This is the evangelicals' answer to Bruce Springsteen: an anguished rocker prowling the stage in a black shirt and tight faded jeans, hair matted with sweat, licking his lips and turning his bright, beckoning eyes to the teenage mob in the front row:
"Get out to the polls and affect this country," says Jason Roy, lead singer of the band Building 429.
"Can you do that?"
"Yes!" they roar back. The kids are jumping. The room is hazy with fake smoke. A boy in a ski cap sneaks a hand around his girl's waist. It's chilly outside but it's really hot in here.
The scene could be part of a Vote for Change concert tour, but as with everything else in the vast parallel world of Christian pop culture, it is hard not to notice what's different from the secular version.
The show takes place not in a concert hall in the city, but in the sanctuary of Gilead Friends Church on a rural road an hour north of Columbus. Aside from Ski Cap Guy, most of the couples showing any public display of affection are married. The brown liquid in all those bottles is iced tea or soda pop. And when a screaming girl leans over to give the guy beside her a kiss, he's likely to be her dad.
Roy flirts with the crowd, then steps back and flashes his Donny Osmond smile. And when he sings "I don't mean to be so cold. My words have cut you to the bone. But my heart still longs for you alone," he's not talking about a depressed ex-girlfriend with stalker-ish tendencies but about ...
"His Majesty. King of Kings, my rock, my salvation, Jeee-heee-sus." And that's when the girls really melt.
‘It's the antithesis of Rock the Vote’
Driven by the statistic that 25 million evangelicals between the ages 18 and 35 sat out the last presidential election, many evangelical groups have launched their first voter drives this year. As with other such drives, the best catch is young, first-time voters.
One effort, Redeem the Vote, brings popular Christian rock bands to swing states. The Southern Baptist Convention unleashed an "I Vote Values" 18-wheeler that once belonged to the Charlie Daniels Band. T.D. Jakes's Potter's House church held a Rock the Vote-style youth forum its organizer billed as "not churchy." New heartthrob James Caviezel, who starred as Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," filmed an ad that was e-mailed to millions of evangelical Christians telling them to "let your voices be heard."
"It's the antithesis of Rock the Vote," says Randy Brinson, who founded Redeem the Vote. "We're trying to do something just as hip and entertaining and just as well done in terms of quality. But without being too risque, without the sexual innuendo."
It's a fledgling effort and the rocker element still has a slightly forced feel, as when Democrats on the campaign trail appear with soldiers in uniform. Fundamentally, head-banging doesn't come naturally.
‘I don't want to rebel’
Lindsay Ellyson, who came to the concert at Gilead Friends with two friends, is the 16-year-old daughter of the church pastor. This church is her world, she goes to school here, hangs out at a prayer group. She doesn't watch TV, much less MTV, and doesn't much miss it. Her life seems fun and fulfilling with worship, music and prayer.
"I don't want to rebel," says Ellyson. What counts as domestic conflict in this circle is when her friend Rachel Retterer's older sister started listening to a secular radio station. Her parents compromised: She can listen, but only in the car.
Still, evangelicals have long passed the point where they expect their kids to sing in the gospel choir and ignore the rest of the world. The Southern Baptists' diesel truck, which stops at Christian colleges and churches across the country, is equipped with a huge TV screen on the outside. Inside, the Yochim family, former managers for Charlie Daniels, invite visitors to register to vote on touch-screen computers or take a history quiz.
Almost 2,000 people have been registered on the truck, plus an additional 3,700 online. Redeem the Vote organizers estimate that between the concert and its Web sites, they've registered more than 50,000 people.
If you're only half listening, Redeem the Vote's public service announcements, which run on Christian television and radio, sound like a standard five minutes on MTV. The Christian bands don't invent some new vocabulary, or look. Each seems like a sanctified version of a secular one. "Hey, wassup, I'm tobyMac," says the former dc Talk rapper, sporting hip-hop gear and dark glasses, standing in front of his serpent green tour bus. Gabriel from the band Rock 'N' Roll Worship Circus looks totally strung-out but talks clean, telling the kids to vote "however God moves your heart to vote." Out of Eden looks like TLC. Jonah33, a copy of Coldplay, sings the Redeem the Vote theme song, "Silence Never Speaks."
Nobody mentions Bush or Kerry, and these get-out-the-vote efforts insist they are nonpartisan. "We don't think churches ought to be endorsing people," says Richard Land, who runs the Southern Baptist effort, and tells a story about taking a "hard-core" Democrat on a tour of the 18-wheeler exhibit and how the guest came out impressed with its neutrality.
But like its secular counterparts, the evangelical effort to register the young hints at its preferences in code. Land describes the aim of the campaign this way: "We want to get them to vote their values and convictions over their economic interests."
Brinson, too, insists Redeem the Vote doesn't favor Bush, although its founding is connected to the president. The group began when, by a series of minor miracles — a last-minute invitation to a presidential luncheon, a friendly Secret Service agent — Brinson got a video of Christian singer Rebecca St. James thanking the troops into Bush's hands.
Someone from the White House called to say they thought it was "pretty neat," Brinson recalls. "I started thinking that we could make this connection between Christian music and the war and what's going on in the world, that it would be neat if we could get people engaged.
"We wanted to get young people involved on their own terms," he says. "Every media person wants to pigeonhole us. But we're not pro-Kerry, we're not pro-Bush. We're just about getting people involved."
Bush or Kerry?
At the show in Mount Gilead, one is hard-pressed to find an enthusiastic Kerry supporter.
One of Ellyson's classes at the church school had a "debate" about one of the presidential debates.
"Well, it wasn't really a debate," Ellyson says.
"Yeah, it was pretty one-sided," Retterer agrees.
What counts as debate here is Justine Record and William Rassman, two friends from nearby Marion, in a heated discussion about whether God directly determined Bush's election and the Iraq War (he says) or whether human free will had some small hand in it (she says).
The rest of the kids, too, exhibit that hard believer's certainty, but that attitude somehow shares borders with teenage wonder and doubt.
"That could be us tomorrow," says 16-year-old Taylor Mills, looking in the direction of the church cemetery. It's shivery cold, the oak tree is shedding its leaves. A bright moon lights up the headstones.
"You think we'd be ready?" he asks his brother Mark.
Anguish and doubt, but with an answer
Back inside the sanctuary, headliner Jeremy Camp is crooning one of his ballads. The singer knows where he stands. "You don't see any alcohol or smoking going on here," he had said earlier about his dressing room, a church classroom littered with bottled water and Krispy Kremes.
When the crowd yells, "We love Jeremy!" he corrects them.
"We love Jesus!" he yells back.
Camp's songs could be Nirvana rip-offs, ballads full of anguish and doubt:
"The many times that I have felt alone, the many times that I have felt the world was crashing down around me."
But unlike Kurt Cobain, Camp has a comforting answer.
"Everywhere I go, I know You're not far away. You're right here."
"You're right here."