Candidates Face Different Breed of Evangelicals in N. Hampshire

Republican candidates, who have been aggressively courting evangelical voters, are facing a whole different kind of evangelical playing field in New Hampshire where the population, in many aspects, is more diverse than that of southern states.

Instead of the evangelical megachurches seen in other parts of the country, New Hampshire is home to congregations that are typically smaller and more independent. Churches with 100 members are normal and the largest evangelical church, Bethany Church in Greenland, draws about 2,000 people on a given Sunday, according to the Boston Globe.

Moreover, churches in this New England state aren't comfortable with mixing faith and politics. Most New Hampshire pastors don't talk about their candidate of choice in church and congregants are widely diverse in their favored presidential candidate.

This different breed of evangelical is likely to affect Republican sensation Mike Huckabee, who has surged to the top of state polls largely on the wave of support from born-again Christians.

Yet the former Arkansas governor is said to be the only candidate actively pursuing evangelicals in New Hampshire. Political analysts observed this may be because the state is riskier.

"In New England in general, and in New Hampshire in particular, people are very skeptical about religious candidates," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Huckabee, who is an ordained Baptist minister, has in response taken another approach to winning over the state's evangelicals. He has preached in four New Hampshire churches and has honored the region's tradition of separation of church and politics.

The Rev. Kenneth J. Bosse of New Life Assembly of God in Raymond recalled it was "a huge leap of faith on my part" to offer his pulpit to a presidential candidate last spring, but said he was convinced he made the right decision by Huckabee's sermon on "the sin of being good," which he said had nothing to do with the campaign.

"He so honored those boundaries," Bosse said, according to the Boston Globe.

In addition, Huckabee met with a group of evangelical ministers in Manchester last week – a meeting not listed in his public schedule – and organizers declined to allow a reporter to attend in keeping with their custom.

"Political buttons, they stay outside the door," said Chris Tidwell, the pastor of the 50-member Deerfield Bible Church.
Unlike their counterparts in other regions, New Hampshire evangelicals do not have the large faith-based political networks – such as Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and American Values – that help organize voters.

Rather, the state only has a few small and weak grass-roots organizations that venture into mixing faith and politics. These low-budget groups have little power on the state level and thus make it difficult for candidates to campaign and organize evangelical voters in the state.

Another obstacle is that the state's evangelicals are more socially moderate than their Southern counterparts.

"It kind of makes me laugh sometimes when they lump evangelicals all in one group," said the Rev. Bruce Boria, pastor of Bethany Church, the state's largest evangelical congregation and one of the most politically diverse.

"At my church, there have been people who have opened their homes to Barack Obama," and other candidates, said Boria.

The former New Yorker is leaning towards Rudy Giuliani but said his members, particularly the "younger ones," are widely open to candidates' ideas rather than on a "hard-line" position.

A post-election survey from 1992 to 2000 by National Surveys of Religion and Politics found that 45 percent of New England evangelical Protestants who attend church more than once a week considered themselves "pro-gay rights," compared to 29 percent in the South.

The survey's conductor, John Green - senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life – explained that evangelicals in the Northeast are affiliated with denominations that are politically moderate compared to Southern Baptists and Pentecostals that dominate the South. Also, evangelicals in New England are influenced by the region's generally liberal culture.

"They're not from an evangelical Protestant culture, they're from a New England culture," noted Andrew Walsh, associated director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford. "They haven't been marinated for generations in the religious and political culture of the South, or even Iowa."

It is estimated that nearly 1 in 5 Republican primary voters are evangelical Christians in New Hampshire. This portion is significantly smaller than in South Carolina, where they represent 53 percent of primary voters, and in Iowa where they make up 38 percent, according to the Associated Press/Pew Research Center.

The New Hampshire primary election is set for Jan. 8.