LJ Cunningham

Pastors Push Politics at Ohio Pulpit

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Post Published: October 25, 2023

I’d posted online to speak to Ohio congregants told to how to vote in church. A congregant of Veritas Community Church Short North responded. A Protestant church in the Short North with three locations in central Ohio and one in Dayton, the church and pastors have strong political ties to the Center for Christian Virtue and Republican political interests.

Are special political interests taking over churches in Ohio, or are these old values coming to the surface? What are Ohioans to do if they don’t trust their church leadership?

The Initially Welcoming Church

A man who wants to remain anonymous responded to my online query. I’ll call him Ezekiel.

Ezekiel and I spoke by phone recently.

Veritas Community Church, he said, felt like a good, contemporary, fit for himself and his wife. Ezekiel described the church as initially welcoming: COVID protocols were in place during lockdown, he said. This helped him and his wife feel safe.

That feeling of safety in church changed, when pastor Patrick Knable told Veritas congregants to vote no on enshrining abortion in the Ohio state constitution.

Ezekiel shared that it was being told how to vote, “and a lack of empathy” from pastor Patrick Knable which he found most concerning. Follow-up materials sent to congregants the following day, he says, reaffirmed his concerns.

“I want to know that I’m in a church who would treat people the way Jesus did,” he said. “Intentionally misleading the congregation is something I hope that they apologize for.” Ezekiel called the language used during the sermon, “dehumanizing” and “unempathetic,” which he finds concerning.

“Demonic Forces of Evil” Behind Enshrining Abortion

Image of Patrick Knable; white man with short dark hair, goatee, black rimmed glasses, camera facing in button up shirt
Pastor Patrick Knable of Veritas Community Church Columbus said amending the Ohio constitution to enshrine abortion is caused by “demonic forces of evil” in an October 8, 2023 sermon.

The video for the October 8th sermon is available on Veritas’s YouTube channel.

At the one-hour, ten-minute mark, pastor Patrick Knable says this:

“And church, I couldn’t think of a more poignant example than the current push in our state to enshrine abortion in the State Constitution. I’m sure most of you are aware of the issue. You’ve probably started seeing political ads. There are truly spiritual forces of evil behind this movement. It is an attack on God’s image bearers to dehumanize unborn children in this way; and it is wrapped in lies, and very well funded…there are actions as Christ’s disciples and as voters, that we can take.”

Asking the congregation to “pray with me,” pastor Patrick Knable continued, “Father, deliver the the (sic) state of Ohio from the evil of abortion…”

Life on the Ballot: Materials Sent to Congregants

Veritas Community Church Columbus sent congregants this video.

Titled, Life on the Ballot: a Gospel Approach, a transcript of the video is available here.

Lead pastor Joe Byler begins by stating, “Jesus cares about life from womb to the tomb.” The phrase “womb to the tomb” may be recalled by those old enough to have heard Rush Limbaugh’s radio program in the 1990’s.

P.J. Wenzel, political consultant and sometimes-pastor at Veritas, does most of the speaking. Part of what he says is below:

Image of smiling bald man with salt and pepper gray beard and clear glasses frame. From the Veritas website
Joe Byler, Leadership at Veritas Community Church, Columbus, Ohio.

P.J. Wenzel: The State is supposed to be the State. And the state’s role is to protect the people within that state. And when the state stops protecting the life of it’s citizens, and it’s people, then the state ceases to be the state as God envisioned it. And so, it is up for the church to call the state to be the state. To fulfill their role, and live into their role that God has given the state… 4.04

(mmm from Jay)

P.J. Wenzel continues: “That’s not any problems with separation of church and state…when the state stops being the state, the church must call it to be the state, uh, because that is the role of the church.

Now, the interesting dynamic here that we have, especially in Ohio and in America, is that sometimes…we get a situation where we have a more direct form of democracy, even. 

