10/23/2007 08:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tide Turning In GOP West Michigan Stronghold

The following piece was published by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.


The presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 brought almost biblical floods of Republican bumper stickers to what has been called the northernmost - and perhaps most influential - point of the Bible Belt.

Yet while West Michigan will certainly witness something similar in 2008, there is also strong evidence to suggest that the tablets long carried by the strong evangelical Republican population here are beginning to fracture.

In what has been called such things as "Little Jerusalem" (due its deeply rooted religiosity and abundance of churches) and an "unfriendly place" for liberals (Grand Rapids earned this distinction from the online community Turn Left), it appears that fundamentalist/evangelical Republicanism is under assault.

Long dominated by a sizeable Dutch population and the conservative Christian Reformed and Reformed churches, it seems that many are beginning to remove the wooden shoes.

Whereas past presidential election years have subjected residents of West Michigan to a nearly biblical deluge of conservative propaganda, today's leftover "W" and "Bush Cheney '04" are fading into the crowd. Current Republican candidates' campaign material hasn't caught on thus far, either, and what there is has been dwarfed by the Hillary machine and youthful enthusiasm for Obama.

Even the so-called mega-churches that Republican presidential candidates have come to rely upon are showing signs of reluctance. At Mars Hill Bible Church, a Grandville mega-church founded by the popular Rob Bell, politics are off the table. Period. The church, which draws upwards of 10,000 people on any given Sunday, even sponsors groups for gay Christians. Mars Hill staff estimate they've passed out roughly 40,000 of the popular "Love Wins" bumper stickers, and, according to my own rough observation, the stickers are already more prevalent than any sort of "Jesus is Pro-Life" automotive statement.

Calvin College - the institutional heart of the conservative Christian Reformed Church - is similarly showing signs of fragmentation. When President Bush arrived on campus in 2005 to deliver the commencement address, he was greeted by two full-page letters in the conservative-leaning Grand Rapids Press. Collectively, the letters were signed by more than 800 students, faculty and staff, and included such condemnation as:
"Your deeds, Mr. President - neglecting the needy to coddle the rich, desecrating the environment and misleading the country into war - do not exemplify the faith we live by."

Of course, if we are to apply this evident transformation to the presidential campaigns underway, we might conclude merely that politicians - both Republican and Democratic, but surely, mostly Republican - ought to be wary of this traditionally conservative region.

Yet politicians historically don't listen very well - at least to intangibles.

They want us to "show them the money."

East Grand Rapids - former and present home of both President Gerald Ford and former U.S. ambassador Peter Secchia - has long been heralded - and in some circles taken for granted - as a Republican goldmine.

Not so fast, says Mayor Cindy Bartman, an independent who, in a recent interview*, remarked upon the diversity of opinion in the city. East, as it is known, voted for Democrat Jennifer Granholm in her successful 2006 re-election bid, upsetting hometown Republican tycoon Dick DeVos. The city was also the only West Michigan community in the 2004 election to vote against a Michigan constitutional amendment that would expressly ban gay marriage.

FEC reports released this month indicate that the Republican Party and its presidential candidates have raised $323,786 in West Michigan thus far, just doubling the amount taken in by the Democrats at $157,626. Certainly such a financial disparity is not surprising in this region, which, like much of the rest of Michigan, has been rattled by manufacturing loss and is also home to such GOP fundraising giants as the Amway-founding DeVos and VanAndel families. What is worthy of note, however, is that support for Republican candidates has waned significantly since the last presidential election cycle - this in what a friend has even gone so far as to call "the true buckle" of the Bible Belt.

It has yet to be seen what kind of effect this shift in both religiosity and conservatism has on campaign '08, but what is certain is this: if the so-called values voters cannot coalesce around one candidate, the evangelical Republicans of West Michigan might well find themselves praying harder than usual for the world to least before the votes are cast, anyway.

* Personal interview, summer 2007