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Defining Faith & Politics: We Believe Ohio

Tim Ahrens: This started with a question that I asked six months ago.

Organization founder, Pastor Tim Ahrens.

Tim Ahrens: Is anyone else concerned about the way your faith and particularly, as I started with Christian pastors, is your faith in Jesus Christ being presented in the public square? One of the things I believe about Ohio is that for the most part, Ohioans and the people of faith in Ohio are very moderate people, and to have their faith put forward as it is by the religious right is just not a reflection of who they are as people or as people of faith.

Ahrens says he was inspired to start the movement when he witnessed a political rally lead by World Harvest Church pastor Rod Parsley. He's an avowed member of the Religious Right and a supporter of republican Ken Blackwell, and Ahrens remembers his words that day were fairly inflammatory.

Tim Ahrens: Locked loading and firing on Ohio in the Ohio Restoration Project... and when he said that, that sparked the question, 'Is this about Jesus?'

Parsley's political action has drawn the attention of the Internal Revenue Service - that's largely due to complaints filed by a group of 31 clergy members who alleged his political activity violates his church's non-profit status. Ahrens says some of those clergy members do belong to We Believe Ohio, but the organization did not endorse the IRS complaint. Despite this obvious leftward slant of those complaint-filing clergy, Ahrens, and his Jewish co-leader Jack Chomsky, who is cantor at Columbus's congregation Tifereth Israel, say they represent the religious mainstream, and they resist being labeled liberal. Cantor Jack Chomsky.

Jack Chomsky: Our religious life does drive us into the political world, but not the partisan political world, the world that enables us to use the existing political structures to deliver what our society has an obligation to deliver to the citizens of our country.

One of the first items on the organizational agenda is tackling the Tax and Expenditure Limitation constitutional amendment, which is being pushed by gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell and which would place sharp limitations on government growth and spending. The organization has yet to take an official stance, but Chomsky has a strong opinion about the TEL.

Jack Chomsky: I think that clearly it's the kind of proposal that I would have many concerns about and it has a tendency to work contrary to the interests of the citizens of the state of Ohio.

The TEL may not be the immediate focus of We Believe's work. Pastor Tim Ahrens says while the religious right calls gay marriage and abortion the moral issues of the day, his view is different.

Tim Ahrens: The greatest moral issue of our day is poverty. I've said it a number of times: we are the Mississippi of the 21st century. Ohio has become that... in terms of our passage of high school students, in terms of where we are with income and wage. I want my children to grow up in Ohio, and at this point that's not going to happen, because Ohio is not taking care of its own.

That's a message that resonates with some church members. Marjorie Ramp has been with the United Church of Christ since its founding fifty years ago.

Marjorie Ramp: Those three issues in Ohio right now - education, health care, and minimum wage - are so extremely important. And to me they are expressing what we must do to make Ohio stronger...

She says those stances are informed by her faith.

Marjorie Ramp: They're motivated by my religious beliefs that have come from my interpretation, as best as I can from the teachings of Christ, which is, the importance factors in what Christ was saying is that we must believe in justice for everyone.

Ahrens acknowledges the religious right has been a bit more effective in recent years in getting their message out, but he says he hopes the religious left can mobilize as it did during the civil rights struggle and the era of the Vietnam War.

Tim Ahrens: But I think when people worn out from that journey, perhaps after the Vietnam War Era, just went quiet and that is a time when the religious right began its rise. So there's this ebb and flow, if you will in the dialogue in the public square, and what we're saying is, the monologue is over.

We Believe Ohio holds its first meeting at the Cleveland Playhouse this morning. Local leaders include the Reverend Otis Moss of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church and Rabbi Richard A. Block of Beachwood's Temple Tifereth-Israel, among many others.

We wanted to interview Rod Parsley for this story as well, but he wasn't available. We did receive a statement from him, via email through a public relations firm. Mr. Parsley writes: "I applaud the efforts of people of all faiths to stand up for issues about which they feel strongly. As I've said so many times before, this is what democracy is all about - the freedom of choice. We will continue to advocate for the issues we are passionate about, knowing that there are others who have opposing views."