Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Bush campaign courts the religious right

By Julian Borger  /  THE GUARDIAN , Fort Lauderdale, Florida

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

No matter what happens in Iraq, and no matter what the US economy does between now and the presidential election, Randy Bernsen will be voting for President George W. Bush. It will be an act of faith.

Religious faith will be at the heart of the presidential election in November. About a quarter of the electorate are white evangelical Protestants, like Bernsen. They represent the most powerful single bloc in US politics, one that is more engaged in the battle this year than at any time since the moral majority brought out the vote for the late president Ronald Reagan.

In fact, the sense of loyalty is even deeper now. Reagan was seen as an ally. In Bush, the evangelicals recognize one of their own. He talks their language. Their defining belief in salvation and redemption is personified in his decision to turn away from alcohol, nearly 20 years ago, and be "born again" in the faith.

Unlike Reagan's secular White House, the Bush White House starts the day with prayers and Bible meetings.

"I pray whoever is leading the country will be led by God, and I believe this current administration answers to a higher calling," said Bernsen, a well-known jazz musician living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"I don't wear the man's shoes, but there's enough fruit that falls from that tree to tell me what I need to know. I believe George Bush has surrounded himself with enough of the right people for me to know he is a godly person."

Almost 80 percent of the country's white evangelicals support the president -- a counterweight, in terms of sheer fealty, to African-American backing for the Democrats.

The support for Bush appears to be virtually unanimous among Bernsen's fellow parishioners at the Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, a "mega-church" that boasts a congregation of more than 17,000.

Calvary's pastor, Bob Coy, has been invited to meetings with Bush and has been impressed.

"I don't think that with this administration we'll be concerning ourselves with a Monica Lewinsky situation," said Pastor Bob, as he is universally known. "He has restored honor to the White House, and that morality is something I will always be proud to carry the banner for."

Pastor Bob's church is a sprawling grey concrete building which still looks like the computer assembly plant it was before it was transformed into a place of worship.

The Calvary Chapel, part of a California-based evangelical "franchise," offers its congregation a complete lifestyle.

Conveniently placed on a major road, the church has a well-equipped school, cafeteria, bookshop and multimedia center that produces music, videos and CDs of sermons that are instantly available after Sunday service. There is a support center for people with cancer and those recently divorced -- even a diving club.

"The bigger we get, the faster it grows," said Rod Pearcy, who runs Calvary's media center. "We are in the age of the superstore, like Home Depot, Lowe's and Super Target. The reason people go to them is there is so much more to offer. It is the same thing with mega-churches."

Protestant mega-churches are spreading exponentially. There are now 850 in the US. They each have congregations of more than 2,000 and a combined total of 3 million.

John Vaughan, whose organization Church Growth Today monitors and encourages their expansion, says a new mega-church appears in the US every four days. Their success, he argues, lies in a simple formula: "inflexible with the word of God, but flexible with their time and space."

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