And that’s what we have here in November…but what that means is, that here in Ohio, we have this issue. And, uh, the issue is Issue One on your ballots. And Issue One involves, uh, abortion, uh, through all nine months of, uh, the pregnancy um, of a woman…and…the…language…in the Issue…in Issue One…is very wide. Uh, you could drive a truck through this language, Joe… and, ah… (Joe: hmm)

At the 6.54 mark: That also means that if you’re a minor, uh, there’s no reason for them to call your parents. there’s no notification…there’s no…um…involvement of parents in that, in that, decision…. both from a gender reassignment surgery perspective, but also from an abortion perspective.

Image of grinning white man with short dark hair and beard.
Pastor and Republican political consultant P.J. Wenzel told congregants at Veritas Community Church Columbus to vote no on Ohio Issue 1. Image courtesy Clout Political.

The Republican Political Consultants Involved

Pastor P.J. and his father own Ring Digital and Clout Political. The website for Ring Digital lists Fritz and P.J. both as partners; fellow pastor Patrick Knable is listed as an account specialist at Ring.

Fritz Wenzel, the father of P.J. Wenzel, was at one time a chief political columnist for the Toledo Blade. The Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper and senior Mr. Wenzel were key figures in one of Ohio’s worst political scandals.

The Coingate Scandal and the Wenzel Family

The Coingate Scandal of 2004 involved well-known Republican donor and coin dealer Thomas Noe. Noe ran a coin-investment fund for the State of Ohio, and was accused of laundering  millions directly to the Bush-Cheney Presidential campaign.

P.J. Wenzel was lead of the Lucas County Republican Central Committee at this time. Mr. Noe’s wife, Bernadette, was chair of the Ohio Republican Party. The Noe’s were reportedly at P.J. Wenzel’s wedding as guests.

Fritz Wenzel was accused in 2004 of hiding Tom Noe’s potential federal crimes from his employer, the Toledo Blade, until after the 2004 Presidential election. The Toledo Blade spent thousands on an internal investigation proving it didn’t withhold key information.

Image of middle-aged white man. He's facing to the left, appears to be in prison uniform of light blue collared shirt, arms crossed on table, mouth open, eyes wide. Image of Tom Noe in prison
Image of Federal felon and Ohio Republican Tom Noe courtesy the Toledo Blade

Fritz Wenzel denied through his attorney at the time that he had information he didn’t share immediately with his employer. The Toledo Blade was accused of withholding key information that could have impacted the 2004 Presidential election until after the vote.

Read the Toledo Blade’s reporting from the time here and here.

Image of a white man in a suite and tie taking selfie in front of Jos. A Bank. He's smiling, bald, wearing black rimmed glasses, middle aged
Republican consultant Fritz Wenzel owns two firms with pastor son P.J. Wenzel. Both Wenzels have ties to Tom and Bernadette Noe, and deep ties to the Republican party

Mr. Noe had his Federal conviction commuted by Republican Governor Mike DeWine in 2020. He still owes the State of Ohio millions of dollars.

Bernadette and Tom eventually divorced; but not before Bernadette made headlines for fleeing to the family’s $5 million dollar home in Trump-favored Key Largo, Florida after the Feds began investigating Tom.

The Noes divorced, and Tom wed a former prison guard prior to his release.

Fritz Wenzel left the Blade to work for Ohio Republican Jean Schmidt’s political campaign in 2004.

Jean Schmidt’s Anti-abortion Crusade Connected to Wenzel Political Consulting

Schmidt lost her 2004 race, but was then eligible to successfully run in a special election held in 2005. Readers may remember Jean Schmidt for recently determining child rape, “an opportunity.

Image of Ohio Republican Jean Schmidt, State Rep for district 62
Image of Republican Ohio State Representative Jean Schmidt courtesy NBC

A Republican in Ohio’s Senate district 62,  she sponsored Ohio House Bill 598. This bill criminalizes abortion providers, and makes it possible to sue them. It also criminalizes abortion.

If Ohio fails to pass enshrining abortion in the State Constitution, Schmidt’s bill could make Ohio one of the most restrictive places in the world to obtain an abortion.

Connected Republican Political Consultant and Pastor

P.J. Wenzel and his father are both well-connected Republican political consultants. Boasting consulting work “on three continents” and for Rand Paul, P.J. currently boasts having helped Canadians win in Parliamentary elections.

A stumper for former Republican President George W. Bush, Fritz Wenzel’s connection to Jean Schmidt and Noe both have caused considerable scandal for years.

