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Elections have a Baptist flavor

In Hernando County, local Democratic and Republican executive committees usually get the headlines during campaign season, but a cadre of Christians affiliated with a single church is quietly making a push for victory in November.

Three members of Landmark Baptist Church, housed in a single-story tan stucco building on Candlelight Boulevard in Brooksville, have filed to run for local office. A fourth church member is considering a run, while a sometime attendee of Landmark Baptist is also seeking office.

In District 3, Phillip Johnson, a Democrat, hopes to beat sitting Democratic Commissioner Diane Rowden in the August primary. In District 5, Richard A. Power, who filed with no party affiliation, seeks to defeat Democratic Commission Chairwoman Betty Whitehouse. In the Brooksville City Council race, which is nonpartisan, Allen Rhodes has his eye on Joe Bernardini's spot.

And in County Commission District 1, Luke Frazier, a Republican who has attended the church but is not a member, hopes to unseat Democrat Mary Aiken. None of the candidates have prior political experience.

Landmark Baptist pastor Mike Frazier, who is not related to Luke Frazier, said he did not ask any church members to seek office, that they had acted alone. He does urge congregants to get involved in the community, he said, and that message may have led some church members to become political candidates.

"I think these guys just heard me preach about giving back," said Frazier, 45.

The pastor gained some local renown in 2002 when he lobbied for passage of an antinudity ordinance. Debate on the law brought close to 40 members of Landmark Baptist to the County Commission chambers, where they squared off against nudity advocates.

Frazier said his time in the spotlight led to death threats that continue to this day.

Although some may view the surge in activism by church members as a conspiracy by local religious conservatives to seize political power, Frazier pointed out that a few area politicians are Catholic and that the specter of a papal conspiracy is never raised.

Frazier said he advocates a strict separation between church and state and that he holds many views _ such as opposition to federal funding of faith-based programs _ that do not neatly square with the impression some have of religious conservatives.

"I'm not so rabid," he said, "as some people think conservative preachers must be."

District 3 candidate Phillips, like Frazier and fellow church members running for office, said he feels strongly that the state should have no power over religious expression and that churches should have no influence in government.

But like the other Landmark Baptist candidates, Phillips, 49, said he has strong biblical principles that would affect his thinking about issues presented to him as an elected official.

Too many Christians, Phillips said, have shied away from the public sphere and must get involved if changes they seek are to be realized.

"Our preacher has preached many a time, Don't expect anyone else to do it," Phillips said. "Take the bull by the horns and do it."

Commissioner Rowden, whom Phillips will face in the primary, said she was concerned by the group of Landmark Baptist members who have filed. Rowden, the lone commissioner to vote against the antinudity ordinance, said she is a Christian but also a firm defender of personal liberty.

During the nudity debates, the church trampled on those liberties, she said.

"That one church came in and took control of the County Commission," she said, and bullied the board into action.

The Landmark Baptist candidates' strong religion conviction is mixed with an equally firm fiscal conservatism. They profess a deep concern about wasteful spending, advocate the curbing of taxes, and support greater privatization of government services.

The candidates discussed religion openly but only in response to questions by a Times reporter.

"This nation was founded on religious, Christian principles," said the District 5 candidate, Power, 70. "And now you cannot even mention God. This kind of thing is destroying the nation."

The failure by some to recognize that the war on terrorism is a religious war, Power said, is one example of how the country has strayed too far from the biblical teachings that are the basis of his beliefs.

Power said not all Muslims, whom he called Mohammedans, are guilty of the crimes committed by fellow Muslims, but that too many have failed to speak out and condemn terrorism.

"I don't hate Mohammedans," he said. "But he has to abide by our rules. We don't accommodate our culture to adapt to anyone."

According to Rhodes, 65, the Brooksville City Council candidate, the Bible encourages Christians to become involved in government. It is unfair, he said, to fault them for doing so.

"Every person who is sitting in office is guided by his or her own convictions regardless of their church affiliation," Rhodes said. "So why should a Christian be singled out?"

But for Ed Golly, president of Atheists of Florida, it is not a matter of singling out one faith over any other for scrutiny, but ensuring that religious beliefs play no role in government policymaking.

Golly stressed that political leaders are secular leaders who must not allow religious feeling to dictate their decisions.

"We are not a theocracy," Golly said. "We are a federal republic and the Constitution is the law of the land."

In response, pastor Frazier pointed out that in a theocracy, churches enforce their will on the people. In the case of the candidates affiliated with his church, Frazier said, it is the voters who will pass judgment on them.

Frazier said Landmark Baptist would refrain from endorsing any candidate in the race.

Though not a church member, County Commission District 1 candidate Luke Frazier, 18, holds many of the same views as the Landmark Baptist candidates.

Asked by a Times reporter whether he wished to have his conduct judged by God or by his fellow men and the laws they have created, he thought for a moment before choosing God.

"I follow the teaching of Christ," Frazier said. "And I believe the Bible is the truth."

According to the Rev. Frazier, another church member is considering entering the race for District 1. That person, Frazier said, is undecided.

_ Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127 or vansantsptimes.com.

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