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War of the worldviews: Family Research Council, Washington allies fight for religious right agenda in nation's capital.

To Gary Bauer, the United States is in the midst of two great conflicts. One is the fight against international terrorism. The other is a culture clash over "the meaning of America."

Addressing the Family Research Council's Washington Briefing March 15, Bauer said our nation is in a "war between two worldviews."

"A good bit of the country," said Bauer, "thinks the meaning of America is it's a place where you get to do whatever you want. Different strokes for different folks; if it feels good, do it.... And then there are people like us who believe with all our hearts that that was NOT what the country was supposed to be about. We believe that it's supposed to be a place built on ordered liberty under God."

Bauer, former president of the FRC, made it clear that he wants to do the ordering on God's behalf.

"Somebody," he said, "gets to put their views into practice through our laws. And the winner of this big war between those two worldviews is going to win our children."

Concluded Bauer, "In the war over the meaning of America, we're going to win."

Bauer's call to arms was enthusiastically received by the audience of 300 Religious Right activists gathered for a three-day strategy session at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the FRC has slowly grown into one of the most powerful Religious Right lobbies in the nation's capital, although it is still relatively unknown to the general public.

The tax-exempt group, founded by religious broadcaster James Dobson in 1983 as part of his Focus on the Family empire, today sports a $10.3 million budget and an influence in Washington that far exceeds its membership base. Billing itself as organization that touts family, human life and the "Judeo-Christian worldview," FRC, in fact, operates as a right-wing GOP political outfit, harshly attacking Democrats and goading Republicans toward ultraconservative positions.

Despite its mainstream-sounding name, the group presses for an extreme agenda, seeking to undercut church-state separation and bring American law into conformity with evangelical Christian theology. FRC attacks public education and lobbies to divert public funds to religious schools and "faith-based" social services. Other goals include a ban on all abortions, defunding of population control programs and the outlawing of cloning even for medical research purposes. The group opposes civil rights protections for gays, campaign finance reform and federal arts funding, and it advocates slashing federal taxes, including repeal of the estate tax.

This year, FRC is campaigning hard for Senate approval of President George W. Bush's federal court nominees, in the hope that right-leaning judges will roll back the separation of church and state and advance its theocratic agenda.

In a recent email update, FRC President Ken Connor lambasted Democratic senators for standing in Bush's way.

Calling the Democrats' position on judges a "frontal assault on the Constitution," Connor observed, "In their effort to deny the president the fruits of his election, the Democrats, in effect, have declared war on the Constitution."

The FRC's clout in Washington--and its partisan bent--are reflected in the luminaries who showed up on its briefing dais. Among the speakers were Attorney General John Ashcroft and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Kay Coles James, Bush's director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, also spoke, along with pundits and activists such as columnist George Will, former attorney general Ed Meese, former Christian Coalition executive director (and Georgia Republican Party chair) Ralph Reed and Dobson, who remains the key force behind the FRC.

Ashcroft, a long-time Religious Right crusader whose confirmation as attorney general was enthusiastically supported by the FRC, was clearly a crowd favorite. Assuring the audience that their ideas were "welcome" in Washington, he recounted what the Bush administration is doing to fight terrorism, exploitation of children and pornography and called for action on Bush's judicial appointees.

Pointing to a Senate decision to ban some late-term abortions, Ashcroft said, "If you don't believe you have an impact in this city, take a look at the vote in the United States Senate yesterday and then go 16 blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue and think about the fact that the president has indicated he will sign that legislation." The ballroom erupted in cheers and applause.

Ashcroft also singled out Dee Wampler, one of the activists in the audience, who is a life-long friend of the attorney general and a native of his hometown. Wampler, a Christian Coalition leader in Missouri, was at the gathering to promote his book The Myth of Separation Between Church & State, a self-published work that argues there is "no high or impregnable wall of separation between church and state." Copies of Wampler's book were distributed free at the FRC literature table.

Senate Majority Leader Frist also received a warm welcome at the FRC meeting. Although depicted in the media as a moderate, Frist was hailed at the briefing as a friend of religious conservatives who scored a 100 percent "true blue" rating on the FRC's congressional scorecard.

Frist delighted the crowd with stories of his personal religious experiences and accounts of his stands against abortion and cloning and for confirmation of Bush's judicial nominees. Currying favor with his Religious Right listeners, he noted that the vote on so-called "partial birth abortion" came first when he started setting the Senate agenda because that reflects the priority he gives to "the sanctity of human life."

"I don't like the word compromise too much," Frist said, "because compromise suggests exactly what I do not intend to do when it comes to principle."

The Senate majority leader's appearance serves as a reminder of the Religious Right's ongoing clout in Congress. While the movement does not wield absolute control over a majority of the members of either house, its influence remains formidable.

Senate Republican leaders such as Frist, Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hold perfect ratings on the FRC scorecards, as do House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). All told, 91 House members and 19 senators aced the FRC finals in the last Congress.

FRC Vice President for Governmental Affairs Connie Mackey, a former Pat Buchanan presidential campaign worker, told the gathering that Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) and his Values Action Team caucus are among the Religious Right's chief allies. The caucus picked up 18 new members after the last election, she said, giving the bloc additional influence in Congress.

Mackey said some members of Congress vote FRC's way because they fear a negative ranking on the group's scorecards.

One Tennessee member of Congress reportedly told Mackey, "Look, just tell me how to vote."

But the FRC's hardline approach to politics also creates friction sometimes.

One notable absentee from the Washington briefing was DeLay, a Religious Right warhorse whose views on church-state issues mirror those of the FRC.

However, DeLay, as majority leader, must try to balance the different interests of the Republican Party's allies. Sometimes the business community's objectives come ahead of those of the Religious Right. DeLay and FRC godfather Dobson got into a brutal fight last year over provisions in a bankruptcy bill. The measure, hotly sought by the banking industry, would have rolled back protections for debtors, but one amendment added in the Senate would have made it easier for anti-abortion protestors to face legal and monetary penalties.

Over the strident objections of Dobson and other Religious Right leaders, DeLay pushed toward a floor vote with the controversial provision still included. Religious Right forces unleashed a lobbying frenzy, and the measure was eventually defeated.

Also missing from this year's briefing was Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser. Rove was embarrassed last year when his comments at an off-the-record FRC session were leaked to The Washington Post. This year, Rove met with a handful of FRC insiders before the main briefing began and skipped the main event.

Rove's relationship with the FRC remains prickly. Athough FRC's Connor was recently named by The Post as one of a handful of Religious Right leaders that Rove looks to for advice, Connor told the crowd with a chuckle that his conversations with Rove are often "animated," a Washington code word for heated.

In the FRC's March fund-raising letter, Connor asked activists to sign memos to Rove thanking the White House for honoring the family and imploring the Bush administration to "take a bold public stand against homosexual activism, especially as it relates to threats to the moral, spiritual and physical well-being of children."

"After all," observed Connor's missive, "you and other FRC supporters--not radical homosexual activists--are part of the president's base of loyal supporters. You helped put him in office."

Connor apparently fears that Rove will move Bush policies more toward the center on a range of social issues as the 2004 elections approach. The FRC and its allies want to make sure that doesn't happen. In the "war between worldviews," control of the White House--and through it, the Supreme Court--are the top prizes.
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Author:Whittle, Jim
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2003
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