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Taking the Hill.

Religious Broadcaster James Dobson's Foray Into Washington Forces Republican Surrender To Religious Right In Congress

When James Dobson talks, House Speaker Newt Gingrich listens. And so do other Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

Relying on hardball political threats and pious posturing, Dobson and his Religious Right allies in May stared down the GOP leadership in Congress and won major concessions for their movement. Key House Republicans promised to schedule action on legislation and set up a formal liaison system to ensure close GOP coordination with the fundamentalists' camp.

Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay and other House members met with Dobson and over a dozen other Religious Right leaders for three and a half hours May 8 at the Library of Congress. When they emerged from the closed-door session, participants confirmed the new working agreement.

DeLay, who chaired the summit, told reporters, "The leadership is committed, deeply committed, to making sure that what came out of this meeting actually happens."

The GOP capitulation to the Religious Right was a personal triumph for Dobson. The Focus on the Family head in recent months has unleashed a bitter fusillade of criticism toward Gingrich and other Republican leaders for moving too slowly on social issues legislation and failing to speak out on "moral" concerns.

Dobson, president of a $116-million-a-year evangelical broadcasting empire based in Colorado Springs, even threatened to ask his millions of followers to abandon the Republican Party, staying home in the November elections or voting for third-party candidates such as the militantly right-wing U.S. Taxpayers Party.

Deftly combining his religious and political agendas the first week of May, Dobson came to Washington to participate in National Day of Prayer activities and to preach repentance to Republican congressional leaders.

Although he built his tax-exempt empire through radio, the family counselor turned to television to throw down the gantlet. Dobson appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" May 3, arguing that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Gingrich and others in the GOP have ignored and insulted conservative Christians who make up a large portion of the party's base.

Dobson acknowledged his threat to bolt the party if he and his fundamentalist allies don't get their way. "I have said that," Dobson replied, "and it would be, I think, a disaster if that would be necessary. First of all there are a lot of good, solid pro-life, pro-family congressmen and senators in the Congress. And they would be hurt in the process.

"I know who would inherit the power," he continued. "It would be the Democrats in the White House and the Congress, so that would be unfortunate. But you never take a hill unless you're willing to die on it. And we must die on this hill if necessary."

After that nationally televised jeremiad, Dobson launched into a round of meetings in the capital. On Monday, he had dinner with Armey, followed by a session with 16 GOP senators the next day. On Wednesday he conferred for an hour with Lott.

That evening, Dobson appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" to renew his apocalyptic warnings, while making a few conciliatory noises. "I believe we're going to see some change," he said. "I've been encouraged this week, I met for an hour with Trent Lott this afternoon and I believe there are good things coming. But if there is not, we have to be willing to die on that hill."

On Thursday Dobson participated in National Day of Prayer services at the Senate Russell Office Building. But on Friday he resumed his direct political action, attending the private showdown session between Religious Right leaders and top House officials.

Hosted by DeLay, the meeting included not only Dobson and his top lieutenant Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, but also Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate, Traditional Values Coalition President Lou Sheldon, Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, Richard Land of the Southern Baptists' Religious Liberty and Ethics Commission, Carmen Pate of Concerned Women for America, a representative of the National Right to Life Committee and others.

In addition to Gingrich, Armey and DeLay, House members present included Reps. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), Robert L. Livingston (R-La.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Mark Souder (R-Ind.), Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) and David Weldon (R-Fla.).

Sources said the meeting was often tense.

The conservative Washington Times reported that Gingrich sometimes appeared frustrated and even sarcastic, insisting that religious conservatives don't appreciate his efforts to pass their legislation.

But by the meeting's end, both sides had reached a detente that gave Dobson and his friends much of what they wanted. The Republicans promised to move swiftly on church-state measures, abortion restrictions, arts defunding and other issues high on the Religious Right's wish list.

Shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts, banning so-called "partial birth" abortions and ending the "marriage penalty" for married taxpayers were singled out in the post-summit press conferences. A vote on the Istook Amendment, a measure that critics say would effectively repeal church-state separation, is reportedly set for House action in early June.

Gingrich and company also agreed to create a "Values Action Team" to meet weekly with Religious Right representatives to discuss their agenda and develop strategy for enacting it into law. Headed by U.S. Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), the team will include eight to ten House members, and its meetings with the Religious Right will include the House leadership.

"We unequivocally gave these organizations our commitment to work on a long-term basis until these issues are won," said DeLay after the meeting. "Either with a new Congress or a new president, whatever we have to do, we are going to win these issues."

Gingrich later told reporters he, too, was satisfied with the outcome. "We were focused," he said. "We were practical. I thought it was the most positive meeting we've had with conservative activists."

However, according to The Washington Times, he predicted mixed success for the Religious Right's legislative measures this year. "I think some of them will pass," he said. "Some of them, quickly frankly, we will lose, but the Democrats who help beat them will have to face the challenge of going home this fall and having to defend their vote."

Religious Right leaders seemed pleased with the meeting's outcome, but they were restrained in their comments.

"I believe we're going to see action on some of these items," observed Dobson. "Only time will tell. It's easy to talk about things. It's tougher to get some action in Congress."

On an edition of CNN's "Evans & Novak" aired the next day, Dobson was cautious. "I'm still uneasy," he said, "but I'm hopeful. I'm a lot more hopeful than I was three, four weeks ago. There is movement. There's willingness to talk."

Asked if he would care if Republicans lost control of Congress, Dobson replied, I would care a lot about that. Because obviously the Democrats do not support the kind of things that I believe, and make no bones about that. So, you know, I do not want to see the Republicans lose. What I want them to do is pay attention to their base.

"If they won't do that," he continued, "then they ought to lose, as any party should, and let's start over."

Moderate Republicans and church-state separation advocates expressed concern about the Religious Right-GOP deal.

U.S. Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) told CNN, "To have us jump every time Mr. Dobson speaks means that we'll become a very small party pretty quickly."

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn observed, "Every American ought to be worried that TV preachers and fundamentalist politicos are setting our national agenda," he said in a press release. "Leaders in Congress have made a deal with the devil, and now they're having to give the devil his due."

Lynn said Americans United will fight any and all efforts in Congress to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state.

Meanwhile, Dobson is expanding his political crusade by personally endorsing select Republican candidates who share his Religious Right agenda. Recent beneficiaries include Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who is seeking a congressional seat in New York, and Robert Dornan, who is attempting to regain his congressional seat in California.
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Title Annotation:Capitol Hill, Religious Right's influence
Author:Conn, Joseph L.
Publication:Church & State
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Previous Article:One nation after all: middle America v. the 'pro-moral community.'
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