“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” — Matthew 18:20
Several thousand believers filled the lower level of the Neal S. Blaisdell Center on Friday night to cheer and sing in blissful unison. They stood and clapped and raised their arms toward the sky. Their faces glowed with love and grace and humility.
The occasion was not an Elton John or LeAnn Rimes concert, or Disney on Ice or Cirque Du Soleil. There was no scent of burning marijuana in the air, no sipping from secret flasks of favored beverages.
No, Friday at the Blaisdell was a gathering for God — and for Duke Aiona and Elwin Ahu.
Aiona and Ahu are both Hawaiian-Chinese, both former student athletes, both former jurists. And both are devout Christians whose faith is at the core of their identity and purpose in life.
In 2014, that purpose — that calling — is to be elected to the two highest offices in Hawaii, governor and lieutenant governor.
To do that, the Republican team of Aiona-Ahu is relying not only on the support of fellow believers but ethnic organizations and small businesses. It is built on a populist appeal to those who struggle to live in the most expensive state in the nation.
It’s also a a state dominated by the Democratic Party and labor unions. But a Civil Beat poll last month showed Aiona trailing Democrat David Ige by just 4 percentage points. Independent Mufi Hannemann is a factor in the race, and Libertarian Jeff Davis could attract votes, too.
“We give the people of Hawaii a different option. It’s time for a new direction.” — Duke Aiona
The unexpected can happen. Just ask Neil Abercrombie, the incumbent governor who fell to Ige in the Aug. 9 primary in a landslide.
Or ask Aiona, who lost to Abercrombie four years ago.
As Aiona sometimes reminds audiences, who would have expected Linda Lingle, a Jewish female Republican from St. Louis, to be elected governor in 2002 with a first-time politician named Duke Aiona as her running mate?
“We give the people of Hawaii a different option,” Aiona told supporters at the Blaisdell. “It’s time for a new direction. The system has been in place for far too long.”
The influence of religion in American politics is older than the republic itself. In the modern era, religious leaders such as Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney on the right and Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton on the left have run for president.
Religious influence has waned, but there are indications of a resurgence.
“The secularization of the United States appears to be affecting the world of politics: A growing majority of Americans see religion as losing influence in the public square, and many regret that trend,” the New York Times reported Sept. 24. “With the midterm elections just over a month away, the Pew Research Center reported that 72 percent of Americans believe religion is losing its influence on U.S. life, up from 66 percent in 2012. That is a striking development in a nation where religious arguments, leaders and voting blocs have long played an important role.”
But, the Times reported, that is changing: “Forty-nine percent said houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions, up 6 percentage points since the 2010 midterms. Thirty-two percent, up from 24 percent in 2010, say houses of worship should endorse candidates (which would jeopardize their tax-exempt status).”
Hawaii has a long history of mixing religion and politics, too, beginning with the arrival of the missionaries in the early 19th century and the conversion of the Hawaiian monarchy. The Roman Catholic and Mormon churches are very influential, and the popularity of evangelical New Hope churches is growing.
Ige is Buddhist, Hannemann is Mormon, Aiona is Catholic and Ahu is a senior pastor at New Hope Metro. It’s Ahu’s current affiliation with New Hope, whose members turned out in force to oppose the same-sex marriage special session last year, and Aiona’s past affiliation with a group called Transformation Hawaii (it believes that God and government are not to be separated) that have some voters worried that the Republican duo will somehow seek to instill religion in the fifth floor offices of the Hawaii State Capitol.
“I look at Elwin and I as being in office as men of faith.” — Duke Aiona
In an editorial board meeting with Civil Beat Sept. 29, Aiona was asked about the role of religion in government. He made a distinction between “religion” and “faith,” explaining that the First Amendment was written to protect religions throughout America and to make sure that government did not establish a religion.
“And I am behind that 100 percent,” he said. “Faith, I believe, is not a religion. Faith is just that. I do have a religion and I do have a faith. And I look at Elwin and I as being in office as men of faith. So we’ll be men of faith in regards to having a moral compass, a standard that we aspire to achieve, between right and wrong. And I think the people of Hawaii will appreciate that.”
Aiona, a former judge, noted that the words “separation of church and state” are not actually in the Constitution. But he and Ahu, also a former judge, understand and uphold the rule of law.
“And I think that’s where it ends with Elwin and I with regards to any type of discussion in regards to a religion and our practice of our religion,” Aiona said. “Because that is separate and that is not a part of government.”
Church and state were definitely united at the We Believe rally Friday at the Blaisdell. It was paid for Ahu for Hawaii, the candidate’s campaign finance committee.
Before the event began, dozens of Aiona-Ahu supporters sign-waved to rush hour traffic on King Street and Ward Avenue.
At the Blaisdell, volunteers in red shirts with “We Believe” hashtags on them handed out programs that depicted the state Capitol on the cover. Inside were envelopes holding campaign donation forms for Friends of Duke Aiona and Ahu for Hawaii. Social media sites were listed to “spread the word” — #webelievehi, @webelievehawaii, webelievehawaii.com.
