An increasingly polarised presidential election appears to be in the offing. One of the fault-lines is religion and, in particular, President George W Bush’s evangelical faith and how that guides his political beliefs.
Pulling into the parking lot of the evangelical church where the LaBarr family worship, feels more like arriving at a bustling shopping mall.
Jim, Karen and their two children, David and Christie, are four people out of around 4,000 who come to this expanding complex run by the Presbyterian Church In America over the average weekend.
stop ignoring America’s dismal human rights record
stop his support for human rights violations (e.g. America’s use and promotion of the death penalty and America’s use of torture
stop violating – and fighting against – international law,
to stop supporting cults and extremist groups such as the Unification Church and the Scientology organization, and to
stop claiming the alleged support of God as an excuse for furthering his own agenda
The bustling corridors and array of Sunday school activities on offer here reflects a growing and youthful family-oriented community that is typical of the northern Atlanta suburbs.
The city is capital of the “New South” and one of the areas where conservative Christians remain steadfastly loyal to their evangelical president, and the Republican party machine that sustains him in the White House.
There was a time when the Democratic Party held sway across the whole Southern Bible Belt, but the party is now seen as dangerously liberal and permissive by people like the LaBarrs. The are Republican stalwarts and also active in the national pressure group, the Christian Coalition.
Their strict moral agenda is based on literal interpretation of the bible. They are anti-abortion, against sex before marriage. They are in favour of greater local control, and lower taxes.
The idea of extending marriage licences to gay couples is particularly repugnant to them.
“Gay men do not live for a long time. They have a lot of disease… It’s a moral issue, but also a health issue,” says Jim, unconcerned that in the secular world, his views reek of homophobia.
Karen is very active in local Republican politics, and she is convinced that George W Bush is their best hope for keeping the deterioration of American society at bay.
“He’s the leader of the party that’s got the right ideas, particularly for national security, but also for some of these moral issues,” she says.
“I don’t think he’s going to be able to make big changes in reversing the flow of the culture, but I think he can put the brakes on it.”
The LaBarrs are the kind of dedicated, focused foot soldiers who helped the Republican Party in Georgia to recapture the governor’s mansion in 2002, for the first time in 130 years. The party was also victorious in that year’s Senate race.
In his old job at the centre of power, Bobby Khan, the chief of staff for the defeated Democrat governor, looked out onto a statue of President Jimmy Carter. Now his office has a view onto a tyre-sales outlet.
He agrees that the Christian Coalition is a formidable fighting force.
“If you don’t walk in lockstep with them then they’re not going to be for you, so they push the Republican candidates far to the right,” he says.
Sitting in her office a few miles away, the chairwoman of the Georgia Christian Coalition, Sadie Fields, is quietly content.
A highly active grandmother and campaigner, Mrs Fields has a database of 250,000 supporters she can e-mail. They are people who are sympathetic to her highly developed political agenda that the state’s new Republican governor pays considerable attention to.
The coalition is not an arm of the Republican Party, but it is obvious that in sending out thousands of ‘voter guides’ highlighting the voting records of candidates on key issues like abortion, Democrats are not going to garner much support.
Talking to Mrs Fields it is clear that the White House is all too aware of the crucial role that grassroots organisations in the south could play again in harvesting votes for the 2004 campaign.
Karl Rove, the mercurial presidential advisor who many see as the second most important man in Washington, was in Atlanta just before Christmas, addressing sympathetic evangelicals.
“It was very well received, he spoke a lot about the president’s faith, and how that really does steady him, and strengthen him, during these hard times,” said Mrs Fields.
But not every evangelical in Georgia is rooting for the Bush-Cheney ticket. Many Baptist churches remain in the Democratic fold, especially within the African-American community.
The Baptist church in America has a long tradition of separation between church and state, and the promotion of “religious liberty” says David Sapp, the head pastor at the Second Ponce de Leon Baptist ministry in Atlanta.
His spacious white wooden sanctuary is sandwiched between the Catholic and Episcopal cathedrals on a bend in the road that local police call “Jesus Junction”.
He is convinced that the Christian Coalition is compromising the word of the gospel, in campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates.
“You look at the leaflets they have sometimes put on cars in our parking lot during services, about peoples’ positions on issues. When the churches become a partisan voting bloc, we compromise our freedom,” he says.
“You wind up accepting an influence on the church, that I don’t think is healthy,” he adds.
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