For family, religion shapes politics
Heartlanders convert others to live daily by 'the word of God'
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Tuesday about the lives of the Wilkersons, an evangelical family in Ohio, and a caption with an accompanying photo misstated the name of the church they attend. It is the Hope Evangelical Free Church.)
MASON, Ohio -- Michael and MarCee Wilkerson bow their heads and pray before every meal, even when they are surrounded by strangers at Skyline Chili. Their older daughter, Brittany, 13, listens to Christian-accented rap, hip-hop, and R&B. And Brooke, 9, is fond of wearing a T-shirt that proclaims, ''Jesus is my Homeboy."
A middle-class family in a Cincinnati suburb, the Wilkersons are evangelical Christians for whom a literal interpretation of the Bible is a blueprint for living. Religious beliefs also guide their politics in this staunchly Republican region, which helped President Bush carry Ohio and the national election.
To them, the president is ''a godly man" and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts is not.
Such thinking is prompting many Democrats to rethink the party's message on religion and abortion, and how to reach out to voters for whom religion plays a critical, determining role. But in the Wilkersons' four-bedroom home, nestled between a creek and a cul-de-sac, a political conversion seems unlikely at best.
The Wilkersons oppose abortion and stem-cell research, consider homosexuality a sin, and regard same-sex marriage as the work of activist judges who cater to a dangerous fringe group. The future holds either heaven or hell, and the only way to paradise is to accept Jesus Christ. In their reading of Scripture, even a saintly non-Christian such as Gandhi has been doomed to eternal torment.
''This is the word of God," Michael Wilkerson says, brandishing the New International Version of the Bible. ''There's only one way, and it's through Jesus."
MarCee and Michael are committed to converting others by example, the approach preached at Hope Free Evangelical Church, where the stereotype of Bible-thumping fundamentalists has been rejected in favor of a gentler model that promotes the transforming power of a Christian life played out 24-seven.
The Wilkersons' religious beliefs allow little room for shortcuts or compromise, but they do not try to insulate their daughters completely from pop culture. Brittany watches MTV and has a poster of the pop star Usher on her door. Michael and MarCee say they trust her judgment. In the end, the parents say, their teachings on morality will guide her behavior.
In church attendance and politics, the Wilkersons have plenty of like-minded company. At Hope Church, an 1,800-member congregation puts it among the largest of 19 churches in Mason. And here, in one of the state's fastest-growing cities, ''pretty much everyone's a Republican," says City Manager Scot Lahrmer. ''This is the heartland, and it's a very conservative area."
Bush held his largest Ohio campaign rally in neighboring West Chester in October, attracting an estimated 55,000 people. The president's message of a morality guided government resonated with the affluent suburbanites here, who, like the Wilkersons, are apt to drive BMWs and Nissan Maximas. The president outpolled Kerry in Warren County, which includes Mason, 72 percent to 28 percent.
''Being conservative adds to the quality of life. It's viewed as being profamily and family friendly. This is a kid heaven," Lahrmer says of a city where the median household income is $81,000.
And heaven, in its glorious biblical sense, is very much on the minds of the Wilkersons.
'Let your life shine' In the Wilkersons' pantheon of priorities, it is ''family, church, and everything else after that," said Michael, 44.
During a five-day stretch at the beginning of this month, Michael and MarCee, 41, sang in the choir of Hope Church; Brittany attended Sunday services and a later breakout session for middle school students; and Brooke seemed as comfortable watching choir rehearsal as she is on the parallel bars in gymnastics practice.
Outside church, the family holds Bible readings several times a week. Michael makes the major decisions at home. In the family room, the Disney channel plays. On a table are books about Jesus. In the bathroom was a book, ''A Call for Freedom: Words of Inspiration from America's Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush."
The bond between Michael and MarCee, who met at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, is palpably deep as they approach their 20th wedding anniversary in July. Even if they did have marital problems, divorce ''is not an option," says MarCee, who defends the Bible's instruction that wives submit to their husbands for direction and guidance.
Michael, who grew up in a strict evangelical home in Melbourne, Fla., is a senior sales representative for a wood-flooring distributor. MarCee teaches second grade in public school, a secular environment that she calls a ''mission field" where she can quietly advertise the virtues of a Christian life through example.