The Canadian Vancouver Observer reported that P.J. Wenzel and another business associate may have broken Canadian law by directly participating in helping the Conservative branch of Canadian government win elections.

Interestingly, the Clout Political website boasts that lay preacher P.J. Wenzel has helped “more than a dozen members of Canadian Parliament.”

The Center for Christian Virtue is a Lobbying Organization

The Center for Christian Virtue (CCV) began in 1983 under the name Citizens for Community Values. It’s a political lobbying organization rooted in Biblical morality and sexuality. Prior to rebranding as the Center for Christian Virtue, the organization was listed as a hate organization from 2015-2017 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for homophobic statements on it’s website.

With “grassroots,” simple, beginnings in West Chester, Ohio, a man named Phil Burress started with an outward-facing persona as a “self-described pornography addict.”

With a flair for acronyms and slogans, the CCV passed an amendment in the city of Cincinnati repealing non-discrimination rights for homosexual and bisexual workers in the city.

 “Issue 3 would amend the municipal constitution to bar the city or its agencies from
adopting anyrule or policy which provides that homosexual, lesbian, or
bisexual orientation, status, conduct, or relationship constitutes, entitles, or
otherwise provides a person with the basis to have any claim of minority or
protected status, quota preference or other preferential treatment.'”

The CCV Amended the Ohio Constitution in 2004

a 2014 image of former President of the Center for Christian Virtue, Phil Burress
Former Center for Community Values, (later rebranded as the Center for Christian Virtue) president Phil Burress spent over a decade trying to amend Ohio’s constitution against same-sex marriage, and built himself an empire.

Despite rhetoric from today’s CCV that amending the Ohio Constitution is potentially dangerous, the Center for Christian Virtue did just that in 2004.

The CCV partnered with  The Alliance for Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family, and other anti-LGBTQ orgs to push a constitutional amendment making marriage “between one man and one woman.”

The  “Defense of Marriage Act” or DOMA, passed in 2004. This state constitutional amendment restricted marriage to one man and one woman in Ohio. Eventually found unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Center for Christian Virtue Today

Phil Burress retired from the Center for Christian Virtue in 2016; reportedly after the November Presidential election.

In 2021, the Center for Community Values rebranded to the Center for Christian Virtue.

In 2023, the organization spent $1.1 million dollars on a building at 62 E. Broad Street, Columbus; directly across from the Ohio Statehouse.

Transphobic Bills and the Center for Christian Virtue

The “Save Women in Sports Act,” sponsored by Ohio Republican Jena Powell, (R-80) was eventually absorbed into transphobic HB 68. Both bills are sponsored by fellow Republican and Baptist minister, Gary Click, who represents Ohio district 88, and the Center for Christian Virtue.

Ohio House Bills 454 and 616–targeting trans youth and the professionals working with them, were introduced at the request of the CCV. Ohio House Bill 616 was introduced by Jean Schmidt and Mike Loychik. Ms. Schmidt, a known marathon runner, literally ran from press without responding to questions after Ohio House Bill 616 was introduced.

Arguably racist, homophobic, and transphobic, Ohio House Bill 616 was Ohio’s Draconian response to Florida’s racist “don’t say gay” bill. The bill bans discussions of race and racism as well as gender-affirming care in public education spaces.

Ohio House Bill 454 was introduced by Gary Click.

Center for Christian Virtue Texts to Republican Legislators

Image of white man standing in suit, no tie, arms spread apart, He has dark hair and beard
Image courtesy the News Herald and Carrie Garland of CCV President Aaron Baer, speaking in Mentor Ohio at an Ohio Right to Life event in January, 2014.

The Ohio Capital Journal gained text messages between members of the Center for Christian Virtue (CCV) and Representative Powell regarding HB 6.

The Ohio Capital Journal reported that Aaron Baer, current President of the CCV and Matt Sharp, special council for the Alliance Defending Freedom, have coached Rep Powell on how to circumvent the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Alliance for Defending Freedom also has connections to foreign governments. The ADF has lobbied European governments for forced sterilization of trans people, and is an SPCL identified hate group.

