Religious Right Seeks to Cast A Wider Net, Extend Agenda

NEW LOOK

MANY of the topics at the Christian Coalition's annual meeting here this weekend reflected the traditional concerns of the religious right: homosexuality (``The Military Under Siege: Social Experimentation in the Armed Forces'') and abortion (``Pro-Life Battles in Congress'').

But there were also some unusual sessions - on taxes, term limits, and ``casting a wider net'' to attract minorities.

They symbolize an attempt by the group to broaden its agenda beyond traditional - and often divisive - social issues to garner more mass appeal.

The organization founded by TV evangelist Pat Robertson is increasingly taking stands on such issues as tax policy, crime, education, and health care. It is also making a pitch to blacks, Hispanics, Roman Catholics, and others that organizers say share their pro-family concerns.

The transformation holds important implications for the Republican Party. It also poses new risks for a group that has lost access to the White House but represents a growing force in state and local politics.

``The Christian Coalition risks dilution of its strength to the extent it diversifies,'' says Charles Dunn, a political science professor at Clemson University. ``But if they selectively broaden their agenda, I think they do have the opportunity to pick up some additional support.''

Organizers portray the shift as a natural outgrowth of their main focus to strengthen the family.

While not abandoning the core concerns that have helped galvanize the group since its founding four years ago - opposition to abortion and gay rights and support of school prayer - they intend to push other issues that they contend put pressures on the family.

This has meant, for instance, fighting President Clinton's economic plan on the rationale that its tax increases would hurt families with children. Revamping the ``welfare state'' and school choice are also top priorities.

The emphasis on other issues also represents a calculated political move. Organizers want to dispel the image that they are a band of moral extremists concerned about only a few issues.

This perception was punctuated after last year's Republican National Convention, in which the moderate wing of the party rebelled at what it considered the combative ``family values'' speeches given by Mr. Robertson and others. A softer visage could lead to a rapprochement.

``I think they are being very shrewd,'' says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. It will allow the group to be a help rather than a ``millstone'' to the party in 1996, he says. GOP enjoys high profile

There are fewer estrangement noises coming from the GOP side these days, as well. A procession of top Republicans showed up to address the annual meeting of the coalition, which, with 450,000 dues-paying members, is one of the party's best organized constituencies. Coalition leaders, for their part, profess nonpartisanship.

``We have no intention as a movement of becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of either party,'' says Ralph Reed Jr., the Christian Coalition's boyish-looking executive director and chief architect of the group's broader focus.

The organization's sympathies, though, were on display at the meeting. The one Democrat who spoke, national party chairman David Wilhelm, was booed and guffawed as he defended President Clinton's economic program and upbraided the group for implying that those who don't agree with their positions are un-Christian.

The Republican speakers, by contrast, received generally hearty ovations. Some of the loudest applause was reserved for columnist and former presidential contender Patrick Buchanan, which underscores the delicate task the Christian Coalition may have in broadening its appeal.

Mr. Buchanan urged the group not to ``raise the white flag in the culture war.'' Any compromise on social issues, in other words, could bring problems with the rank-and-file. Some are already upset that the Christian Coalition has helped a few local Republican candidates who have favored some abortion rights. Base issues viewed as important

``They are obviously walking a tightrope,'' says conservative consultant Jeffrey Bell. ``If they even imply that they are deemphasizing their base issues, they will lose appeal.''

Attracting minorities and members of other faiths will be difficult, too. On paper, the idea looks good: The coalition last week released the findings of a survey showing that black and Hispanic Americans share many of the same conservative views on social and economic issues as coalition members do.

But Republicans have produced similar surveys over the years and have had only modest success in recruiting African-Americans. ``The issue of race and the blacks' strong affinity for the Democratic Party usually overrides their views on these specific issues,'' Mr. Sabato says.

Undaunted, coalition organizers hope to double the number of Catholics (now 10 percent) and racial minorities (now 5 percent) in the group. They plan to run spots on black and Hispanic radio stations in California urging support for a school-choice initiative on the November ballot. Special mailings and voter guides will follow as the groups step up their activism on a variety of issues.

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