For much of the last two decades, voices that are both progressive and religious have been like the “the Whos” in Dr. Seuss’ classic Horton Hears a Who, yelling “We are here! We are here! We are here!” just to be noticed. This is how Rev. Tim Ahrens described it in an interview I conducted with him last year about the founding of We Believe Ohio in 2005 (for the full interview see my forthcoming book Progressive & Religious). But in just a few short years, the Whos have indeed been heard.
We Believe Ohio has grown from a few religious leaders responding to a single email into a broad organization that includes more than four hundred pastors, priests, rabbis, cantors, imams, and other religious leaders all over the state. These religious leaders have come together in an unprecedented way to reclaim a progressive voice for religion in the public square.
The growth of We Believe Ohio contrasts sharply with the fate of Rev. Russell Johnson, a fundamentalist megachurch pastor who had one of the biggest megaphones in Ohio in 2004. With his 2,000-member Fairfield Christian Church, Johnson ridiculed the early participants of We Believe Ohio, joking that their combined congregations could fit into a phone booth. Along with Rev. Rod Parsley—the movement’s bombastic mouthpiece who called on Ohio Christians (who he called the largest “interest group” in the state) to “lock and load” to defeat the “hordes of Hell”—Johnson was the force behind the so-called “Ohio Restoration Project,” an attempt to recruit “patriot pastors” to register one million “values voters.”
But by late 2007, Johnson had fallen. The pinnacle of Johnson’s work turned out to be supporting the failed bid of Kenneth Blackwell for governor in 2006. And he found himself in a swirl of controversy: the IRS placed a lien on him and his wife for failure to pay $22,269 in income taxes and penalties from 2002 to 2004; his church and the school and hotel it owns showed a net operating loss of $1.5 million for its fiscal year ending in June 2007; official complaints were filed against his church for violating its tax-exempt status in backing Blackwell’s campaign; and although neither he nor the church officially cited problems with his leadership, Johnson resigned his post as pastor in October 2007.
In the meantime, Ohio Christians clearly voiced their preference for a candidate that shared all their values rather than a candidate running on a narrow divisive platform of opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Blackwell was handily defeated by Ted Strickland, a Methodist minister who stumped as a “Golden Rule Democrat” and who, as a senator, insisted on paying for his own health coverage as long as his constituents were not covered. According to the 2006 NEP exit polls, Strickland gained fourteen points among voters who attended religious services once per week or more, compared to support these voters gave Senator John Kerry in 2004. And voters, including a majority (fifty-one percent) of weekly church attenders, overwhelmingly supported a long-overdue ballot measure to increase the minimum wage.
Especially since 2006, I have been struck (and heartened) by the contrast in the energy, new ideas, and accomplishments among progressive religious groups and the flagging, tired efforts to trot out the same old lines among the religious right….