Veritas Community Church in the Heart of Gay Ohio

Columbus, Ohio today is the gayest city in Ohio. The State population for gays is 4.3%; a mere two points behind San Francisco, California. 30% of gays in Ohio are gays raising families, making up about 298,000 people in the workforce. This past year, Columbus made it to the Top 21 Pride events in the Midwest, just behind Chicago Pride.

This is good news for queers living and working in Columbus: which has a perfect 2022 score on the Municipal Equality Report from the Human Rights Campaign. This report tracks and provides tips for enhancing the quality-of-life for 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals.

Back in 2007,  a man name Nick Nye, an Master in Divinity from the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Ministry, decided he wanted to put his church in the Short North. Calling the Short North, “the best place to influence the whole city.”

Image of the Short North during Columbus Pride in unknown year. The streets are covered in people and rainbows
Columbus Pride, hosted by Stonewall Columbus, hosts about 700,000 to the Short North each year. Image courtesy Experience Columbus

Interviewed in 2015, Nye said about the Short North: “We’ve managed to navigate the whole process of learning how to speak against the culture in a way that’s winsome and honest.” Nye said, about the church and it’s “diverse” neighborhood.  “I’m very compassionate toward people who need compassion, but I feel like I can be very prophetic toward the people who need a word.”

Nye is described as someone who had LGBT congregants, despite holding “biblical views of sexuality.” While no longer connected publicly if at all to the church, his words in 2015 mirror those on October 8 and 15, 2023 from Veritas sermons.

Implications for Congregants of Veritas Community Church

The Internal Revenue Service has strict guidelines about what constitutes a tax-free religious organization. It’s unclear whether any tax-exempt laws have been breached. Ezekiel shared with me that he didn’t believe the church broke any laws; but admitted that the behavior of the pastors bothered him enough to seek the information himself.

During our phone interview, Ezekiel and I both acknowledged what it’s like to feel shunned by a church group for not being aligned to it’s values.

That was partly why he reached out to me, he said. Ezekiel wasn’t confident in who he could trust in the congregation. Who Ezekiel feels he can still trust, is Jesus. Ezekiel shared this hasn’t shaken his faith in God, but it’s troubling from his church.

Joe Byler responded to an email stating he had no public comment. I was referred to the link of the October 15 sermon. In the sermon, it’s emphasized that one can have “compassion” for those needing abortions. It’s just not what God wants. It feels as though the message aligns with founding and current, CCV and Republican attacks on bodily autonomy, sexuality, and healthcare access.

Political Special Interests Coming From Religious Leaders

Whether Ohio will amend the state constitution to enshrine abortion remains in question. What must be addressed either way, is special political interests coming from religious leaders.

Veritas Community Church and the Center for Christian Virtue appear to be aligned. And that is for each congregant to decide how to respond; an unfair burden during these “unprecedented times.”

In the heart of the gayest city in Ohio, a war against living as an LGBTQ person appears to just be getting started; and it is very well funded.

Christians in Ohio who are 2SLGBTQ+ deserve to feel loved and respected by their God and by their community. This includes their church. Despite the words of “having compassion” for those seeking abortions, or who aren’t straight, it’s inherently harmful to have a pastor tell a congregant that this isn’t what God wants.

Ezekiel was clear about “empathy.” Ezekiel hopes the church will address this transparently with the congregation.

Time will tell how this impacts Ohioans and the thousands of church congregants of Veritas most.

What To Do If You’re Concerned About Your Church:

Find out how to recognize radicalized ideologies on the SPLC website. Most Christian Nationalism is rooted in Christian Identity. Read more about this here.

Recognize what is and isn’t allowed by law for churches tax exempt status here.

Consider signing this petition against racist and transphobic bills here.

Ohioans use this link to reach out to your state representatives and let them know you’re a constituent if any of the above information concerns you.

Have no one to share with? Email me, and I’ll confidentially share your story.

Image of the outside of Veritas Community Church Short North
Veritas Community Church Short North told congregants to vote against enshrining abortion in the state constitution, calling the push, “evil” in an October 8, 2023 sermon. Image courtesy Samuel Taylor III/the Lantern







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