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Mixing religion and politics.

Republican presidential hopefuls can't avoid getting into bed with the religious right

Gary Bauer was at a loss for words. The smooth-talking president of the Family Research Council, a powerful religious conservative group in Washington, D.C., had gone to Harvard University in April to talk about foreign policy. But during a question-and-answer session after his speech, he was peppered with students' question's about his group's antigay lobbying efforts. As he finished answering one question, a student yelled, "History will shame you, Mr. Bauer." Bauer recoiled visibly, pausing to compose himself before taking another question.

One month later Bauer mailed out a self-congratulatory fund-raising letter commending his own courage for going to Harvard to take on what he called the "homosexual creed." "No one wants to be heckled or shouted down on a college campus by homosexual activists--people who answer even the mildest criticism of their agenda with rage, personal attacks, and often violence," Bauer wrote despite having thanked his heavily gay Harvard audience for its "civil of the discourse" at the time.

The Harvard skirmish was particularly noteworthy because Bauer has flirted openly in recent months with joining the early GOP presidential sweepstakes in 2000. If Bauer were to become a candidate, he would instantly become the favorite to garner support from religious-right activists, who wield considerable power in early Republican primaries in the Northeast. With antigay religious conservatives on the offensive in the GOP, Bauer is not the only White House aspirant appealing to antigay sentiments. Missouri senator John Ashcroft and publishing magnate Steve Forbes, among others, have also made it a staple of their appeals [see profiles below].

The religious right has become such a powerful voting bloc that the Republican Party ignores it at its own peril," says Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-- based advocacy group that monitors religious conservatives. Indeed, the 1996 presidential bid of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a political moderate, lost momentum after he criticized religious-right groups. "When moderates in the party look at what happened to Specter, they come away shaking their heads," Boston adds. "That could spell trouble for the gay community."

But the religious right's influence--and the stridency of the antigay rhetoric by its candidates--could also spell trouble for the Republicans' chances in the general election. "For Republicans to actually win the White House, [the party] needs all of its constituencies, including the religious right," says John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio and a well-known expert, on religious conservatives. "But by catering too much to one constituency, they risk alienating not only other elements of their coalition but the rest of the country as well."

In fact, James Dobson, Bauer's patron and president of the massive Focus on the Family, a $116-million-a-year ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo., has threatened to bring down the GOP if it does not adhere more closely to his political agenda. "I believe a Republican meltdown is preferable to enabling the present disregard for the moral agenda to continue," he wrote in an April 3 fundraising letter.

With Bauer's assistance, Dobson has supplanted Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson and the Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell as the religious right's highest-profile power broker, endorsing several Republican candidates for the House in 1998, including the comeback bid of long-time gay rights nemesis Robert Doman. Dobson is best known as an advocate of corporal punishment for children, but he has also earned a reputation for hostility toward gay men and lesbians. In his 1987 book Parenting Isn't for Cowards, Dobson described his "tranquil" and "moral" days in high school, where "homosexuals were very weird and unusual people." Dobson was a key backer of Amendment 2, the Colorado ballot measure that would have prohibited the adoption of antidiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation. (After narrow approval in 1992, the measure was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1996.)

Rich Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group, says the November congressional election will provide a crucial test for the GOP's right wing. "If Dobson's hand-picked candidates win and the party maintains control of the House, he will have even more power going into 2000," Tafel says. "But if the results are more mixed, as I suspect they will be, it could become dangerous, to associate too closely with Dobson. I know that many Republicans in Washington hate working with him because he is so inflexible."

Tafel sees Bauer's and Dobson's ascendancy as a blessing in disguise. "Frankly, I like where gay Republicans are positioned at the moment," he says. "The religious right has become so aggressive and extreme that many people look to us as the respectable moderates." For Bauer and Dobson, that may be the ultimate setback.

RELATED ARTICLE: Others vying for the GOP nomination

In addition to Gary Bauer, these nine men are among a large field of potential GOP presidential candidates.

Lamar Alexander

The former Tennessee governor and failed 1996 presidential candidate has worked hard to overcome his reputation as a moderate and to curry favor with religious conservatives.

John Ashcroft

Pat Robertson has contributed $10,000 to the Missouri senator's exploratory committee, and Ashcroft could be Bauer's biggest competition for right-wing dollars.

Pat Buchanan

The right-wing columnist and perennial presidential candidate wrote in 1986 that AIDS was "nature's awful retribution" for homosexuality. Age has not tempered his rhetoric.

George W. Bush Jr.

The Texas governor has feuded with religious conservatives, who wield great power in the state. Like his father he is considered a moderate but has said little about gay issues.

Steve Forbes

Forbes has spent millions courting right-wing groups. Despite reports that his father, the late Malcolm Forbes, was a closeted gay man, he has begun attacking gay right causes.

Rudolph Giuliani

In May the New York City mayor proposed legislation granting benefits to same-and opposite-sex partners, eliminating any chance he might have had of competing for the GOP nomination.

John McCain

The Arizona Republican and Vietnam veteran backed the military ban on gay and lesbian service members but has made occasional pleas for tolerance and diversity within the GOP.

Dan Quayle

The former vice president told the 1992 GOP convention in Houston that it's "wrong" to teach children that every "so-called `lifestyle'is morally equivalent."

Pete Wilson

The California governor has vetoed domestic-partnership bills that would strengthen the state's limited ban on antigay discrimination (in employment), which is also signed.
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Title Annotation:GOP presidential hopefuls and the anti-gay religious right
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jul 7, 1998
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