Rally here a first, testing Dobson's appeal in region
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James Dobson, the evangelical radio psychologist and powerful conservative activist, will be at Mellon Arena Wednesday for the first major Religious Right event ever held in Pittsburgh, and the first Stand for the Family Rally outside the South and the Plains states.
The question is whether Pittsburgh's heavily Catholic and Presbyterian church-going population will produce the same support as areas filled with Southern Baptist and independent Bible churches.
Coming to Pittsburgh is a bold move that will be closely watched, said John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The choice was made because Dr. Dobson is holding Stand for the Family rallies in states with critical U.S. Senate races.
"We are in a struggle for the souls of our kids," Dr. Dobson said in an interview with local Christian radio station WORD-FM, where his own show is the biggest draw. He called it "a sin" not to vote, and cited abortion, national security, and support for the traditional family as key issues.
Millions of Christians trust Dr. Dobson for advice on all manner of family issues. They have been known to jam communications on Capitol Hill when he urges them to voice their views about votes on family-related issues. But there are signs that evangelicals -- especially younger ones -- are moving beyond his list of key issues to include matters such as environmentalism and global human rights.
"This probably won't play as well as in the Plains States and the South because it's a different mix of religious communities. But Pittsburgh would be much better for them than Philadelphia," Green said. "This is an innovation on his part, in a strategic place, in a critical race."
Tom Minnery, spokesman for Focus on the Family Action said the organizationa aims at hotly contested races. "It behooves us to go there to explain the issues so people can cast informed votes," he said.
Adult tickets cost $7 for the 17,000-seat arena. "We expect it to be full," he said.
Others wonder if a smaller venue might have been wiser. Bruce Barron, president of the local anti-gambling group No Dice and a former campaign and office aide to Mr. Santorum, said rally planners have done a good job networking with sympathetic groups, such as home-schoolers.
"That will likely turn out a good draw -- but a good draw around here would be 2,000-3,000," he said.
Others wonder about the political angst that has become more visible within evangelicalism since the 2004 election. Leaders from longtime social activist Jim Wallis to the largely apolitical mega-pastor Rick Warren have urged evangelicals to ratchet up concern for global poverty.
"We have seen a broadening of the agenda, particularly among younger evangelicals, but across the board," Dr. Green said.
Although they may still oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, "they don't want them to be the top issues. A growing number of evangelicals are adding things such as concern for the environment, for poverty and for foreign affairs, especially human rights abroad."
That generation gap is visible in a local family, where father and son differ on the Stand for the Family rally.
The father, Jim Ludwig, a Republican committeeman from Shaler, led a North Hills chapter of the Christian Coalition during its heyday in the 1990s.
He said he left that organization after its national office forced local volunteers to arrange a rally for Pat Robertson on short notice -- and then cancelled the rally because it appeared attendance would be poor. He blames that failure on poor administration, not on the religious climate of Western Pennsylvania.
He's enthusiastic about Dr. Dobson's rally.
"I think there's more substance behind this. There's more of an organization, and there's certainly more credibility," he said.
Mr. Ludwig is a board member of LifePAC, a regional anti-abortion lobby. Dr. Dobson can tap the bipartisan opposition to abortion here, he said.
"Pro-lifers are a very loyal voting block that makes a difference and cares about being involved. It's very big in Western Pennsylvania. And it's not a Republican-Democrat thing. Until [Republican] Melissa Hart got elected [in 2000], the formula to be a congressman in Western Pennsylvania was to be a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat," he said.
His son, a Presbyterian minister, wrote a public letter challenging Focus on the Family Action to broaden its idea of family issues.
The Rev. Drew Ludwig, 28, associate minister for youth at Southminister Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon, attended seminary at Eastern University in Delaware County, an evangelical school known for promotion of what are often considered left-wing issues.
"I think my generation of evangelicals sees through the strict lines that have been drawn in the past," he said.
"The thinly veiled purpose of this rally is to get out the vote for Rick Santorum. And there are things that Rick Santorum stands for that resonate with evangelicals," he said. "However, I don't believe that Dr. Dobson is covering every issue that scripture tells us we should be concerned about. The Bible calls on us to be concerned first and foremost for the poor, and the Bible over and over cautions us not to trust in military might."
Such words lead Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Michigan, to suspect that Dr. Dobson's political influence has peaked.
"He continues to have an important impact, but I don't think it's necessarily a growing impact. For a variety of reasons, the figures that have been associated with what might be called the Christian Right have, at least in terms of appearances, either reached their zenith or diminished," he said.
Many young people are among more than 4,000 who attend Northway Christian Community in Pine. It is one of the largest Protestant churches in the region, and fits a profile that the religious right draws from.
Marilyn Reed, a longtime social activist at Northway, put up posters promoting the rally and said longtime members have snapped up tickets. But she wasn't certain how others will respond. The rally has not ben promoted from the pulpit, she said.
"The people I know and talk to are certainly supporting Santorum and [Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn] Swann. But in a church as big as Northway, it's hard to tell what most people think," she said.
"We have a lot of young people, a lot of people who are new to Northway and new to Christianity. We have a lot of people who haven't sorted all of it out. It took me a long time."
Some people have questioned whether suburbanites will come Downtown to see someone they can hear daily on radio. But Ms. Reed said she once drove to Harrisburg to see Dr. Dobson.
"I would guess they are going to get people, not just from Pittsburgh and the suburbs, but people coming down from Erie. Will they fill Mellon Arena? I don't know, but they'll probably get a pretty good response," she said.
Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute in Harrisburg, which cooperated with Focus in planning the rally, believes Dr. Dobson will have strong appeal to socially conservative Democrats in this region.
"The Pittsburgh area historically has been, it not at the very top, then at least in the top tier of regions that send people to the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. That is an indication of a significant passion for the sanctity of life and for the socially conservative issues. And that is why Dr. Dobson will be well received in the area," Mr. Geer said.
The rally starts at 6:30 p.m. Information is at www.wordfm.com..
First Published September 17, 2006 12:00 am