LANCASTER, OHIO, December, 2004
For many Republicans, Christianity and support for President George W Bush go hand-in-hand, but if the two begin to clash, will the friendship continue?
Inside aquarium tanks lining a foyer of the Fairfield Christian Church in the small town of Lancaster, Ohio, are some of the most striking fish I have ever seen.
Sharp yellows, blues and reds with graceful movements as they swam between the small areas of rocks and vegetation.
‘See that,’ said Pastor Russell Johnson.
‘Don’t tell me you get such beauty from the randomness of evolution. This is the product of intelligent creation by God.’
As he showed me round, school children scampered past between lessons.
I am introduced to a 6ft-plus basketball coach.
And Pastor Johnson took a call on his mobile phone from a political insider about making sure the right man becomes the next Ohio governor – in other words, someone who shares the values of Pastor Johnson.
He is a short, fit man in early middle age, who has turned his church from a congregation of a couple of hundred 10 years ago to one where thousands come every week and tens of thousands feed into it through sports, charities, schools and Republican party politics.
I was in Lancaster with a straightforward mission. Given that so many in Europe and the developing world are appalled at the policies of President Bush, how far would his supporters actually let him go?
‘You want an answer to that, come to my breakfast meeting tomorrow morning,’ said Pastor Johnson. It would be at 0615.
Lancaster is solidly Republican, more than 95% white, its approach roads are strip-malls, its centre quaint 19th-Century houses, meticulously up-kept with a church on almost every corner.
My next stop was to see the Brown family: Stephen, a trial attorney who has just turned 40, his wife Carri who works with underprivileged children, and their two children – Corbin, who is 17, and Cat, who is nine.
Stephen is also a Republican party activist who lists his core values as family and the church.
In the dark, I could not make out the house numbers, so after a phone call, Stephen was out on the porch, in his shirt sleeves with temperatures close to freezing, arms waving to guide me in.
Carri has decorated their house in rich, deep colors, flagged kitchen tiling, piles of books, a grand piano, portraits of David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe painted by a friend and candles flickering in the fireplace and windows.
I asked the question.
‘I don’t want to see any more tax cuts,’ said Carri.
‘I see a lot of families struggling a great deal. What we need is more government funds to look after disadvantaged children.’
Stephen thought for a moment. ‘If the purpose of expanding America’s forces overseas,’ he said, ‘is to chase an ideological idea of democracy, that’s where I would break.
‘I’m not in favor of democratizing the whole world.’
The next morning, Pastor Johnson’s breakfast meeting was a cross-section of the pillars of Lancaster society.
On his left was recently re-elected Sheriff Dave Phalen, on his right, Judge David Trimmer.
Among the others were school principals, businessmen and doctors, gathering in a strip-mall hotel on a gloomy winter’s morning, all with Bibles on the table in front of them.
I threw out the question.
‘The president has been sovereignly decided by God to lead this country,’ said Matt Roberts, a head teacher.
‘If we could see abortion come to an end,’ said Sheriff Phalen. ‘If the Supreme Court could end this tragedy, I would be elated.’
‘Would you still support Bush if he wasn’t a Christian?’ I asked.
‘No,’ came the answer from Pastor Johnson.
‘Abraham Lincoln took his faith to office and lived it out by freeing black slave boys and girls all over America. I believe that is what Bush is doing by setting the captives of terrorism free.’
It turns out that Pastor Johnson’s church has caused something of an upset in Lancaster. It is seen as too extreme, with Pastor Johnson pushing to get into office government politicians whom, he says, have a Biblical view of the world.
On Sunday, the Brown family worships across the road from their house at the United Methodist Church, which is at least as packed as Pastor Johnson’s.
Lancaster’s Republican mayor and his wife are among the congregation.
I asked the church’s young, softly spoken Pastor, Larry Brown, what President Bush would have to do for him to preach against it from the pulpit.
‘If he were creating an empire,’ he says, ‘that would be troublesome for me. Outright military aggression is something Christians can’t embrace.’
I had come to Lancaster to gauge Republican political views, but left convinced that it is, in fact, the raging debate about Christian values that may well decide the future path of America, very much as the debate between extremist and moderate Muslims is likely to set the tone of the Middle East.