Like her husband, MarCee does not speak about her religious principles unless asked. As a result, in a public school system where evolution is taught, MarCee keeps many spiritual convictions to herself instead of initiating discussions with co-workers and pupils.
''We emphasize: Let your life shine rather than speaking with words," says Hope Church's senior pastor, Michael Moriarty, whose religious journey began in earnest after a near-fatal bar fight during college. ''If people want to know what makes us tick, it will come very naturally out of our life. We don't hit them over the head with a Bible."
For the Wilkersons, that life means shunning alcohol except once or twice a year, when Michael and MarCee allow themselves a glass of wine or a pina colada while on vacation. ''I've never had a beer in my life," says Michael, who played three sports in high school and is a fitness fanatic.
The Wilkersons do not smoke. They also do not frequent nightspots, although they will dance on rare occasions when they socialize with church friends. They donate 10 to 20 percent of their combined income of $120,000 to Hope Church.
A night out often means a stop at Skyline Chili, where they order Cincinnati's signature fast food two or three times a week as they hustle to and from soccer, gymnastics, or basketball practice. One recent evening, sitting in the no-smoking section, Michael thanks God for the food and asks for blessings on the other families in the restaurant.
After a soft ''Amen," Michael and MarCee quiz Brittany, a good student, about her seventh-grade day. One question, floated between sips of sweet tea with lemon, concerns Brittany's performance on a recent science test and how she handled a question on evolution.
On the test, Brittany says, she answered that the gradual evolution of human beings from other species is a possibility, although she and her family believe that the human race began with God's creation of Adam and Eve.
''I almost wanted to say it's not true," Brittany says of Darwin's theory, later at the house. ''That's so much crap. Who makes it up?"
''It's a myth," answers her father, who did not question or rebuke Brittany for using a vulgar word.
''I think He could do it in seven days," MarCee says of the Genesis timetable for creation.
Right choices The Wilkerson girls have been sent to public school, instead of one of two Christian schools nearby, because their parents want them exposed to the secular world, other religions, and other races. In this way, MarCee says, she and Michael can use real-life situations to teach their girls before they leave home for college. Despite that choice of public schooling, the Wilkersons do not want their girls to form serious relationships with non-Christian boys.
''If it were a Jewish boy or a Muslim boy . . .we'd just have to let them know we don't approve," MarCee says. Concerning interracial dating, MarCee pauses before saying, ''I want to be open to that. My point is: Is he a good kid, a good person, and respects her? But number one, does he have Christ as the head of his life. That's the most important in her life."
Brittany's musical taste tends to Christian flavors -- ''Christian rap, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues," she says. Although Brittany is allowed to attend middle-school dances, she has asked her parents not to chaperone her. So far, so good, though Michael says he will not hesitate to chaperone if he gets concerned about inappropriate music or socializing.
''I could if I want to, and I will if I have to," Michael says with a smile.
Her parents strictly monitor Brittany's dress, and tight or provocative clothing is not allowed. On one of Brittany's favorite T-shirts is a question on the front, in dark and garish colors: ''If you died today, where would you go?" On the back: ''Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. . . .It's the burning question."
''I like to see what people say when they read it," Brittany says.
The decor in Brittany's bedroom looks like any teenager's, particularly one as sports-minded as this teenager. Posters of Mia Hamm, the pioneering US women's soccer star, nearly paper one wall. Above her headboard is a picture of Ricky Williams, the former Miami Dolphins running back who struggled with drug use. High on her door is a photograph of Usher, a hip-hop singer whom Michael termed ''kind of OK, so we watch that."
Dominating the door, however, is a large campaign poster that boldly proclaims Brittany's support for ''Bush, Cheney '04."
Brittany's television tastes include ESPN, the all-sports station; the pop-music channel MTV, particularly its show ''Pimp My Ride"; and BET, a black entertainment option. Her father listens to the conversation with a reporter, unsure what exactly MTV is. In any event, Michael says, he trusts Brittany to make the right choices and does not routinely monitor her viewing. Nothing racy is allowed on the television, although MarCee professes a liking for the crime-show ''CSI."