“WE are taking responsibility for the state of the state as it is today.” — We Believe advisory
The program advised We Believe attendees to text to 44144 for voter registration information and to collect emails and addresses. Red, white and blue rubber wristbands reading “Trust, Respect, Balance,” Aiona’s campaign mantra, were distributed. A child wore a T-shirt that said “Know Jesus, Know Peace,” a play on the “No Justice, No Peace” chant of Occupy protesters and the like.
Inside the arena, the pre-program included a guitar and vocal performance of a duo called Tyler and Spencer. The crowd stood and swayed to the music, their arms extended and their palms turned up. The words to the Christian song were projected on two giant screens whose backdrops were golden sunsets (or sunrises?) and a silhouette of Jesus:
Forever author of salvation, He rose and conquered the grave, Jesus conquered the grave.
Tyler and Spencer played on a stage between the two screens with three columns behind them of red, white and blue balloons. The “We Believe” event was a cross between a political rally and a Sunday-go-to-meeting revival.
An emcee explained that the first We Believe event drew 288 people and the second attracted over 1,000. Friday was the third. A fourth is planned at the Naniloa Hotel in Hilo next Monday.
An email advisory for Friday’s event said, “All because WE share a belief that it is time for a change in Hawaii, and WE are taking responsibility for the state of the state as it is today. In order to change, WE must be the voice that changes it for the betterment of ourselves, our families, and for generations to come.”
No recording devices or cameras were permitted at We Believe.
After the music but before Ahu and Aiona spoke, a video starring Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen spoke of the intertwining of religion and government. Aiona press secretary Dawn O’Brien next reminded the audience members they should register to vote.
O’Brien fired up the crowd, recalling the same-sex marriage special session that upset many. The Legislature, she said, would not “let the people vote” and now those same people would “remember in November.” O’Brien also made a joke about Hannemann and said “Ige should be on eBay, because that’s yesterday.”
“Somebody’s going to have to step up, to take a stand for the values we believe in.” — Elwin Ahu
Ahu spoke movingly of his recover from leukemia two years ago. He said he decided to go into politics because “Somebody’s going to have to step up, to take a stand for the values we believe in,” he said.
But those values are not limited to religious ones. Ahu cited the high cost of housing and energy in the state, key planks in Aiona’s platform. The speaker who followed, Pastor Jordan Seng, showed a video starring photogenic young people listing Aiona’s proposed solutions to Hawaii’s high cost of living, as detailed on his campaign website.
But faith was the dominant theme.
At one point, Ahu read from a speech that his adopted Chinese son, Jared, wrote when he ran (unsuccessfully) for student government president. The letter, he said, helps explain why Ahu himself is running for office. The son’s letter begins, “We need a godly leader in our school, and if you elect me, I will help lead us closer to God.”
When Aiona took the stage to rapturous applause, he described the gathering as “awesome. … I thank God for this.”
Aiona spoke of his faith, too, but he made clear that the faith-based coalition was just one of several coalitions, such as ethnic and business-minded coalitions, that are supporting his candidacy. He also spoke about his love for his wife, Vivian, his “spiritual rock.” And he spoke of his calling to be a teacher, a mentor, a grandfather and now a candidate again for the governorship.
“So here we are,” he said to uproarious applause.
Audience members cried out, “We love you, Duke! We’ll stand for you, Duke!”
Afterward, the Rev. Curt Kekuna, pastor at Kawaiahao Church, prayed a blessing over Duke and Vivian Aiona and Elwin and Joy Ahu.
“You have given us a choice, finally a choice that we can believe in,” Kekuna said, asking for God’s protection of the candidates and their spouses and warning that “the enemy” would like nothing better than to destroy what was being built by We Believe.
“We love you, Duke! We’ll stand for you, Duke!” — We Believe audience members
Backstage at the Blaisdell, Aiona spoke to reporters. He reiterated his view that the faith coalition was but one coalition backing his candidacy, albeit “one of the larger ones.”
He acknowledged that there was still a spark of resentment among many citizens who said legislators did not listen to them during the special session. In a way, he said, it was similar to the resentment and oppression experienced by labor interests against the Big Five corporations of the plantation era that helped Hawaii Democrats kick Republicans out of office in 1954.
Aiona said he understood that there are voters worried about the beliefs he and his running mate would bring into office. But he suggested the concerns were exaggerated.
“We both were men of the robe, so we understand what justice is all about, what fairness is all about, what equality is all about, what the rule of law is all about,” he said. “We appreciate that and we will abide by the Constitution, that’s what we swear to. We will live accordingly by that.”
He added, “I’m hoping that people will put this into context and understand that as men of faith we have to have a moral compass, and that it’s a higher standard that we put ourselves up to. And hopefully people will appreciate that.”