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Religious right eyes Clinton feast.

Hitting moderates' issues key to future coalition building

WASHNGTON - Mote or beam, the religious right is back in Washington's eye with:

* Pat Buchanan warning the Republicans that should they drop their antiabortion plank, it would be "time to start a new party";

* Charts to show that while minorities vote Democratic, there are enough conservatives among them to elect Republicans;

* T-shirts that say, "Reagan in '96" and, "Stop Conservative Bashing. We Were Born That Way."

The reason the nation's capital was suddenly fixated on the religious right was the Christian Coalition conference, "The Tide is Turning," held in this city Sept. 10-11.

Born in 1989, after religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's failed 1988 presidential bid and his folding of the Moral Majority, which was a minority at the polls, the Christian Coalition is carrying all the same banners, antiabortion, school prayers, antigay and lesbian measures, plus a sharp, new focus - anti-Clintons.

Since its founding, the Christian Coalition has acquired a politically astute director, Ralph Reed - a former hard-nosed conservative Republican political fixer.

Reed's "Christian" conversion came a decade ago while musing in a yuppie Washington bar, out of which be walked "born again." His political experience in bare-knuckles campaigning for conservatives - such as GOP minority whip, Newt Gingrich, once nicknamed Reagan's "pit bull" - dates back to Reed's Georgia college days.

At the coalition conference, media attention focused on the 2,000 conservative activists, because GOP presidential candidates, such as Sen.

Robert Dole of Kansas, former Bush cabinet member Jack Kemp, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, gave addresses.

Bravely, David Wilhelm, Democratic National Committee chairman, also addressed a session - and was hissed.

The national media has been paying scant attention to the fact that for four years the religious right has not just been licking its post-Reagan defeats' wounds but has been pushing hard locally and regionally.

By 1991, in San Diego County, for example, religious right candidates were battling for state assembly seats, taking control of the local Republican committee and gaining a majority on the school board in Vista, Calif, where they wanted creationism taught.

At that time, Reed called San Diego County "a model of what Christians and evangelicals and pro-family Roman Catholics are attempting to do around the nation." (No one at the Washington conference press desk or in its media department was prepared to hazard a definition of "Christian," as in "Christian Coalition," nor to define what constituted a "pro-family Roman Catholic" or Catholics who, by definition, were not "pro-family.")

Reed likes to talk in "guerrilla" tenns. Two years ago he said, "You can have Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson stand in front of a bank of microphones and endorse our candidates or you can quietly send out a pro-family slate that tells our community who the candidates are on the ballot."

Reaction to the religious right comes from watchdog organizations, such as San Diego County's Mainstream Voters Project, aimed at disseminating information concerning Christian conservatives "extremist activities." Nationally, the Washington, D.C., group People for the American Way has published a lengthy account of growing religious-right-led censorship of school and library books.

Currently, it is on the national level that the religious right is finding cohesive issues. The Clintons have provided conservatives with ammunition on a variety of fronts, most particularly military issues.

Introducing a panel on women in combat and related topics at the Christian Coalition conference, moderator Kaye Walsh O'Beirne quipped that President, Clinton had already voiced his support - and thereby his willingness "to send his daughter to do what he fled from."

The audience, packed into the Washington Hilton's Thoroughbred Room, loved it.

In the nearby Monroe Room, those attending the session on "Pro-Life Battles in Congress" heard that the proposed Freedom of Choice Act is an attempt to muzzle antiabortionists.

"It will not stop the wackos who shoot at abortionists," said Marshall Wittman, coalition director of legislative affairs, "but it will stop the persons who peacefully protest, who pray or fast" outside clinics.

The religious right's performance in the 1988 presidential elections suggests that it was more noise than numbers but that the numbers are not insignificant. And that is what vexes the Republican Party.

In 1992, the state of Oregon defeated a religious right-sponsored antigay ballot measure. Fearing the growing power of the coalescing local conservative Christians, the state's GOP chairman, Craig Berkman, spoke for many Republicans nationwide when he said that if ousted he would form a mainstream Republican party.

Former Oregon Republican governor Vic Atiyeh at that time said that if the archconservatives take over, "a whole lot of Republicans would just disappear into the sunset."

Nonetheless, even the moderates can be galvanized on some issues the Christian Coalition plays to: same-sex marriages may become legal in Hawaii; gays in the military have offended ex-service organizations, whose memberships number in the millions; and the federal Small Business Administration recently held a reception for gay and lesbian entrepreneurs.

To pull a disparate group of moderate and conservative voters together, these issues may prove even more useful to the Christian Coalition than antiabortion activism and the push for school prayers.
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Title Annotation:Christian Coalition conference
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 24, 1993
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