COLUMBUS, OHIO A new coalition dedicated to converting thousands to Christianity and thousands more to voter-registration lists got off to a rousing start on Friday with a tightly scripted rally that resembled a revival meeting.
More than 1,000 people gathered in front of a makeshift stage on the Statehouse steps for the launch of Reformation Ohio by its founder, the Rev. Rod Parsley, pastor of the World Harvest Church in suburban Columbus and a television evangelist.
The group's formation comes after November's election in which Christian conservatives helped pass a gay-marriage ban in Ohio and give President Bush the electoral votes he needed to claim victory.
Speakers included U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican; Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican; and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican seeking his party's nomination for governor next year. All spoke with the fervor of a preacher during a sermon.
Blackwell, who also won Brownback's endorsement on Friday, praised the efforts of Parsley and others to sign up new voters. Parsley's goal is 400,000 people added to voter rolls.
"Reformation Ohio is about history-making times, reforming the culture," Blackwell said. "We are a government that governs only with the consent of the governed."
Brownback, who has emerged as a leading skeptic of President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court, said the nation was engaged in a cultural struggle.
"We need a culture that buttresses our families, not attacks them. We need a society that honors good and condemns what is bad," Brownback said.
Parsley said voter registration is secondary to Reformation Ohio's two main objectives: converting 100,000 people to Christianity within four years and providing food, clothing and other necessities to those in need. He sent his followers from the Statehouse on an evangelical note.
"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.
Participants were mostly members of Parsley's church, with entire families in attendance. A production staff choreographed the event, much like Parsley's broadcasts from his church, with directors huddled in a tent and cameras throughout the grounds, including one mounted on a small crane that hovered over the crowd.
Nanny Omadjambe, a member of Parsley's church, said she came to support his message of preaching the gospel, helping the poor and registering voters. She didn't see a conflict in the latter goal.
"The church is not trying to harm or change anything," said Omadjambe, 27, a bank loan administrator. "We're just trying to get people to be involved in what's going on, and I don't think that's bad at all."
Tying evangelical gospel to voter registration is a new phenomenon, said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University who studies political mobilization by religious groups.
"Most of these types of groups don't tend to mix these activities in the same venue, at least not so overtly," Rozell said.
The emphasis on religious conversion for conservative Christian groups pursuing political agendas hasn't been prevalent, but political involvement dates at least to the Christian Coalition's founding in 1989, said Corwin Smidt, a political science professor at Calvin College. Those groups are rethinking their roles, he said.
"This is a manifestation of what has been happening over the past number of years. It's not all that new," Smidt said. "To defend what the person is doing is saying the church just can't be concerned about spiritual values. We're called on to serve the poor, and we need to be engaged in the culture. ... In that sense, he (Parsley) is bringing all of this together."
A handful of liberal religious leaders held a news conference at a downtown Episcopal church before the event saying Parsley's message on gay marriage and other issues is divisive. However, Parsley said he would welcome anyone to register to vote.