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War tests voter loyalty in Bible Belt

Social issues secondary for some conservatives

NEW ALBANY, Ind. -- The political billboards here are blooming alongside the fading trees, and while the foliage is a medley of rust, copper, and mustard, the signs are black and white: "REMOVE GOD," one declares in block letters claiming to describe the position of a Democratic candidate for Congress, while another, in the same race, says the Democrat "SUPPORTS ABORTION."

As the candidates in southern Indiana and around the nation barrel toward next Tuesday's finish line, Republicans are furiously trying to reenergize the so-called values voters, predominantly evangelical Protestants who helped propel President Bush to victory in 2004 but have since then become disenchanted with the GOP.

But concern about the war in Iraq is threatening to overwhelm the social issues. In interviews at an evangelical mega-church here Sunday, Republicans and Democrats repeatedly raised the war, even after their pastor, who had appeared at a rally with Bush the previous day, highlighted as the church's primary areas of concern two different issues: abortion and marriage.

"I voted for Bush, and in some areas, I think that he's done very well, but I'm personally against the war, and I think we need to withdraw immediately," said Mark Wakefield, 32, of Louisville, Ky., who was holding a Bible tucked under his arm. "He says a lot about being spiritually guided, but I don't see that right now in the president or the administration. When he first started, it was a lot more God-centered."

The airwaves here are filled with talk of values. In one radio ad, a candidate for Congress in another Indiana district proclaims his support for "the sanctity of life and marriage." Highway billboards promote church attendance -- one reads "the family that prays together stays together." And the state is in the midst of a debate over a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; the measure was approved by the Legislature last year and faces another legislative vote this year before heading to voters in 2008.

In the congressional race, both the incumbent, Republican Mike Sodrel, and the former incumbent, Democrat Baron Hill, have run television ads titled "Hoosier Values." Hill's ad cites faith as one of those values, showing him in different scenes praying around the kitchen table with a family, standing in front of an American flag, and declaring that "marriage between a man and a woman is sacred" as he greets a minister in gray vestments in front of a red-brick church. Sodrel's ad, in which the congressman wears an open-collar denim shirt and sits in front of an American flag, says he ran for Congress "because like you, I was tired of Baron Hill voting against our Hoosier values. . . . upset he voted against traditional marriage and protecting the flag."

And on Saturday, at the Sodrel rally in Sellersburg, Ind., Bush warned the crowd of the risks posed by a New Jersey court decision last week requiring equal treatment for gay and straight couples.

Among those on the dais with Bush was George Ross , the soft-spoken, charismatic pastor of Northside Christian Church , an independent evangelical congregation that says it is the largest church in southern Indiana. In an interview the next morning as he prepared for the third and fourth worship services of the weekend, Ross said that he certainly leans Republican, but that he does not voice his political stands from the pulpit.

"We want to respect everyone's right to decide," he said. "The moment I say anything from the stage I've alienated half my crowd."

Northside is the new face of American Christianity -- a booming, suburban, evangelical church, with a huge emphasis on outreach and welcome. The lobby of the four-year-old, $9 million complex includes an indoor Bibleland playground, with play structures in the shape of Noah's Ark, a whale, and other Biblical scenes. On a low wall sat a stack of cards that parents could give out with candy to trick-or-treaters, inviting their families to visit the church.

There is a coffee shop in the sprawling lobby, and Ross encourages worshipers to bring coffee into the worship service ("So what? God might see?" he says when asked about the coffee). The goateed pastor dresses casually -- a red vest over a white shirt and beige chinos -- and many worshipers do the same. There are no vestments here -- the only outward sign that Ross is the ordained minister is the body mike along his cheekbone.

The service --in a plush, 2,000-seat auditorium with acoustic tiles, spotlights, an elaborately designed stage set, and three oversize video screens -- is piped throughout the building, so that people can watch from the lobby or listen while in the bathrooms. And there are separate, simultaneous Sunday morning gatherings for elementary school children, middle school students, and high schoolers, each with live Christian musical acts.

