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Monday, July 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:06 P.M.
Pastor's election-year crusade: 60,000 new voters in state
By Janet I. Tu
The senior pastor of one of the largest churches in the state, who is leading a statewide effort to rally social conservatives to re-elect President Bush, Fuiten believes "God wants us to be involved in government.
"Along with the church and family, it's an institution God created which ought to be under the will of God," said Fuiten as he stood before a giant American flag at his Cedar Park Assembly of God church in Bothell, delivering his annual Fourth of July sermon on God and country.
Some Americans, said the straightforward 54-year-old pastor, are uneasy about the president and members of his cabinet being openly religious. But America has always been a Christian nation, founded on Christian values that unite us still, Fuiten believes. The problem he sees is that those values are being eroded.
"It's not like we're trying to impose our values on the country. We're trying to prevent other people from imposing their values on us."
Those beliefs and his view of the Bible as the infallible word of God are why Fuiten is heading the Bush campaign's effort in this state to reach social conservatives, who he says are being galvanized by the gay-marriage issue.
In addition, through a statewide evangelical Christian lobbying group he leads, Fuiten is heading a voter-registration drive focused largely on evangelical churches. At his own church on the Fourth of July, Fuiten had ushers pass out forms to people in the pews who said they had not registered to vote.
Already, more than 800 churches statewide have received registration materials. Fuiten's goal is to register 60,000 people. As an organizer of this spring's Mayday for Marriage rally that drew 20,000 people to Safeco Field, he has a record for marshaling the masses.
"If Joe Fuiten is successful in registering 60,000 new voters, the lion's share of those voters are going to vote Republican," said state Republican Party chairman Chris Vance. "That's huge for us."
Fuiten's efforts place him in the middle of a larger nationwide debate over whether the Bush campaign is encouraging churches to cross the line into partisan politics, jeopardizing their federal tax-exempt status. The campaign has, for instance, asked religious volunteers for church directories and recommendations for "friendly congregations," and asked Southern Baptist pastors for help in registering voters.
"What you're talking about here is a gross effort to politicize evangelicals, to connect Scripture with politics and to lay a guilt trip on individuals to vote a certain way," said state Democratic Party chairman Paul Berendt.
"There's a real crossing of the line separating church and state."
A golf-playing garage-sale enthusiast, there is little about him that suggests the more emotionally dramatic expressions of faith often associated with Assemblies of God services.
Fuiten's style is more cerebral, reflecting his love of reading, especially about early church history and America's founding fathers. Like other evangelical preachers, he is passionate in talking about personal salvation through Christ. But his sermons also connect politics and current events with passages from the Old and New Testaments and other readings.
"My husband and I come away from every sermon with something learned," said 57-year-old Carole Sue Swanson, a sales executive from Mukilteo, who also likes Fuiten's clearly defined, strong sense of right and wrong.
Fuiten believes the Iraq war is part of a larger, longer war between Christianity and Islam, instigated by Muslim extremists. Although not all evangelical preachers would agree with him, he thinks Islam is, in a way, a false religion, since the prophet Mohammed took three of the five central pillars of Islam prayer, fasting and alms-giving from Christianity.
He says Hollywood is "bringing the wrath of Islam on America" because it's portraying the country as a degenerate society.
But it's the issue of gay marriage that's become the focus of much of his recent attention.
Fuiten says allowing gays and lesbians to marry would change the definition of marriage, an institution created by God to be between a man and a woman. Judges who allow gay marriage are imposing their own will and bypassing legislatures elected by the people, he says. In Fuiten's view, such "extreme individualism" ultimately leads to anarchy.
He's making sure state lawmakers are aware of those views.
The lobbying group he heads, Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government, successfully pushed for a law in 1998 allowing marriage only between a man and a woman and denying recognition of same-sex unions performed elsewhere. The group continues to defend that law, intervening in a lawsuit filed this year by gay couples who want to marry.
For years, the family lived in the parsonage attached to a church in Butte Falls, Ore., the boys' bedroom separated from classrooms by a curtain. They said prayers before each meal and held a half-hour family devotional each evening.
The Fuiten children were given strict rules about what was right and wrong, but "we were always taught to be compassionate about it," said Carolyn Crow, one of Fuiten's sisters. "It's not that the person is a bad person. It's what they do is wrong."
Young Joe Fuiten was always religious. Family members say he also had a sense of humor (he used to stay up nights, memorizing jokes from joke books) and loved politics.
He got hooked on politics in fifth grade, watching the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates. Shortly after, he drafted a plan that would have him running for U.S. president in 2004.
It was at Willamette University, where he served as student-body president, that Fuiten felt called to ministry.
After marrying his childhood sweetheart, Linda, whom he met at Bible school, Fuiten arrived at Bothell's Cedar Park church in 1981, taking over a congregation with 150 participants and a $100,000 budget.
Fuiten's vision was to create a church that would touch all aspects of its participants' lives. Today Cedar Park is spread among eight campuses throughout Puget Sound. Its 300 employees run everything from a pre-K-through-12 school system (serving some 1,500 students) to counseling centers, an auto shop and a cemetery.
Fuiten's extended family also is involved. His father and two of his sons-in-law are pastors there.
The growth of the church, now with an operating budget of $13.5 million, illustrates the breadth of Fuiten's abilities, said a friend, state Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way. "He's a down-to-earth visionary who tries to implement what many people talk about."
Sheila Shipley, Fuiten's administrative assistant, talks about her first day on the job five years ago: There are no secrets in this office, Fuiten told her. Then he gave her the passwords to his computer and voice mail.
"He has nothing to hide," Shipley said. "He sets the standard for honesty and integrity."
Even people who disagree with Fuiten respect him for that.
"I'm well aware that he has people he's trying to get in the state Legislature," said state Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace. "[But] I get along well with Joe. He's a pretty good guy."
Crossing a line?
Though federal laws don't prohibit pastors from talking about issues and whom they plan to vote for which Fuiten does unabashedly churches that actively participate in partisan politics could lose their federal income tax-exempt status.
Berendt, the state Democratic Party chairman, contends there's no way Fuiten could persuade thousands of conservative Christians to register to vote without getting evangelical pastors to push a partisan message.
"You can't register 60,000 people and not be aggressive," said Berendt. "The only way evangelicals can do that is by getting right in the churches and being political in a way that crosses the line, both legally and ethically, in my view."
State Republican Party chairman Vance finds that "unbelievably hypocritical."
"The left and mainstream media get all panicky and self-righteous when Republicans turn to churches to get people to vote," he said, when Democrats have done the same for years.
In 1996, for instance, the Democratic National Committee spent $15 million to register black voters and to get President Clinton's re-election message into black churches.
For his part, Fuiten emphasizes that his voter-registration effort is nonpartisan the information he hands out does not advocate for any specific candidate or party and his work heading the state's Social Conservatives for Bush campaign is done as a private citizen.
Besides, not all social conservatives or evangelicals agree with him, including a portion of his own congregation.
He recalls someone coming up to him after one of his sermons, saying: "You know, not everyone here is a Republican."
"I said: 'We can work on that,' " Fuiten says with a laugh. "'We can cast out demons.' "
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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