NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — The way the Rev. Mike Gonzalez sees it, the United States has turned away from God, and Christianity is under attack. The situation is so dire, Mr. Gonzalez says, that he is considering taking the plunge from the pulpit into the political arena, hoping to return the nation to the “Judeo-Christian values” he says the founders intended.
Mr. Gonzalez and his 20-year-old son, Adrian, joined nearly 200 pastors last week in South Carolina for “Issachar training” — a political crash course led by the American Renewal Project and aimed at recruiting 1,000 pastors to run for elected office at the local, state and federal levels in next year’s elections.
“We are mobilizing an army,” David Lane, founder of American Renewal, told The Washington Times on the sidelines of the training session, which he named after a biblical tribe of Israel that produced wise leaders.
During the six-hour session, Bruce Watke, author of “Proverbs and Politics: The Biblical Foundation for Righteous Governing,” told the rapt attendees that there has been a misunderstanding of the separation of church and state in politics. He used parables to outline the need for Christians to be involved in the “dirty” game of politics.
“The righteous must defend society against the wicked by vigilant and spiritual warfare. If Christians don’t fight, the wicked will plunder their heritage,” Mr. Watke said. “With hard work, the wise will prevail over the evil as surely as oil protects iron from rust, as cedar wood protects cloth from moths and salt preserves meat from maggots.”
Dave Hageman and Steve Michael, the young political masterminds behind the American Renewal Project’s $2 million ground game in last year’s U.S. Senate races that helped turn out low-propensity evangelical Christian voters, shared a beginner’s guide on running for office, outlined the mechanics of campaign operations and provided some insight into messaging.
For years, Mr. Lane has had a foot in the religious world and a foot in the political world. His latest effort is fueled by the fear that evangelical Christians have been losing ground in an decades-old ideological battle with secularists.
He points to the removal of the Bible from public schools, the legalization of abortion and support for same-sex marriage, as well as to the soaring national debt and the growing threat from Islamic radicals.
He said that out of the 80 million evangelicals in the United States, less than half of them are registered to vote and many of those who are registered sit on the sidelines come Election Day.
“Somebody’s values are going to reign supreme: our values or their values,” Mr. Lane said. “If our people are not voting, and are not being salt and light, and not engaging at the public square, the other side’s values are going to reign supreme.”
In an interview, Mr. Lane aired his frustrations about deceitful politicians, saying too many elected leaders often say one thing and do another when it comes to the issues that social conservative care about. He warned that the nation is losing its culture and heritage in large part because secularists have taken control of “public education, higher learning, the mainstream media, and Hollywood.”
He predicted that the Supreme Court will rule this month in favor of same-sex marriage. As a result, he said, churches will be forced to perform same-sex marriage or risk losing their tax-exempt status and Christian radio stations that disagree with the ruling will be stripped off their government licenses.
In response to a question about Bruce Jenner, he said he feels sorry for the former Olympic athlete, who now goes by the name Caitlyn, whom he argued needs prayer. He shook his head at the attention the “liberal” media have given to his “perverse” behavior.
“The mark of a decadent society is the exaltation and normalization of sin,” he said. “That is what they are doing.”
Evangelical voters have become a focus of politicians over the past two decades, and President George W. Bush made a particular play for them in his 2004 re-election bid. His efforts to identify and turn out evangelicals who were only marginally politically motivated was credited with helping him win in Ohio, which was key to his re-election victory.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, harnessed evangelical voters en route to winning the Iowa caucuses in the 2008 Republican presidential race, and those voters helped former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania score a victory in Iowa four years later.
But church leaders have generally shied away from deep political engagement. Now they are beginning to awaken to their potential political power.
Mr. Lane launched Issachar sessions this year after watching the Rev. Rob McCoy, his pastor at Godspeak Calvary Chapel Thousand Oaks, come within about 5,000 votes of nearly 110,000 cast of capturing an open seat in the California Legislature in November.
Mr. McCoy was outspent and shunned by Republican leaders, though he nearly pulled off a victory thanks to the help of more than 600 volunteers, who aggressively canvassed the legislative district for votes.
“There are 100,000 pastors on my email list, and I started thinking what if the Lord were to call 1,000 pastors in 2016 to run for county commissioner, and city council and school board, and mayor and Congress, and let us say they did only half as good as my pastor did with volunteers — they only had 300 volunteers per campaign,” Mr. Lane said. “That would be a 300,000 grass-roots precinct-level explosion in the public square. It would change America, and that is what I am up to.”
At the start of Friday’s training, the Rev. Ken Graves, a broad-chested Maine-based pastor and former mixed martial arts fighter, opened the event by saying Christians have been “groomed by God” to play a role in politics.
“Running for an elected office, you recognize that you are stepping into someone else’s field, and yet you recognize that the one thing we have on our side that nobody else has is the power of the Holy Spirit. The knowledge of the Word of God,” Mr. Graves said with his booming baritone voice.
The six-hour session included speeches and presentations from Chad Connelly, the Republican National Committee’s director of faith engagement; California Assemblywoman Shannon Grove; the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, who shared his experience running for U.S. Senate last year; and Missouri state Rep. John McCaherty, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Murphy in Fenton, who talked about balancing elected office with leading a church.
Fighting back tears, Mr. Lane prayed for mercy over the 55 million babies that have been aborted since Rove v. Wade, the mounting national debt, the growing acceptance of homosexuality and fears of Islamic terrorism.
Some of the big names in Republican Party politics have taken notice. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a declared presidential candidate, attended the second training in Oklahoma, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is expected to enter the presidential race June 24, addressed a training session in Baton Rouge and last week’s session in South Carolina.
Mr. Huckabee is scheduled to appear at the next training session July 10 in Orlando, Florida. Close to 100 pastors have signed up for the event.
Mr. Jindal describes himself as an “evangelical Catholic” and has said the nation needs a “spiritual revival.”
Mr. Lane’s call to action is a missing part of the puzzle in American politics, the Louisiana governor said.
“I think it is a great thing to motivate people of faith to get more involved in the political process, whether as volunteers or candidates themselves, or to vote in the democratic process,” he told The Washington Times. “When I was young, I remember hearing my dad always say this: ‘Look, you can’t complain in this country if you don’t go vote, if your aren’t part of the solution.’”
Mr. Lane said he doesn’t want to force pastors into politics but is looking for those who feel a calling.
“If they are not called to run, we don’t want them to run,” he said. “We want people to discern whether God is calling them to run. If that happens, we are going to flood grass-roots-level conservatives into the public square.”
That is the decision Mr. Gonzalez is grappling with. The member of the South Carolina Pastors Alliance is helping organize evangelicals for Mr. Cruz’s presidential bid. After the training, he said, he is a step closer to running.
“I see our nation going in the wrong direction, and many of our legislators are kind of taking it in that direction, so I feel that we really need righteousness in the nation and the Bible says righteousness exalts a nation,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “So what we are looking for is righteous leaders to enter in the political field, and I am a pastor. I have not received that call to leave that yet per se into this field, but I want to be trained and ready to go if that is the case.”
The Rev. Bradford Wilson, pastor of the Adventure Church of Hilton Head, came to the event with his wife, Jayme, not knowing what to expect.
Mr. Bradford hoped to pick up some tools that would help him with his church, which he launched this year.
Before the end of the day, he said the message had “stirred” him and that when he returns home he will encourage his congregation to register to vote, to vote based on “Godly principles” — not political party — and to run for office.
“Listen, man. I was called by God to serve. What a great way to serve,” he said.