ORRVILLE, Ohio - As "God Bless the USA" echoed through his rural church, Pastor Jerry O'Brien geared up for a sermon of sorts about politics in America.
Today's church is too disengaged, said O'Brien, who leads Faith Harvest Fellowship in Orrville. He said Christians don't know enough about elections or the politicians who seek to represent them.
"We need to inform our people, or the spirit of fear is going to continue to wreak havoc throughout our churches," O'Brien said.
Enter Josh Mandel.
The former Ohio treasurer visited Faith Harvest Fellowship recently to make his pitch for U.S. Senate, the latest in a series of campaign stops at churches across the state. Mandel uses these events to preach his own gospel, one that's anti-abortion, pro-gun and gives oxygen to debunked claims about the 2020 election.
At the heart of it all, he says, are Judeo-Christian values that will guide his decisions in Washington if he's elected.
"I believe the only place in which we’re going to win back the hearts and minds of our kids and save the country is in churches, and that’s why I’m running my campaign through churches," Mandel, who is Jewish, said in an interview.
Although he's made it a hallmark of his campaign, Mandel isn't the only U.S. Senate candidate using religion to connect with Republican voters. And Ohio's evangelical base, which helped send former President Donald Trump to the White House, is now looking for a new warrior in Washington.
"God help our country," said Jean Wood, of Wooster. "Democrats are just leading us down a bad hole. It's so sad."
Rise of white evangelism
Evangelicals are one of the most prominent religious groups in Ohio, especially among political conservatives.
According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of all Ohioans and 39% of Republicans consider themselves evangelical Protestants. They're dispersed throughout the state, which gives them a strong voice in elections and significant influence in Republican politics, said Kimberly Conger, a professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, 19% of Democrats in Ohio identify as evangelical Protestants and 64% are Christians.
Conger said evangelicals began to make their mark on the GOP decades ago, and they went into George W. Bush's presidency satisfied with his values and plans for the country. But 9/11 disrupted Bush's domestic agenda and left that base itching for more — a discontent Trump seized upon.
As a result, a whopping 77% of white evangelical voters nationwide went for Trump in 2016, a survey from Pew found. Exit polls from the 2020 election analyzed by the New York Times estimated that 82% of white evangelicals or born-again Christians in Ohio cast ballots for Trump.
Research also shows that some white Americans who backed the former president began identifying as evangelical between the 2016 and 2020 elections.
"When you have a Biblical world view, your spiritual truths that anchor you are the most important thing," said Pastor JC Church, who leads Victory in Truth Ministries in Bucyrus. "It’s not the political as much as it’s the personal convictions and values."
White evangelicals were attracted to Trump's message that he would fight for the average person, Conger said. They feel embattled by a society with increasingly progressive views about abortion and same-sex marriage, and see issues like critical race theory as an attack on being American.
"They feel like a traditional understanding of the world is under attack, so they need these kinds of champions to fight back for them," Conger said.
Fighting for hearts and minds
Mandel hears that message and presents himself as a fighter who will go to Washington armed with a Bible and the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, critics have called him racist for his comments on critical race theory and refugees and attacked him for comparing President Joe Biden's vaccine order to edicts in Nazi Germany.
"Some of my opponents are racking up a ton of endorsements from politicians," he said. "I can tell you I don’t care about endorsements from state reps and state senators and congressmen at all."
Instead, Mandel has garnered support from Church and other pastors, as well as groups like Ohio Value Voters and Right to Life Action Coalition of Ohio.
"I believe we are way past the time to have leaders who lead with a deep conviction, who stand with courage," Church said.
Other Republican Senate candidates say they're better equipped to fight for the needs of this base. Former Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken recently blasted her alma mater, Harvard University, for electing a president of chaplains who identifies as an atheist. As part of her crusade against abortion, she visited pregnancy centers that aim to dissuade people from getting the procedure.
Timken, a Catholic, said Ohio's evangelical voters have become increasingly outspoken in the political sphere because of progressive policies.
"They’re very concerned about these issues eroding their constitutional liberties, and they’re very concerned about the eradication of God out of our country that’s been pushed by the left," she said.
"Hillbilly Elegy" author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance criticized the politicization of the church in a 2016 New York Times column and said it "encourages us to point a finger at faceless elites in Washington." He has since converted to Catholicism and now touts views on bread-and-butter evangelical issues like opposing abortion and promoting a "patriotic" education for children.
Vance also secured an endorsement from anti-abortion activist Penny Nance, who leads Concerned Women for America.
"JD’s pro-life, pro-family message resonates not only with evangelical Christians, but with the majority of all Ohioans," spokeswoman Taylor Van Kirk said. "Ohio voters are finding out that he actually believes what he says, and isn’t just another politician."
What sets Mandel apart, though, is years of listening to these voters as a statewide elected official and speaking their language, said a GOP consultant who is unaffiliated with any campaigns and requested anonymity to speak candidly. Mandel has long been popular with social conservatives, the consultant said, and stumping in churches allows him to connect with a more receptive audience.
"Social conservatives are the base," the consultant said. "They’re not separate from the party structure. They’re part of the party structure."
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.