HUDSON, Wisc. – In this town of 12,000 on the sleepy banks of the St. Croix River, Republican Gov. Scott Walker stood on a metal chair, flanked by flags as he spoke to a packed house. With just days before a June 5 recall election, his local campaign office was lined with volunteers eager to meet Walker in person.
He was talking economics. But religion was there for those who had ears to hear.
“Do any of you remember ‘this little light of mine’?” he asked, holding up a hand. Several children shouted yes. Their moms and dads nodded and smiled. Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher, said no more, leaving the words to speak on their own. A few minutes later, Walker told them to remind their friends at church on Sunday morning to vote, because “we’ve got the truth.”
For those who have watched Walker in action, these kind of subtle references to faith are usually the extent of his nod to the religious convictions of many of his supporters, and to the conservative Christian heritage that’s present throughout the Midwest.
But as Walker stepped down from the chair that day, Tony Nasvik, the president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a faith-based advocacy organization founded by Ralph Reed and allied with Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council, approached Walker, and handed him a note.
The note said that Walker had been selected to receive Nasvik’s group’s “Courage in Leadership” award, which honors individuals who have exemplified faith-based engagement in the public sphere.
They’ve liked what they’ve been hearing.
“The prayers of the people of Wisconsin mean a lot to me and my family,” Walker said, when asked about the award after the rally. He didn’t elaborate, moving on to other questions quickly and nonchalantly
The governor’s faith has not featured prominently in this recall election. But while he’s low-key about it, his faith both motivates and informs his political perspectives, say his friends and supporters. His faith also reassures him, he said in a an interview last month.
The governor’s quieter approach to his faith is not uncommon in this part of the country, but religious belief nonetheless runs deep in the citizenry. About half of the people surveyed by a CNN exit poll during the April 3 GOP primary said that they attend church on a weekly basis
Tommy Orlando, a pastor at Mercy Hill Church near Milwaukee, said that Walker doesn’t talk about his Christianity to “score political points.” Orlando, who knows Walker through friends, says that the governor’s faith “comes out of who he is,” especially since there’s not a huge advantage to self-identifying as an evangelical in Wisconsin politics.
On Sunday some ten days before the recall, Walker attended the early service at Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, a close-in suburb of Milwaukee where he lives with his family. Meadowbrook is a nondenominational evangelical church set among large, leafy trees lining straight, sleepy streets, with yard signs both for and against Walker’s recall dotting the manicured green lawns.
The message by John Mackett, the church’s head pastor, was based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as found in the Gospel of Matthew.
In it, Jesus tells the disciples to not flaunt their faith in ostentatious ways. Christians shouldn’t engage in “public displays of piety” that look holy, but are hallow, Mackett said.
“We’re not political. …We’re a kingdom people” focused on sharing religious views and lives of service — or should be, Mackett said.
He says that the Walkers are unobtrusive, contributing members of his church. Scott Walker serves as an usher.
Members of the church confirmed that. Debebe Gebremedhin, who’s been attending Meadowbrook for 20 years, considers Walker a friend. And he also said their shared church participation would not determine his vote.
“Faith doesn’t go into that decision for me. I have to lay it out, see who gives better service to his family, his country, our state. I like [Walker’s] faith. I know in my heart he’s a believer. I see how he lives his life, I see how he loves his family,” and yet, he said, “I’m just not sure yet if I’ll vote for him.”
John Lorenz, volunteers at the church, running its audiovisual equipment. Lorenz is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which is supporting Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett in the recall election.
While Lorenz says that he’s voting for Walker in the recall election, it’s “not just because he goes to this church.” He added, “Faith is very important to me. It definitely affects the direction our country should go.”
UW Election Eye’s Thor Tolo contributed to this post.