Right-wing church movements have been a staple of American politics since well before the 1692 witch trials at Salem. But only in the past few decades has the extremist church served as the grassroots base for a new breed of corporate totalitarianism. That unholy union has been nowhere more powerful than here in Ohio, and it has finally provoked a response from the state’s mainstream churches.
With huge torrents of cash from Richard Mellon Scaife, the Ahmanson family and other super-rich ultra-rightists, the fundamentalist church has formed the popular network that has spawned the Bush catastrophe. The totalitarian alliance between pulpit, corporation and military is unique in U.S. history.
With contempt for the Constitution, and unholy opposition to separation of church and state, ultra-rich ultra-right preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, self-proclaimed messiahs like Rev. Moon, and sanctimonious errand boys like Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, have turned America into a “Christo-fascist” empire whose twice-unelected executive claims Divine right to rule. When it comes to their views on violence, empire, greed and intolerance, these are the most un-Christian men in America. It’s no accident that George W. Bush’s first words about the war to follow 9/11 had to do with a “Christian Crusade” against Islam. And, instead of consulting his father, a former President, W. chose to consult “a higher father.”
That this evil network of mega- churches, cults and electronic Elmer Gantrys would prove profoundly corrupt should also come as no surprise. These are the moneychangers that Christ kicked out of the temple. The ultra-orthodox cash flow from Jack Abramoff to “godly” legislators like Tom DeLay and Ohio’s Bob Ney has suffered not the slightest diversion toward true spirituality. The movement even has its own sex symbol in Ann Coulter, the “Harlot of Hate” who reaps huge sums in places like Ohio’s World Harvest Church for talking nasty while dressed in mini-skirts that would get minors arrested off urban street corners.
The real mystery in all this has been an almost total silence from the religious mainstream. In recent months a number of statements have finally come from interdenominational organizations worrying deeply about global warming. The desecration of God’s Creation is pretty far along. But the liberal denominations finally seem to see the curse of CO2.
The liberal United Church of Christ is also finally questioning the theft of Christ’s legacy for ungodly GOP purposes. The idea that Jesus would hate gays, not want them to marry, love the death penalty and sanction wholesale slaughter in oil-rich nations has always stretched the imagination even of the irreligious. Finally, the actually religious seem to be speaking out.
In Ohio, the battle has actually hit the courts. More than fifty Columbus-area clergy have signed formal complaints with the Internal Revenue Service demanding an investigation of the practices of two extremist churches in regards to their tax exempt status. The two documents charge that the World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church have functioned as de facto campaign organizations for the gubernatorial campaign of J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s GOP Secretary of State. Blackwell served as co-chair of Ohio 2004’s Bush-Cheney campaign while simultaneously managing the vote count.
Thirty-one pastors filed a preliminary complaint on January 16. The sequel, with an additional 25 signatories, accuses World Harvest and Fairfield Christian of six instances of illegally aiding Blackwell’s current campaign for governor. “Something as ordinary as rules for the activities of tax-exempt organizations must not be abused for the political gratification of any power, political or religious,” said the Rev. Al Debelak at a recent press conference. Debelak is pastor of Columbus’s Redeemer Lutheran Church.
The pastors cite three instances in which Blackwell admits to being the only invited candidate at church-sponsored rallies. Blackwell was also the only politician at church-sponsored rallies for Issue One, the 2004 referendum that banned gay marriages in Ohio. Blackwell also ran the Issue One campaign, in part, out of his secretary of state’s office.
Blackwell has become very public in his close friendship with the Rev. Rod Parsley, World’s Harvest’s ultra-right preacher who has grown ultra-rich in the leadership of his huge congregation. Blackwell’s trips on Parsley’s private plane are among the partisan favors cited. “This latest complaint filed by a group of left-leaning clergy amounts to nothing more than a campaign of harassment,” says a World Harvest statement. “For this group, especially members of the clergy, to engage in outright falsehoods for the sake of a political agenda is unconscionable.”
World Harvest gained notoriety in the 2004 election for its abundant electronic voting machines while there were seven-hour lines in Columbus’s inner city. A polling station at a Falwell-related fundamentalist church in nearby Gahanna became infamous when 4,258 votes were counted for George W. Bush in a precinct where 638 people voted. This became known worldwide as the “loaves and fishes” vote count precinct. The Blackwell-orchestrated election drew similar scorn when at Mt. Vernon Nazarene College, a fundamentalist college in Gambier, had a five-minute wait to vote, while students from nearby Kenyon College had to wait eleven hours.
Big fundamentalist money has also surfaced in the voting machine industry through the Ahmanson family, tied deeply into ES&S, the nation’s biggest voting machine company. Ohio Congressman Bob Ney’s ties to Jack Abramoff, ES&S and the Ahmansons have also surfaced in his sponsorship of the Help America Vote Act, that has forced hundreds of millions of federal dollars to be spent installing nontransparent electronic voting machines throughout the US.
Like Ney, Blackwell has managed to step deep into the world of potentially actionable corruption. Since attempting the give the Diebold Company an unbid $100 million voting machine contract in Ohio, it has surfaced that Blackwell has owned shares in Diebold. The conflict of interest was deepened in 2005 when Blackwell brought in millions of dollars worth of Diebold machines which may have been used to seal the defeat of two election reform ballot issues. Three Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) election officials have now been officially charged with rigging the 2004 vote count, and more indictments are expected.
Though Blackwell is a candidate in the upcoming May 2 primary, he will once again administer the election. At this moment, he has stored in his office the memory cards for all the machines that will be used to count that vote.
Blackwell has also now revealed that he owns stock in the world’s largest manufacturer of gambling machines, even though part of his courtship with the fundamentalist churches has been an aggressive, outspoken opposition to gambling. Blackwell’s office says there is no conflict of interest here. But the professions of extreme fundamentalist faith, crucial to his race for governor, have been tainted.
Republican control of Ohio’s governorship is a critical piece of what happens to the presidency in 2008. The 20 electoral votes stolen in 2004 by Blackwell, Parsley and the rest of the Republican fundamentalist network gave George W. Bush a second term. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.
That mainstream churches here and around the United States are finally standing up to the theocratic fundamentalism that has produced “Christo-fascist” politicians like Blackwell may represent a critical swing of the political pendulum. The challenge to the powerful World Harvest’s tax status can only embolden churches that actually endorse the US Constitution.
With that might come at last, in Ohio and elsewhere, a spiritual counterweight desperately needed to help restore American democracy and the blessings of separation of church and state.
Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman are co-authors of How the GOP Stole America's 2004 Election and is Rigging 2008, available at www.freepress.org. They are co-editors, with Steve Rosenfeld, of What Happened in Ohio?, from the New Press.
Copyright 2006 Free Press