Ross encouraged worshipers to talk to a visiting reporter about their views, and in multiple interviews a few themes became clear:The war in Iraq, even here in a section of the Bible Belt that voted for Bush, has become unpopular, not for moral reasons, but because the worshipers no longer believe in the original rationale for the war or its effectiveness. The tenor of political campaigns, particularly here, where the two congressional candidates are running against each other for the third time, has alienated many people. And same-sex marriage has no perceptible support in the congregation; it just is no longer the election issue it was two years ago.

"I think the Republican Party speaks more for the religious -- they have more religious values on abortion and things like that," said Terry Zimmerman, 42, of New Albany. "But I don't think they've been doing very good at all, mostly with the war. I don't think we need to be over there."

Zimmerman said he thinks he will still vote for the Republican candidate for Congress, but his wife, Kelly, is planning to sit out this year's election.

"We need to pull out of Iraq," Kelly Zimmerman said. "We've done our job."

These kinds of sentiments appear to be endangering the GOP's hold on the House. There are several Republican-held districts that are too close to call in Indiana and in neighboring Ohio and Kentucky, as well as in other parts of the country.

"The background issue is Iraq, and the president's unpopularity, which is true even in southern Indiana, which is fairly conservative," said Russell L. Hanson , a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington.

The war was the first issue volunteered by most of the churchgoers interviewed about their concerns as Election Day approaches.

"I initially supported his views, but not so much now, because of the war," Donna Abell, 38, of Henryville, said of Bush. "Our continued presence there is not really yielding what I personally feel the mission that we initially went over there for, so why would we want to continue to put young Americans at risk of losing their lives?"

Michael Purlee, 58, of Salem, said he is a registered Democrat who voted for Bush in 2004 but is now leaning toward Hill, the Democratic candidate for Congress. Purlee said he considers homosexuality immoral -- "I don't like it, I don't like to be around it, but I don't know what I can do about it; that's just one of the moral breakdowns of this country" -- but that the issue is not the primary factor affecting his vote.

"I voted for Bush," Purlee said. "I actually thought that as far as being a good person and being truthful, I thought Bush seemed more of a moral person to me. But Purlee said that he is upset about the Iraq war and high oil prices, and that he is leaning toward Hill because, "I know that Sodrel has a lot of money, and I'm just wondering if he is really in touch with the normal working-class people."

Bush has plenty of defenders in the congregation, although fewer enthusiasts. Virginia Miller, of Elizabeth, described herself as "pretty satisfied" with the president, saying "I'm prolife, and for marriage between one man and one woman, and usually vote for someone I know is a Christian person." She plans to vote for Sodrel.

Jennifer Matthews, 35, of Sellersburg, said she was raised as a Democrat but shifted to the Republican Party "strictly on moral issues -- no stem cell [research], no abortion, and no same-sex marriage." She acknowledged dissatisfaction with the Republican administration but said changing parties is not the answer. "I feel like if the grass looks greener on the other side, you need to water your own grass."

The highway billboards in southern Indiana are an example of efforts by Republicans and Christian conservatives to motivate more evangelicals to go to the polls and vote Republican -- the billboards are independently funded by a local real estate salesman, Bud Bernitt, who said he wants voters to realize that only the Republican candidate for Congress here shares the values of evangelicals.

A scholar who studies the voting patterns of religious constituencies says that a combination of the war and a perceived lack of progress on social issues has led to a decline in evangelical support for the Republican Party, but that that support could be affected by last-minute get-out-the-vote campaigns.

"There's a lot for this community to be unhappy about, but their leaders are aware of that, and tremendous efforts have been made to mobilize them in spite of their discontent," said John C. Green , a senior fellow in religion and American politics at The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Those efforts may be paying off, but who knows. There's still a week to go."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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