WASHINGTON — A NEW struggle is under way inside America's religious community for power and relevance -- and for influence over the nation's social agenda.
The latest manifestation came this week when a group of mostly liberal religious leaders came to Washington to take on the roller-bearing-smooth religious right.
Their new manifesto -- a ''Cry for Renewal'' -- is a pitch for an end to divisive political rhetoric in the name of religion. The group of some 75 Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and black religious leaders faults Christian conservatives for not addressing the needs of the poor and for speaking mainly for white America.
Though far out-funded and out-organized by their conservative colleagues, the group represents one more voice in the religious choir in a season in which moral values and social issues are becoming increasingly important.
''This is an overdue and very welcome development,'' says William Hutchison, an expert on Protestantism at Harvard University Divinity School. ''There needs to be an opposition to the Christian Coalition, another voice.''
While the group agrees with their conservative counterparts that the country is in a ''spiritual crisis,'' they challenge both the tactics and authority of the right. ''The issues of politics, religion, and morality are too important to be left to one voice,'' says Jim Wallis of the Sojourners religious community in Washington.
''The almost total identification of the religious right with the new Republican majority in Washington is a dangerous liaison of religion with political power,'' the leaders said in a statement.
Hoping to educate the media and public about the diversity in the evangelical community, group members met Tuesday with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri to tell them they speak for some 20 million evangelicals. Mr. Gingrich promised the group a two-hour meeting in June. ''Only one-third of the evangelical community can call itself 'the religious right,''' says minister Tony Campolo of Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa. ''About 20 million say 'amen' to our agenda of reconciliation.''
The group plans to develop a grass-roots network, encourage cooperation between inner-city and suburban churches, and camp out at religious events traditionally dominated by the evangelical right, such as the National Religious Broadcasters convention. ''The right has been very good at grabbing the microphone, while we have been out on the streets,'' says Mr. Campolo.
Still, even many who sympathize with the group have doubts about its clout. They point out that the group's constituency is scattered and lacks focus, whereas the premier organization of the religious right, the Christian Coalition headed by Ralph Reed, has 1.6 million members, a $25 million operating budget, and a politically committed grass-roots organization.
Last week Mr. Reed's coalition put forth a ''Contract With the American Family'' calling for abortion restrictions, an end to the Department of Education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a ''Religious Equality Act'' that would guarantee the right of school prayer. The contract was endorsed by a number of Republican members of Congress.
On Tuesday, at a press conference loaded with religious sound bites, the new group said it had no intention of trying to oppose or endorse a specific agenda. Members agreed, in fact, that the religious right had done a service by introducing the issue of sexual morality back into the national discussion.
''We aren't professional politicians, and we aren't trying to fit into any power-game categories,'' said Roberta Hestenes, president of Eastern College. ''We just want to say in the public square, to other Americans, that there are religious alternatives out there.''
Yet some experts see this as just nice-sounding rhetoric. ''I see a lot of posturing by liberal evangelicals,'' says James Davison Hunter, a religious sociologist at the University of Virginia, and author of ''Culture Wars.'' ''The religious right represents a real political threat to politicians. They have clout. The left doesn't have a consituency. What I see them doing is going up on the Hill and saying, 'Please, please, please take me seriously.'''
Others, such as Gabriel Fackre of Andover Newton Theological Academy in Newton, Mass., are more generous. The religious right, he argues, has attempted to link the gospel and faith with a particular set of human opinions. ''This is a fearful thing,'' he says. ''I wish there were a counterweight to [the religious right] along the lines of the [Martin Luther] King movement in the 1960s. These 75 share that same history and vision, and out of desperation they have come together.''
The ad hoc group originally formed in response to the widely distributed ''attack videos'' of the Rev. Jerry Falwell last January, which referred to President Clinton as a ''murderer.'' ''This is just plain meanness of spirit,'' says James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, and one of the 75. ''It isn't the way Christians should do politics.''