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The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party

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Scripps-Howard News Service

(My copy of this article didn't have a date on it, but, based on the reporting, I guess it was written soon after the 1992 elections-jb)

Joan Lowey

Until last spring, Jo Martin was a relatively non­political Houston housewife. Today she's on the front lines of a religious war that has fractured the Republican Party. Martin, a 52-year-old mother of three, and her husband David, a stockbroker, are lifelong Republicans but hadn't been active in party politics for many years until they happened to attend a local GOP meeting last spring. They were appalled by what they found.

The part apparatus had been taken over by religious activists intent on bringing "biblical principles" to government: outlawing abortion, ostracizing homosexuals and teaching creationism in public schools, among other things.

"We honest to goodness felt like we had fallen through a time warp into a Nazi brown-shirt meeting," Martin said.

Now Martin has an office in her husband's brokerage firm where she spends her days researching and publicizing the political agenda of the Religious Right.

"I would never had pictured myself getting involved in something like this," said Martin, an Episcopalian and fifth-generation Texan.

In cities and towns across the country, the precinct-by-precinct battle for control of the GOP between mainstream Republicans and conservative Christian activists is going full-tilt.

Moderates who were awakened by the Republican National Convention in August to the gains within the party by the Religious Right have begun to organize and fight back. But they have a long way to go.

Working at the grassroots, fundamentalist activists have either gained control or made sizable inroads into state party organization in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Washington and Virginia.

A loosely affiliated network of Religious Right organizations led by televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition has also mobilized millions of evangelical voters across the country. While they failed to re-elect President Bush, those voters helped to elect hundreds of religious activists and Republicans sympathetic to their conservative social agenda to school boards, city councils, state legislatures and Congress.

Now Christian Right activists are laying plans to expand their influence within the party and to target off-year election contests, particularly gubernatorial and state legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia this year.

"We're going to be a significant force at the grass roots of American politics for the foreseeable future," predicted Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed.

For most evangelical activists, promoting a conservative social agenda is far more important than furthering the Republican Party. They generally believe that the United States is a "Christian nation" favored by God, but they're disturbed by many societal trends - rising crime, rampant teenage pregnancy, abortion, the feminist movement and growing acceptance of homosexuals, among others.

These trends, they believe, are attributable to Americans straying from their "Christian heritage." If they can elect like-minded Christian conservatives to office, then government would reflect religious values and these trends would begin to reverse, they argue.

"The agenda this voting bloc is interested in is not some sort of bizarre agenda," said Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, a Religious Right organization.

Most Americans don't want gays to be allowed to marry or adopt children. Most Americans are troubled by the increasing amount of sex and violence on TV and in the movies. Most Americans want some restrictions on abortion.

The battle lines between religious activists and mainstream Republicans already have been drawn. Among the recent developments: Oregon state GOP chairman Craig Berkman has proposed joining Ross Perot's supporters to set up a separate, independent state Republican party apart from the anti-abortion, anti-homosexual forces that now dominate the state party.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, the state's leading Christian Right group, plans to try again in 1994 to pass an anti­homosexual law. A referendum opposing homosexuality pushed by the alliance failed in 1992, but the next attempt will be modeled after a more softly worded referendum approved by Colorado voters last year.

Mainstream Republicans in Houston recently formed a separate party committee to complete with the regular GOP organization when the Harris County Republican chairwoman was forced out of office by religious activists.

The new county chairman, Dr. Steven Hotze, is a born-again activist who argues that the survival of the United States hinges on restoring "its Christian heritage" and limiting government

to its God-ordained role of providing justice based upon God's laws, restraining wickedness, punishing evildoers, and protecting the life, liberty and property of law-abiding citizens.

More than a dozen county meetings to elect party officers in Washington state erupted into shouting matches in recent weeks as mainstream Republicans and religious activists battled for control. Last summer, the GOP state convention under the control of religious activists passed a party platform denouncing witchcraft and yoga, among other subjects.

In Minnesota, the state GOP's former executive director caused a stir with a memo recommending that the party eliminate its practice of endorsing candidates through state conventions, which are easily controlled by a small number of dedicated activists. This would diminish the growing power of evangelical activists, who had been pressuring the Republicans attending precinct caucuses to state if and when they had been born again.

Moderates in Johnson County, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, lost out two months ago when members of a conservative, anti­abortion faction were elected to three of the four top local Republican Party posts.

Groups have sprung up in Colorado Springs, San Diego, Virginia Beach and elsewhere to research and publicize the Religious Right's activities.

Several leading GOP moderates - including Rep. Tom Campbell of California, retiring Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, and Sens. Nancy Kassenbaum of Kansas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Chafee of Rhode Island - recently announced the formation of the Republican Majority Coalition, a national organization "to take our party back" from the Religious Right. The coalition's statement of purpose:

We believe issues such as abortion, mandatory school prayer, homosexuality, the teaching of creationism and other similar questions recently inserted into the political context should instead be left to the conscience of individuals,

Among the group's goals are to identify moderates in precincts across the country, recruit and endorse like-minded candidates and soften the GOP platform in 1996, including making it neutral on the abortion issue.

The 1992 GOP platform called for an across-the-board ban on abortion, said laws should reflect a "faith in God," promoted prayer in school, opposed homosexuals marrying or adopting children and favored a voucher system that would give parents public funds to send their children to private schools, including religious schools.

"We don't believe issues of personal morality ought to be tests for being a Republican," Campbell said.

Rep. Rod Chandler (R-Wash.), a moderate who lost the Senate race in Washington to Democrat Patty Murray last year, said he plans to form a similar organization in his state. "If you have one narrow faction controlling a party the way we did in our state this year, you are doomed," Chandler said.

"It's preferable to find a way to keep the Christian activists within the party," Chandler said, "but if they insist on attempting to control it themselves, at that point ... it becomes a fight to the finish."

The Christian Coalition's Reed said the actions of mainstream party members like the Republican Majority Coalition border on "anti-Christian bias."

"We hope they don't want to exclude Christians," Reed said.

"No one should be excluded from participation in the civic process based on their faith."

Reed also warned that the party needs Christian activists, who have become its most loyal voting bloc and provide many of its most dedicated grass roots volunteers. "Without pro-family conservatives, the big tent will become a pup tent," he said.

Many Republican strategists agree. "If they were successful in driving the Religious Right out, we wouldn't be successful in winning another election in this country," GOP consultant Eddie Mahe said.

"You can't throw out a third of your base vote and win," Mahe said. "They are us and we are them."

- Joan Lowy

Reprinted with permission of Scripps-Howard News Service


Last updated: Oct. 3 , 2005