Religious Right aims to build on political gains of '84 elections
The ``Christian Right,'' carrying forward its momentum from last year's elections, is flexing its political muscle. The purpose is to defeat ``secular humanism'' by legislating its view of morality. The tools are the political skills tempered and honed in past generations by trade unions and liberals.Skip to next paragraph
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Fundamentalist leaders were brought into politics in the late 1970s by secular ``New Right'' conservatives, who saw the activist potential of conservative congregations if they were mobilized around social issues. Now, the Christian Right (also called the ``New Christian Right'' or the ``Religious Right'') is developing a political battle plan of its own.
It is generally agreed that the movement is influential, but opinions about the extent of that influence vary.
Prof. Timothy Smith of Johns Hopkins University acknowledges that the Christian Right is ``somewhat better organized'' than in the past. ``The signs are that they are alive and well. . . . They haven't retrogressed in power.''
The director of Johns Hopkins's program in religious history says, however, that this power is ``tied to [President] Reagan's brand of conservatism.'' And to the extent that this may deteriorate, so will the influence of the Christian Right, Professor Smith says.
Conservative political analyst Kevin P. Phillips is skeptical of the movement's ambitious plans. ``I suspect they've gone about as far as they're going to go,'' he says. From now on fundamentalists will be consolidating their institutional power, he explains, rather than changing the national climate.
Meanwhile, conservative fundamentalists are expanding their political activism as part of this consolidation. Independent estimates of the religious right's constituency put the core group between 5 million and 8 million voters, with a larger group of people sympathetic to ``traditional values'' politics.
And with growing confidence and sophistication, they are launching letter and telephone campaigns to key legislators. They distribute thousands, even millions, of booklets scoring political candidates on ``biblical, family, moral'' issues such as abortion and tax credits for private school tuition. They register new voters and recruit activists in church lobbies, breaking a fundamentalist tradition of withdrawal from worldly politics.
The soldiers are activists like Russell Neal, an articulate young engineer, who is leading a small group of conservative parents opposed to a proposed ``family life'' program in the public schools of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Mr. Neal points out a passage in the program's literature treating homosexuality as an ``alternative life style,'' others that promote ``clarification'' of personal values, and an apparently bland lesson that examines stereotypes of traditional male and female roles.
The lesson, Neal says, teaches a world view he doesn't believe in -- a ``humanist,'' man-centered, relativist world view instead of the traditional, absolute, God-centered values of Neal's fundamentalist Protestantism.
``These are religious questions,'' he says. ``This is a true religious war.''
Says another frustrated parent: ``My [high-school-age] daughter is telling me, `Well, I don't care what your values are; I have my own values.' '' The mother sums up, ``That's value clarification.''
Robert Simonds, an Orange County-based organizer of conservative Christians working in education, has put Capistrano Unified School District on notice. Four of the seven school board members are up for election in November, and Mr. Simonds intends to replace them with Christians of a more conservative, populist stripe.
Similar skirmishes spot the country, supported by Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Pro-Family Forum of Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, and several other groups that make up the Christian Right.
Dorothy Massie of the National Education Association staff says these disputes are typically arising in relatively affluent, white, suburban districts in which the schools have been innovative.
Some Christian activists see local school races as a steppingstone to legislative election. The Christian Right is thinking hard about legislative races in 1986, both in statehouses and in the United States Congress.