities were dismissive of the church vote in the heartland.

But others saw a true awakening. For these churches dispatched "values vans" which were basically Christian-centred political operatives on wheels.

This year there was the added values issue of stem cell research.

Heartland

Christian conservatives, like President Bush, strongly oppose using embryonic stem cells for medical research, believing that the smallest formation in a Petri dish is a God-given human at the dawn of life.

Service at New Life Church
New Life congregants do not need to be told how to vote
Of course, in California, home to nearly one-in-nine Americans, they passed a ballot measure to spend $3 billion on stem cell research.

But Mr Bush barely tried to compete in the Golden State. From the very beginning, his strategy was about the heartland and about good and evil, and about faith and values.

Specifics were not necessary.

I asked the church leaders at New Life whether they planned to canvass door-to-door, or man a phone bank - this is what the Democrats had done after all and they were planning a massive get-out-the-vote effort.

Pastor Brendle laughed.

"Our people don't need to be bussed to the polls and given a sandwich to vote," he said.

"Well, then," I asked, "how do evangelicals get out the vote?"

"We speak," Pastor Brendle said. "And when we do there is a high response."

Special status

Because the church is a non-profit, non-taxed entity, they cannot become overt political advocates. If they do, they risk losing their special status.

In this election millions of people felt there was a compact between an anointed one and the Almighty
Remember, by constitutional intent, church and state are supposed to be separate.

But what they do at New Life is they "compare and contrast" - as they call the advertisements that highlight the difference between the two candidates.

Though they never come right out and say, "Vote for President Bush," there is no doubt who they felt the better values candidate was.

The president himself made a video appearance inside the church, in a satellite broadcast sent out to select evangelical ministries.

Pastor Ted has come a long way from his makeshift living room chapel.

Twice over the last three years, he has been a guest of President Bush in the White House.

Win predicted

"When Pastor Ted comes back from one of his trips to the White House, his reports galvanise our people," said Pastor Brendle.

Pastor Brendle had predicted a win for President Bush - in Colorado and nationwide.

He was confident that the polls were missing the kind of people who pack the New Life church.

"About 75% of our people will vote," he said just days before the election. "People are so energised we almost have to hold them back."

As it turned out, the pastor was prophetic, on both counts.

In his victory speech, President Bush did not single out the throngs of evangelicals who carried him to victory. He didn't have to.

Several times in the short speech he mentioned faith and God, and that may have been enough.

For, in this election, millions of people felt there was a compact between an anointed one and the Almighty.

How could the outcome have been anything else?


The final episode of State Of The Union was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 5 November, 2004 and repeated on Sunday 7, November, 2004.


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