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God, Guns, Gays - The Battle For Ohio


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God, Guns, Gays - The Battle For Ohio

by The Associated Press

July 30, 2006 - 8:00 pm ET

(Columbus, Ohio) Scriptural references are flying like a plague of locusts in one of America's most watched governor's races this year.

Yet only about half of Ohioans belong to a church.

Voters have been told that Democratic nominee Ted Strickland is a friend of the National Rifle Association and that his Republican rival Ken Blackwell is a gun-owning Second Amendment supporter.

But, of 11 million Ohioans, just 392,105 hold a hunting license or concealed carry permit.

Rounding off this holy political trinity of hot-button issues - "God, guns and gays" - Ohio's governor candidates are also at the ready with their positions on traditional vs. same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census, only a fraction of 1 percent of the state's residents reported they were gay or lesbian living with a partner in 2000. The highest estimates put the nation's gay and lesbian population at around 5 percent.

State and national political consultants don't veil the intent of bringing up testy topics, particularly in important races like Ohio's - where power could swing to Democrats for the first time in 16 years amid a Republican-dominated scandal. Experts dub issues such as abortion, gun rights and gay marriage "wedge issues," aimed at dividing and conquering the electorate for one party.

Democrats are fighting fire with fire in Ohio this year, running a more religious and gun-friendly candidate in Strickland in hopes of neutralizing some of the wedges that have allowed Republicans to dominate the state.

Strickland, a former prison psychologist and minister, has taken his campaign message to Christian radio, typical territory for more conservative candidates. His ads quoted the same Bible verse that Blackwell's primary opponent, Attorney General Jim Petro, tried unsuccessfully to use in a flood of values-oriented television ads.

Both campaigns sought the upper hand against the openly religious Blackwell, who routinely speaks to both Christian and secular audiences with a Bible in hand, lauding the importance of a government centered on God.

Toby Hoover, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, says all the posturing on wedge issues leaves many topics of greater importance to voters unaddressed.

"What I find fascinating is that our candidates seem to be competing for who's more gun-friendly, and that seems absurd when that's not up there in the concerns of the majority of people," she said. "They're more worried about educating their kids, getting decent health care and putting food on the table."

National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam called gun rights a mainstream issue. He said far more Ohioans own guns than concealed-carry and hunting statistics would indicate - and gun owners vote.

"What matters to politicians are votes on Election Day, and what we have is a voting bloc that's savvy, that's committed, and - based on empirical evidence - that will go out and vote on Election Day," he said. "That's why politicians pay attention to gun owners."

Ditto for evangelical Christians whose members often share a common religious and political perspective, said Tom Smith, a lobbyist for the Ohio Council of Churches.

According to The Association of Religion Data Archives, almost half - 46 percent - of Ohio's 11.4 million residents claimed no religious affiliation in 2000. Of those who did, 2.2 million were Catholic, 1.4 million were "mainline" Protestant, and 1.1 million were evangelical.

Despite having membership triple that of evangelical churches, though, Catholic and mainline churches have been especially divided by wedge issues - resulting in a louder political voice for the evangelical movement, Smith said.

"The reason the right wing can speak out more strongly is that people in their churches are already in their ideological bent. They don't have to worry about losing customers, so to speak, where mainline churches know they could lose 20 or 30 percent of their members if they take a stand one way or another on some of these issues," Smith said.

"As a result, there's virtually no dialogue on these issues in some mainline churches. A lot of people think that's the way church should be: You go to hear sermons about the Bible, pray and sing songs."

Columbus churchgoer Edy Turner, 41, sees candidates' stances on moral issues as a good indicator of how they will conduct themselves in office.

"It shows what their moral fabric is, whether they'll take a bribe or cover something up," she said.

But Erica Gitonga, a retail worker in her mid-20s who doesn't belong to a church, said politicians use wedge issues to distract and confuse voters.

"I think these issues are semi-important, but they aren't the most important. I see education and affordable health care as the most important issues right now," she said. "But politicians focus on all this sin in the world to keep the eye off all the other corruption that's going on, like the way they've let the public school system fall."

Like the NRA, the Christian Coalition - and its Ohio affiliate, the Ohio Christian Alliance - provides political direction for its members through education materials, evaluations of politicians' voting records, and voting day scorecards.

Executive director Chris Long said voter guidance doesn't stop at moral issues, though those are what have united and energized many to become politically active.

"Our members and supporters look to our educational materials to educate them on what positions candidates take on life issues, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, but also on the immigration issue, the war on terror, national defense, and, of course, the bottom line is people's pocketbook," Long said.

A survey released last year by the nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization Public Agenda found that religious Americans were less likely to support compromise on these issues in 2004 than they had been in 2000.

"There's a growing acceptance of religion in politics and the idea that political leaders should stay true to their religious ideals in their politics. That acceptance is carrying out to the local races as well," said spokesman Michael Hamill Remaley. "The majority still say that leaders should compromise in general on the host of issues we talked about - abortion, gay rights, the death penalty, poverty - but what we found, though, was a slimming down of that majority."

Hoover believes that trend is fueled by fear.

"They scare people with these hot-button issues. Whether you care a lot about one of those issues is not really the point," she said. "If I can make you be afraid of one of these issues - they're going to take your guns away, or gay marriage is going to be everywhere - then I can guide your vote. It's always about fear."

©365Gay.com 2006

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