LANCASTER, OHIO November 2006
America’s Republican party is bracing itself for sweeping losses in elections next week for state governors and members of Congress. For the Presidential election two years ago I visited one of the key electoral battlegrounds, the small mid-west town of Lancaster, Ohio, to examine what President Bush George had to do to hold onto power. I went back to see how views had changed.
‘What’s Hell Escape,’ I asked Pastor Russell Johnson, as we walked across the vast car park for his church in Ohio. Ahead of us were flat bed trucks, rows of huge tents and signs advertising the evening’s entertainment.
‘Life is about truth and consequences,’ he replied, ‘But come along tonight and you’ll see for yourself.’
Russell Johnson is a short man in early middle-age and energetic in his mission as an evangelist.
His congregation is drawn from Lancaster, a town of around 30,000 with a beautifully preserved historic centre and a sprawl of shopping malls branching out from it. It’s mainly white, solidly republican, and over the past couple of years Pastor Russell’s Fairfield Christian Church has become a pivotal mechanism in American politics.
From a distance, it looks more like a long warehouse on an industrial estate. But as soon as you get inside the building, it becomes clear that this is far more than just place of worship.
For a start, you have to sign in for an accreditation badge. Then the notice board displays what’s on offer – a school, sports club, hotel and convention centre. You go there for your flu jab, or to learn about parenting, or for alcoholism. If your marriage is breaking up, it will find you new accommodation and help with the children. If you can’t have children, it puts you in touch with an adoption agency, and if you’re a Republican politician it’ll do its best to make sure you get elected.
‘You’ll be here Sunday, won’t you,’ said Pastor Russell. ‘Senator Larry Craig will be worshipping with us. He’s from Idaho and…’ he turned mid-sentence to greet a woman walking in the door.
‘You’ve got to meet Stacie Blenkinship,’ he said. ‘She does a wonderful job here at the church.’
It turned out that four years ago, Stacie Blenkinship’s marriage broke up, leaving her penniless and destitute, electricity cut off, rent unpaid and three children to look after. Under America’s sparse social security system, she could get no support from the government and turned to Russell Johnson’s church.
‘It was so humbling,’ she said. ‘Five pastors came to our door with a truck. They packed up our stuff and moved us to a new house, brought in groceries, and made sure we were all right.’
Her 19-year-old daughter, Renee, chipped in. ‘I was so scared at the time,’ she said. ‘But I was able to share my emotions with the church and it helped us through everything. Now we just want to give back.’
Renee had frizzed dark hair and was wearing a bright red and black T-shirt advertising ‘Hell Escape.’
She saw me looking at it. ‘Will you be there tonight?’ she asked. ‘I’ll be working in the ‘Question Mark’ tent.’
That evening, shortly after dark, hundreds of people were queuing for tickets. Every fifteen minutes a group of about thirty was guided through a series of scenes, each one acted out by volunteers.
I walked through with Russell Johnson.
It began with a car crash, bloodied bodies lying out of vehicles, then a tannoy shouted, ‘Move. Move.’ We walked through a tunnel with fast-flashing lights and pictures of car crash victims hanging overhead.
Then to a hospital operating theatre, and until this stage it could have been passed off as a creative way to ram home the dangers of drink-driving.
But after that the stakes were ramped up.
The next tunnel was bleaker with overhead signs and voices warning us of hell and judgment. We emerged into an outdoor area lit by flaming gas, where a boy was being dragged into a depiction of hell, then through another tunnel to where a volunteer, playing Jesus, hung bloodied on a cross, being jeered by Roman soldiers. And finally we were faced with two doors, one for ‘Heaven’, the other for ‘Hell,’ and it was up to the audience to decide which they went through – or if uncertain they could go to the ‘Question Mark,’ tent.
‘Hi,’ said Renee Blenkinship, as I walked, blinking, from the darkness into the overhead lighting. ‘How did you find it?’
All around people sat on bales of hay, some holding hands, some heads lowered, some in prayer, some persuading.
Pastor Russell touched my elbow. ‘This fellow,’ he said, pointing to a young bespectacled man. ‘He’s seen God. We’re baptizing him right now. Last night 2,600 went through Hell Escape and 300 chose God for the first time.’
His mission is simply stated – to convert people to Christianity, then make sure they get to the polling booth, where it’s almost certain they will vote Republican.
‘We’re legitimizing Christians as citizens,’ he told me, ‘So we can take a stand in what we believe in.’
‘But in the past two years,’ I asked, ‘what with Iraq and everything, have your political views changed at all.
‘I tell you,’ he said, ‘I am overwhelmingly supportive of George W. Bush’s leadership.’
Absorbing it all, I was suddenly reminded of being with shown around southern Lebanon by the Islamic group the Hezbollah, who, because the Lebanese government failed to provide, stepped in with schools, hospitals and social welfare safety net.
When I mentioned this to Russell Johnson, he laughed. ‘The difference is that if they came a built a mosque next to our church, we’d probably mow their lawn and play golf with them,’ he said. ‘But if I put a church next to mosque in Islamabad, we’d be taking our life into our hands.’
And just like the Hell Escape show, his smile suddenly dropped away, and his whole expression became deadly serious. ‘You see the Muslim people, the Taleban, are about slavery. We’re about freedom. Right from Wrong. Good from evil. You see the myth that Christianity and Islam are very similar is falling apart.’