For weeks, since Republican and Democratic leaders in Montgomery County began criticizing the candidacies of 12 members from the Great Commission Church, representatives of the fundamentalist church have said their members have been unfairly targeted and labeled as religious candidates.
But interviews with former church members and participants in this campaign indicate that Great Commission Church does have an active interest in politics, that it is well aware of the activities of its individual members and that members at a church-affiliated leadership training program this summer sought out volunteers to distribute campaign literature for some members in hotly contested races.
Eight members of the local congregation, which meets every Sunday at Springbrook High School, are running for the Republican Central Committee. Four others are running as Democrats for the four state delegate seats in Districts 19 and 20, including two who recently switched their party affiliation and moved into the legislative districts in which they are running.
None has run for public office before, but more than half filed for office on the same day, June 30.
Republican and Democratic leaders in Montgomery have criticized the influx of untested candidates, questioning whether the church is attempting to inappropriately blend religious doctrine with political goals.
Church leaders have consistently said their members' decisions to run were all personal choices made without church encouragement.
"We do not endorse or support any candidate for elected office," said John Hopler, a pastor in the local church and the registered agent for Great Commission Inc., a Maryland corporation that supplies services and educational material for the 85 affiliated congregations in the United States and foreign countries.
Former church members say, however, that such independence is not encouraged by Great Commission, which has developed a highly organized system of counseling within the congregation.
"They lock you in emotionally," said Greg Thompkins, a music student at Towson State University in Baltimore County who left the church. They want everybody to conform....Everybody knows everybody and what they're into."
Members who are single often choose to live with other church members. Both married and single members are encouraged to call each other throughout the day, spend two to three nights a weeks in Bible study or prayer session and use their free time to witness for God around the community, the former members said.
The church's goal, these former members said, is to reach every nation extolling a Christian philosophy and to support a conservative philosophy of living and worship that upholds the traditional family structure, eschews abortion and promotes education at home.
Thompkins said that church members consult elders on every major decision in their lives and that, in many ways, he believes "all the decisions are made for you." The political values of the group were no secret to him and, he said, members are encouraged to become involved in politics. Thompkins remembers that an elder who was supporting President Reagan's reelection told him: "I can't tell you who to vote for, but I'll tell you who I'm going to vote for."
Participants at a two-month training seminar this summer, sponsored by Great Commission Inc., were strongly encouraged to distribute campaign literature for church members running in the local races, said a participant, Paul Olsen, who is leaving the church. Persons who volunteered to canvass, estimated by some to be as many as 150, were advised by campaign organizers to rid their cars of Biblical material and cover any religious bumper stickers with political ones, he said.
"They canceled the last two weeks of the seminar and asked people to canvass for these candidates," said Olsen, a student at the University of Illinois who participated in the seminar and who helped canvass. "They said: This is not a GCI thing, but your elders strongly advise you to do this because it's good for your leadership training."
According to a "Script for Door-to-Door Literature Distribution" that Olsen said was given to the canvassers, church members who participated were to identify themselves as "volunteers for two candidates [in District 19] for the Maryland House of Delegates, Democrat Gail Walls and Democrat Jim Reid."
"I know that both of them are hard-working individuals who'll work hard for you in Annapolis," the script says. "If they haven't already visited you, they'll soon be in this neighborhood to knock on your door and talk with you."
The script also advises the canvassers: "If the voter asks you about specific issues and how the candidates stand on them say, 'I'm not sure of their position on all the issues, but I'd be glad to note your name and number and your questions and have them get back to you soon.' At that point simply note the questions, voter's name, phone number and turn it in to your precinct captain."
Rick Whitney, organizer of the seminar, acknowledged that some "seminar members did get involved politically," but said their campaigning was voluntary. "I would categorically deny that we instructed them to get involved," he said. The final weeks of the seminar, which more than 300 people attended, were canceled because religious leaders had completed all they had planned to achieve, he said.
Hopler, who said he was not involved with the leadership seminar, said the church did not instruct members to campaign and believed the church was being unfairly portrayed by disgruntled former members. Great Commission "puts a great deal of emphasis on respecting individual persons' opinions," he said, disputing claims that the church closely monitors each member's activities.
Members live together because they want to and spend time together because they are friends, he said. "I tell people they always need to follow their own conscience and convictions. I've never told anybody to get married to anybody. I never told anybody who they could or could not date," Hopler said.
Hopler's statements have been sharply questioned by former church members and leaders who said church elders advise members on dating, leisure activities and career choices. Jean Liverman, 23, of Rockville, said she attended church services from 1982 through she spring of 1984 at the University of Maryland and Towson State University and believes the church uses subtle methods of control.
"They don't tell you what to do. But your whole goal while you're in that group is geared toward the Gospel. Everything you do has to be submitted to that higher goal....You get to the point where the elders are always instructing you on how to spend your time to reach that higher goal," Liverman said. "They don't tell you that you have to do things. They always put it this way: Is that the way God would want you to spend your time?'
"There's a lot of guilt," she said.
Thompkins, 22, said he became a member of the Great Commission when he attended a campus Bible study. A churchgoer for 2½ years, Thompkins said he was attracted by what he called "a love atmosphere ... in which people were very friendly and seemed to really care about you."
Thompkins, a saxophone player, said he left when he came to believe that church members were pressuring him to abandon his musical aspirations to devote more time to the church.
Hopler and church members who are political candidates dispute that the church manipulates members' lives-or that it had an influence on members' political ventures this year in Montgomery County.
Questioned about the participation of the volunteers from the Great Commission seminar this summer, Walls, one of the candidates in the 19th District, said she helped recruit some volunteers but saw their involvement simply as a way to get her campaign literature distributed more quickly around the county.
"I sure didn't have a hand in canceling their seminars," she said.