New Right's 20-year rise to power
President Reagan has put his arms around the New Right agenda - a move that worries moderates but thrills many of his staunch, conservative supporters. The Reagan move has been particularly pleasing to advocates of school prayer and federal aid for parochial and private schools. It has also been gratifying to foes of abortion. Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell looked at the GOP platform adopted here and proclaimed: ''It's just like I wanted it.''Skip to next paragraph
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The strong Republican move toward such religiously based New Right positions raises several important issues to a new level of discussion for American voters. It also creates serious political problems for the Democratic Party.
Some observers have expressed surprise at the speed and strength with which the New Right positions have established themselves. This day, however, has actually been a long time in coming. It is the result of a 20-year effort that has featured such conservative advocates as Phyllis Schlafly, best known for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, Richard A. Viguerie, who gave the New Right vital help with his direct-mail fund raising, and the Moral Majority's Reverend Falwell.
Using direct appeals that bypass much of the major media, New Rightists have built a well-financed, responsive army of enthusiasts. Recently, Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum joked to New Right leader Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina that because of his direct-mail appeals, he writes to the people of Kansas more often than she does.
All this work is now bearing fruit. Republican strategists are hopeful that they can adopt much of the New Right agenda without offending middle-road voters. There is risk in such a plan, but they feel it is not a very great one.
There is also a potentially huge payoff. Tuition tax credits and opposition to abortion hold the prospect of helping the GOP with Roman Catholic voters in areas like the Northeast, normally a Democratic stronghold. School prayer is popular with Protestants in the South, another Democratic bastion.
Besides their knack for good organizing, the New Right is also succeeding because it is riding some important tides in American politics.
Jody Powell, who was press secretary in the Carter White House, says the rise of the right has been a subject of great interest to him.
''I happen to be a believer myself, a Southern Baptist,'' he notes. ''But what is happening here is, in my mind, quite disturbing. It is the consummation of a long set of trends.''
Mr. Powell, however, doesn't single out the New Right exclusively for criticism. Its growing power is the result of other factors. He continues:
''People on the left who are quick to condemn what they now see on the right were less quick to condemn when the cloth and the pulpit were used to support causes closer to their beliefs.'' Vietnam and civil rights were two recent examples.
Further, Powell notes, the breakdown of the family in America has played a role. People looked around them and saw a rise in illegitimate births, abortions , divorces, and pornography.