A pastor's politically tinged call one year ago to "lock and load" for "a Holy Ghost invasion" was only the beginning of a fight over candidates between the religious right and the religious left in battleground Ohio.
The stakes are high in Ohio, which gave President Bush the White House in 2004 thanks in part to support for a gay marriage ban by conservative Christians. And the winner of this year's governor's race will give his party an edge going into the 2008 presidential campaign.
Pastor Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church underscored the role of religion in the governor's campaign last Oct. 14, when he held a rally attended by hundreds on the steps of the Statehouse.
'Holy Ghost invasion'
"Sound an alarm. A Holy Ghost invasion is taking place. Man your battle stations, ready your weapons, lock and load," Parsley said to enthusiastic applause.
The four-year goal of what he called Reformation Ohio was to convert 1 million people to Christianity, help the poor and register 400,000 new voters.
"I am neither Republican nor Democrat, I'm a Christocrat," Parsley said at the time. "I love a Democratic republic and I want to be right in the middle of that process."
Soon after Parsley set his goals, a spiritual spat broke out that quickly spilled into state politics.
Politics of religion
In January, pastors on the left filed a complaint with the IRS accusing Parsley and a second conservative pastor, Russell Johnson, of violating federal election law. The complaint alleged that the pastors improperly used their pulpits for partisan politics by supporting Ken Blackwell, the Republican nominee for governor.
The complaint said the two have linked themselves and their churches so closely to Blackwell and his opposition to abortion and gay marriage that it constitutes endorsement.
Parsley and Johnson say they've done nothing wrong. They say the liberal pastors are upset by their declining congregations and lack of success at the ballot box.
The IRS has not said whether it's investigating.
A second group of left-leaning ministers and rabbis, We Believe, then began an issues' campaign to counter the religious right.
The group does not endorse but didn't hesitate to publicize a candidate interview it conducted with Blackwell's opponent, Democrat Ted Strickland, and point out Blackwell didn't meet with the group.
New groups forming
Over the summer, liberal Catholics announced a new political organization, Catholics in Alliance, focused on issues like poverty and war that they say are being ignored in favor of strict opposition to gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research. It includes a full-time Ohio field director.
Conservative pastors, undeterred by the IRS complaint, formed their own group, Clergy for Blackwell. Opposition to abortion and gay marriage still top their list of concerns.
"The issues of today are about principles and the principles that best represent the principles contained in the scriptures, being integrity and morality, is embodied by the honorable J. Kenneth Blackwell," said Rev. Fred Marshall, pastor of Smyrna Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus.
Last month, a Washington-based organization that combines evangelical Christianity with left-leaning politics announced new efforts to expand debate over values beyond gay marriage and abortion.
Beyond abortion and same-sex marriage
Sojourners/Call to Renewal created a speakers' bureau of progressive religious leaders, Red Letter Christians, and hired a full-time coordinator in Ohio.
"We want to give the media and others an opportunity to hear a variety of voices who talk about faith and values beyond the monologue of abortion and same-sex marriage," said Sojourners' spokesman Jack Pannell.
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 69 percent of Americans believe liberals have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government.
However, 49 percent also expressed reservations about Christian conservatives imposing their religious values on the country.
The number of registered voters in Ohio this year, about 7.9 million, is just below the approximately 8 million registered voters in 2004, according to preliminary Secretary of State figures.
Parsley, who declined a phone interview, said in a statement he still believes it's possible to register 400,000 new voters. He also said Reformation Ohio has distributed millions of pounds of food at events in Toledo, Dayton, Chillicothe, Van Wert and Lima.
"We are well on the way to achieving our four-year goals, and because of the support we've received from churches and businesses we have every reason to believe that we will even exceed them," Parsley said.