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At the Crossroads: Evangelical Conservatives in IL Find Themselves in Need of Leadership

This 198-foot cross looms high above the intersection of Interstates 57 and 70 in Effingham.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

In Effingham, at the intersection of two major interstates, stands a 198-foot cross that puts motorists on notice: This is God’s country. One needs only to look at the vote totals in this region to find out why it’s a fitting location for the towering landmark.

In recent elections, voters have routinely chosen socially conservative candidates. It is one of the rare pockets of Illinois where conservative Republican Alan Keyes beat Barack Obama in Keyes’ ill-fated 2004 U.S. Senate race.

President Obama didn’t fare well in the area again on November 4.

“Obama lost every county in my district, and a lot of it is over the social issues, where the church plays the strongest,” says state Rep. David Reis, a Willow Hill Republican.

The region represents a crossroads for more than just travelers on Interstates 70 and 57. It’s where the politics of religion rub up against Illinois’ reputation as a staunchly blue state.

And, to hear some conservatives in the wake of the 2008 election, the evangelical political movement in Illinois also is at a crossroads.

Nearly two decades after the Illinois Christian Coalition sought to bring together various religious-minded political groups from throughout the state, Democrats control all statewide offices and the state legislature. 

The Republican-leaning coalition, which once claimed 60,000 members, has all but disappeared. The political movement it had defined is split among a handful of organizations and has no recognized leader.

That doesn’t mean voters have changed, says McLean County Republican Party Chairman John Parrott.

Parrott, who was chairman of the Illinois Christian Coalition in the 1990s, says there remain strong feelings among his colleagues about the importance of electing people who share Christian values.

“They are definitely mobilized in different regions, but there is nothing at the state level any more,” Parrott says.

While the towering cross in Effingham may represent the epicenter of one of the state’s most conservative areas, the focal point of the evangelical movement during the 1990s was Bloomington-Normal.

Parrott, a McLean County businessman, got involved in television broadcaster Pat Robertson’s effort to create a coalition of Christians who would push an anti-abortion, anti-tax and anti-gay-rights political agenda.

In its first years, the hallmark of the Christian Coalition was its voter guides, which were distributed in churches in the days leading up to elections.

The guides were aimed at showing the difference between candidates when it came to issues such as abortion, gun control and taxes.

At the state level, the conservative push appeared to be working. Voters in 1992 installed a new breed of Republican in the Illinois Senate, including one, Peter Fitzgerald, who would go on to serve one term in the U.S. Senate.

By the new millennium, however, the Christian Coalition was falling apart at the national level.

The Internal Revenue Service raised red flags about its tax-exempt status. Robertson pulled away from the organization.

As the national organization began to implode, its influence in Illinois waned.

Eastview Christian Church in Normal was once a hot spot for the coalition movement. On the Sunday before elections during the 1990s, the church handed out voter guides, and talk of politics often dominated the cookie and coffee hour after services.

Not so anymore, says Eastview Pastor Mike Baker.

“That really died off four or five years ago,” Baker says. “I think it may have been a bit of a phase.”

The national coalition’s run-in with the IRS was part of the reason Eastview began pulling back from political activity. 

“We decided not to dance close to that political line,” he says. “The kingdom of God is bigger than politics.”

In a sermon in the days before last November’s election, Baker urged his parishioners to vote but told them: “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a Christian.”

No voter guides were distributed.

While the political movement may have moved out of many churches, the activism is still there. In some cases, it has moved from the pulpit to the Internet, where groups such as the Family Taxpayers Network and the United Republican Fund continue to try to rally the faithful and keep tabs on the people in power.

It also manifests itself in letters to the editor, radio talk shows and in coffee shops throughout Reis’ largely rural district.

“We have talk radio hosts that just drill at this stuff every day,” Reis says.

Longtime conservative activist Paul Caprio is among those who remain on the front lines, even as the centralized effort of the Christian Coalition has vanished.

The veteran political operative recently inserted himself in the battle to replace Frank Watson as the Republican leader in the Illinois Senate.

Caprio, as chief of the conservative Family PAC, wrote that one of the front-runners for Watson’s post, eventual winner Sen. Christine Radogno, was “not in the mainstream of Senate Republican thinking on key family issues.” Those issues include abortion and gay rights.

Radogno, nonetheless, was easily elected by her Senate Republican colleagues to replace Watson.

Similarly, other groups are again pushing a plan to put an advisory referendum on the statewide ballot asking voters whether gay marriage should be banned in Illinois. Two previous attempts to get the issue before voters have failed.

In the wake of the 2008 election, both Reis and Parrott believe Illinois conservatives are in a position to begin influencing politics in Illinois.

In addition to the state’s Democratic rule, Obama’s election could rally the religious right again, depending on how the new president deals with such issues as abortion that are most closely aligned with evangelicals.

“People are going to have to roll up their sleeves and get back to work,” Parrott says.

“We’re ripe for a resurgence in this area,” Reis says. “I think you’re going to see a sharp turn.”

Not everyone agrees.

The Rev. Robert Spriggs, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Effingham, isn’t so sure the Obama administration will spur many to action.

Spriggs says moral and social issues were “very much in the forefront” during the presidential election, meaning voters got a clear view of what they would be getting in a new chief executive.

Despite concerns about Obama’s positions on social issues, the Chicago Democrat won handily. 

“They [the Obama campaign] didn’t pretend to be anything they weren’t,” Spriggs says.

Kurt Erickson is Statehouse bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Illinois Issues, February 2009

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