She and Michael monitor Brittany's instant-messaging contacts on the computer they bought her for Christmas.
R-rated movies also are forbidden. Even when her friends try to persuade her to watch an R-rated movie without her parents' knowledge, Brittany says, she refuses.
''I never will watch them -- ever. I hate them," Brittany says. ''I feel kind of happy," she says. ''I feel I'm doing the right thing."
Strong convictions Doing the right thing is easy, Michael says, because he has lived the Christian life since his earliest days. His family attended church three times a week, and ''Lawrence Welk" was the TV favorite.
''Christianity is lived out every hour of every day. I have no hidden agenda," Michael says. Thumbing through a Bible, he adds, ''I don't know why people hate this story so much."
To him, the media and entertainment industry have for decades caricatured devout Christians as narrow-minded, judgmental bumpkins. In the Wilkersons' view, Hollywood is out of touch with the mainstream, instead of the reverse.
''Those people don't have a clue," Michael says, shaking his head in disgust.
Politics is not a consuming topic in this household, but the election did give Michael and MarCee a feel-good sense that their values are shared by an increasing number of people. ''I think Christians just sat back for years, thinking that you're not supposed to talk about politics and religion," MarCee says.
''There was a point where you thought, 'Why even vote?' " adds Michael, though the couple have never missed a presidential election. ''I just think our country was based on Christian values. There are moral absolutes, things it was based on, that I think should be here."
Those things include prayer in school, the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. To the Wilkersons, Bush appears to take his religion seriously and apply its principles to his personal life. Kerry, they say, seemed to schedule his church attendance for political benefit.
''I just couldn't trust him," MarCee says.
On the subject of gays, the Wilkersons say they oppose discrimination, but their view of marriage is a divinely-sanctioned biblical one, limited to a man and a woman for the purpose of creating a family. Michael turns to St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, 6:9-11, which reads in part in the New International version: ''Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." He interprets the Scripture to mean gays cannot be admitted to heaven.
''I don't hate anyone who's a homosexual," Michael says. ''But do I hate what they do? Yes."
On abortion, the Wilkersons are adamant: ''A life is a life," MarCee says, and to her, life begins at conception. The only possible exception for abortion, MarCee says, is when the life of the mother is in jeopardy -- not for rape, and not for incest.
These convictions extend to embryonic stem-cell research, which both parents regard as the destruction of potential life. MarCee has multiple sclerosis that has numbed part of her left side and arm.
''To me," she says, ''I would much rather have multiple sclerosis than to take the life of a possible child to have a cure."
Like many evangelical congregations, Hope Church is nondenominational. Its members include former mainstream Protestants as well as one-time Catholics ''who now are Christians," Michael says. ''The Catholic religion? I'm not too sure that Jesus is a big, integral part of that."
The Sunday services at Hope are an energetic mix of music and teaching, in which ''contemporary" Christian songs in gospel and rhythm-and-blues styles are complemented by Moriarty's sermon. Two morning services are followed by sessions that focus on smaller groups such as high-school students, ''empty nesters," and single adults.
Michael and MarCee sing at both services, attend a prayer session for the choir, and then join church friends for lunch after socializing in the lobby. Embraces, handshakes, and warm conversations are everywhere. But what binds Hope's congregants together, according to the Wilkersons and the church pastors, is a belief in the divinity and saving grace of Jesus Christ.
''Basically, it comes down to there's only one God," Michael says. ''You have to come to that conclusion: There's one way to that God, and that's through Jesus."
Unfortunately, Wilkerson said sadly, the ''harsh reality" of the Bible precludes salvation for non-Christians.
When asked if that means Gandhi, a Hindu who reached across religious lines, was denied entry to heaven, Wilkerson dropped his head and nodded.
In the end, two cars, a pickup, a nice home, good jobs, and a comfortable life in the American heartland are all temporary amenities to the Wilkersons and the other churchgoers who fill Hope's sanctuary with song and prayer each Sunday. They have their eyes on the hereafter.
Until then, the Wilkersons say, their journey is one worth emulating.
''If you want the country to be better, you would want to take a model of a husband and wife and a family who wants to do the right thing," Michael says. ''You would think that would be the model the country would want to go after.
''If you want to call us do-gooders, so be it."