Religious Right aims to build on political gains of '84 elections

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

``We're trying to avoid what happened in '81 and '82 [when political organizing by Christian conservative activists waned] happening in '85 and '86,'' says the Rev. Tim LaHaye, co-founder of Moral Majority and now chairman of the American Coalition for Traditional Values. ``We're not going to sleep again.''

The greatest impact the Religious Right claims so far was in Texas last year. Christian Voice, an ultraconser- vative religious organization, distributed through churches nearly 21/2 million copies of a ``scoreboard'' rating candidates on social issues, according to political director Gary Jarmin.

``There's no doubt,'' says Texas pollster and Democratic strategist George Shipley, ``the Religious Right played a role in at least three of four Texas congressional races'' in which Democratic incumbents were ousted by conservative Republicans.

Christian activists have continued to flex their political muscle this year. For example:

In California, conservative fundamentalists took aim at a bill banning employment discrimination against homosexuals. Last year, it passed both houses of the legislature to meet a governor's veto. This year, it failed to get out of committee.

For three months, the office of committee chairman Richard Floyd (D) was so clogged with bags of mail opposing the bill and thousands of phone calls (one ``every 15 seconds,'' says an aide) that normal operations were hobbled. The bill was withdrawn from this year's agenda in late April, when Mr. Floyd decided opposition from his own district was too stiff.

In Washington State, a ``global education'' bill to teach about the cultures and languages of Pacific Rim countries -- meant to enhance the state's prospects in world trade -- touched off a similar avalanche. The legislature logged over 1,100 phone calls against the bill, denounced partly as a step toward one-world government. It died in the Senate Rules Committee in February.

``It was an amazing lesson in terms of what the fundamentalists can turn out,'' says a Democratic Senate aide.

In Chico, Calif., four ``progressive'' City Council members supported by Tom Hayden's Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED) were ousted in April by challengers backed by a Religious Right coalition.

``They were able early on to use these people in churches who were angry about abortion and about changes in society,'' says Bob Mulholland, CED political director.

The next set of elections the Religious Right groups are gearing up for are school board races around the country this fall. And national leaders hope such local efforts eventually will begin to produce conservative Christian legislative candidates.

``You're going to see some in '86, a lot more in '88, and a real tidal wave in '90 and '92,'' Dr. LaHaye says. He says there is still resistance among conservative Protestants to entering politics as candidates, activists, or even voters. But he insists this resistance is falling fast.

Most polling data show conservative Protestants to be less educated, poorer, and older than the rest of the population. But observers both inside the Religious Right and out note younger, more cosmopolitan activists in the movement than five years ago.

``To some extent,'' says Mr. Shipley in Texas, ``the Democratic Party has legitimized these groups by ignoring the dominant values of America. Work, family, and church are not unpopular values.''

Both Mr. Phillips and Mr. Shipley list the gay rights movement and the Jesse Jackson left wing as the Democrats' greatest political liabilities.

Religious Right leaders say their future lies within the Republican fold. Only in Minnesota, however, have conservative fundamentalists actually taken control of the state party and Legislature. In most states, developing grass-roots activism is considered more urgent.

Meanwhile, Capistrano school superintendent Jerome R. Thornsley is intent on resisting conservative pressure. ``They're offended by schools teaching that women have a full choice of careers,'' he says. ``As long as I'm in public education, I'm going to teach the full potential of all human beings.''

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