Role of Religion Grabs Spotlight In Heated Virginia Governor's Race

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By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GEORGE ALLEN'S pleasant face smiles out from the TV screen. Suddenly beside Mr. Allen, the Republican candidate for governor, appears a large, scowling image of the Rev. Pat Robertson.

``Behind the smile, take a closer look,'' an announcer warns. ``Pat Robertson has given Allen $10,000....''

Virginia's race for governor has come down to the wire, and the political rhetoric has turned mean and personal. Charges of lying, distortion, and even religious bigotry are flying in all directions. Religious `link'

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Mary Sue Terry, the Democratic candidate, has tried to link Allen with the Rev. Mr. Robertson, a Virginia broadcaster, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Both men are nationally known for their conservative, Bible-based views of politics.

Allen has fired back, claiming that Ms. Terry, the state's attorney general, is a political clone of Virginia's two highly unpopular Democratic leaders, Sen. Charles Robb and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. ``Terry, just another Robb-Wilder politician,'' says Allen's newest TV commercial.

Robertson's involvement in this year's race, however, has upped the ante for both Republicans and Democrats - and ratcheted emotions even higher than usual. It is no secret that Robertson has supported greater involvement of conservative Christians in grass-roots politics across America. Some Republicans charge that ``far right'' Christians are trying to take over the party.

Terry's questioning of the Allen-Robertson connection (Robertson sponsored a fund-raiser for Allen) has sparked angry words from some politically conservative Christians and Jews. They claim Terry is trying to degrade ``people of faith'' by depicting Robertson as a dark force.

``Religious bigotry has no place in electoral politics in Virginia,'' says Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, a Robertson-founded citizens organization based in Chesapeake, Va.

Mr. Reed says: ``Some have injected religion into this campaign in a way that we feel is divisive, ugly, and deceptive.''

Joseph Brodus, a professor of law at George Mason University, appeared at a press conference here with Reed. He charges that in Virginia's current political climate, religion has become ``shorthand'' for everything that some voters don't like about some their fellow citizens.

Terry's commercials imply that Robertson should not participate in politics merely because of his religious involvement, Dr. Brodus says. This is ``a new kind of McCarthyism,'' he asserts.

Tom King, a Terry political consultant, denies there is any bigotry involved. Reed and Allen ``doth protest too much,'' Mr. King says. Influence questioned

He continues: ``Pat Robertson did run for president. He injected himself into the governor's race and gave $10,000, plus $50,000 to [the Republican candidate for attorney general]. How is pointing this out more than pointing it out? Robertson has every right to be involved, but what did George Allen have to do to get his support? He had to support policies we disagree with.''

What policies?

First, Robertson is against abortion except in the most extreme circumstances. Allen had similar views until he locked up the GOP nomination, then ``changed his views,'' King says. Terry is pro-choice.

Second, Allen supports government-paid school vouchers for private academies, ``which is the Robertson agenda,'' King says.

Third, making sex education a local option, the Allen position, reflects Robertson's viewpoint, King says.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says that ``of course'' Robertson is a fair target for Terry. He calls the Christian Coalition's charges against Terry ``political.''

Dr. Sabato notes: ``Robertson has chosen to assert himself into the political process on many occasions, including this election. He has contributed to the candidates, directly or indirectly. He is fair game.''

Sabato continues: ``Does that mean [the Democrats'] charges are all fair? Of course not.''

Former Education Secretary William Bennett, a Republican, insists Terry's tactics aren't fair. He says: ``We see here in Virginia the last respectable form of bigotry in America. People [like Robertson] who urge bringing time-honored religious beliefs into public policy are now the objects of scorn in paid political advertisements.''

Yet the big question for many voters in Virginia just four days before election day is how closely allied Allen and Robertson will be if the polls are correct, and the Republicans win.

Sabato, who went to college with Allen years ago and knows him ``quite well,'' calls Allen a ``pragmatic conservative without hyphens. He is not close to the religious right, but for the purposes of this campaign, he is aligned with them.''

The professor calls Allen a ``very ambitious fellow. It won't be long [if he wins this election] before you will be reading about his angling for the vice presidential nomination....''

Meanwhile, Terry aides say Reed ``has his own political agenda.'' They note that the Christian Coalition has already pumped out 1 million pieces of literature in an effort to influence the campaign. Reed vows his group ``will be making 100,000 phone calls to Christian and pro-family voters in Virginia urging them to go to the polls.''

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