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Religion and Politics: A Tale of Two Churches

The Graystone Presbyterian Church, left, and Calvary Presbyterian Church in Indiana, Pa.
Jim Wildman, NPR
The Graystone Presbyterian Church, left, and Calvary Presbyterian Church in Indiana, Pa.

Many Americans decide how to vote by drawing, in part, on their religious beliefs. NPR's Steve Inskeep visits two neighboring churches in the swing state of Pennsylvania, and finds conflicting views among congregants about the presidential candidates and the war in Iraq.

It's the first of three stories in a Morning Edition series on the role of religion in the 2004 campaign.

In the town of Indiana, Pa., a former coal-mining community whose main employer is now a local university, two Presbyterian churches are located next to each other, the result of an old split among Presbyterians.

After a recent Sunday service, Inskeep talks with a group of worshipers at the Graystone Presbyterian Church, which is known as conservative.

Ron Marshall supports the war in Iraq. "I think it left our nation in a very difficult situation," he says. "I think our president had to make a very difficult decision, and [he's] really sticking with that and trying to bring this under control."

Fran Pendrey plans to vote for Mr. Bush. "I believe his Christianity is sincere. The Bible says, 'Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.' And I believe that if we will concentrate on getting godly people into governmental positions, I believe that God will honor that."

Fellow Graystone Presbyterian member David Whitcomb says that while he sides with the Democrats on economic issues, "morally I do side with Republicans. I am pro-life. It's hard for me to hear [Democratic Sen.] John Kerry say, 'Well, I'm pro-life in my Catholicism, but I will vote pro-choice.' That strikes dischord with me."

At the neighboring Calvary Presbyterian Church, whose congregants are considered more liberal, Inskeep finds less support for the president, especially on the issue of Iraq. Phil Neusius, an anthropologist at the local university, also teaches Sunday school. He says his Sunday school students seemed to understand the need to invade Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. But he says they wonder why the United States entered Iraq "under false pretenses."

George and Janet Mitchell have just learned that a U.S. Marine they know was being deployed to Iraq. "I find that absolutely criminal... because we declared war on a country that did not threaten us, and that violates every Christian principle I know," George Mitchell says.

His wife says Iraq has overshadowed other issues that should get more attention, such as health care and jobs. "It's all focused on Iraq. But yet... we aren't even attending to our own people who need [help]," Janet Mitchell says.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.