Religious Right Digs Its Heels In Against Abortion

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OUTSIDE the Astrodome, Gary Yokie of Atheist Network declares that the "family values" campaign of the Republicans portrays "a Norman Rockwell landscape that never was" while his handful of supporters hold aloft signs endorsing separation of church and state.

To the right-wing Christians who dominate the Republican National Convention inside the dome, the puny protest is one more manifestation of a cultural civil war in the United States.

In their view, it is up to the Christian right to repel those they label as "militant homosexuals," "baby-killing semi-Nazis," and their liberal allies who would destroy God-ordained morals and the traditional family. Faithful exhorted

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With almost apocalyptic motivation, the Christian right has reassembled its troops and made widespread political gains in a relatively short time.

Fundamentalist ministers first began to exhort the faithful to political activism in the late 1970s, explains Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network. Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980, was trusted to carry out the religious right's agenda without further effort on its part.

Political activism by the religious right faded, in part because of disarray over scandals that snared several "televangelists."

But by 1990, halfway through President Bush's term, the United States Supreme Court still had not outlawed abortion or legalized school prayer.

Disillusioned, the religious right quietly initiated a widespread grass-roots campaign to win local offices.

They advanced their candidates by "flying below the radar" and turning out in force at otherwise lightly attended precinct caucuses, says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

Encompassing less than 20 percent of Republican voters, according to Dr. Murray, the religious right controlled the creation of a party platform that mentions family 42 times in the first 10 pages, quotes the Bible, and seeks a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion.

Nancy Huntsman, the sole advocate of choice among Utah's 54 delegates, finds the stance on abortion inconsistent with other platform language that extols "defending the individual against the domineering state" and "the importance of individual choice" and "our commitment to individual freedom" on matters like schools and health care.

Says Mrs. Huntsman: "I believe all that, and I also believe in this very private matter of conscience."

Richard Eyre, a Utah delegate who faces a September runoff for the party's candidacy as governor, notes that Mormons believe strongly in free agency and in a government that minds its own business. Mr. Eyre says that the right to life is "the only issue that would overcome the leave-us-alone attitude of Utah."

"Abortion is more basic than an issue," Mr. Eyre explains. Issues can change depending on timing, circumstances, and priorities. But the right to life is "a principle based on eternal belief." Church and state

Moderates say that restrictions on abortion are tantamount to government-imposed religion. In a Supreme Court ruling in June on an abortion case, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that "the state may not promote a theological or sectarian interest."

Mr. Mawyer disagrees. "I do have a problem with separation of church and state. I don't think there's anything wrong with the government having religious views and practices."

"I'm not going to be like some Republicans and tiptoe around exactly what we mean," he adds.

The GOP's religious right, whose adherents by Murray's estimate make up is only 7 percent of the total voting population, is the core of support for George Bush's reelection, even though they don't trust him to advance their agenda. And Bush, a moderate, was only spooked into that uneasy marriage of convenience by the likelihood of a three-way race involving Ross Perot, Murray says.

Most moderate delegates at the convention are going along rather than hurt Bush's election prospects.

But "if Bush loses, I think we'll see war break out" between the party's moderate elements and the religious right, Murray predicts.

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