WASHINGTON — REPUBLICAN presidential candidates spent the weekend wooing religious conservative voters - the party's most energized branch - at the Christian Coalition's annual conference here.
But the coalition's leadership is much more excited about a different kind of courtship they're involved in: outreach into the minority, Catholic, and Jewish communities. Consider the following:
*Since last year's conference, when the Christian Coalition was chided for having few African-Americans in attendance, the organization has hired a director of minority outreach. In July, the coalition held a conference of about 200 conservative black pastors in Dallas to begin expanding the movement's reach into black churches. Outreach is also planned among Hispanics.
*The group is launching the Catholic Alliance of the Christian Coalition, aimed at bringing Catholic churches into the coalition's well-organized system of grass-roots political activism.
*Two years ago, Jewish attendees at the coalition's conference could be counted on one hand. This year, there were about 100, says Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who advises the Jewish community to back Christian conservatives. "Jews have much to fear in a post-Christian America," he says.
The foundations for this multipronged outreach were laid a couple of years ago, "and now it's paying off," says a coalition official. Executive director Ralph Reed "has always said he wanted a broad, ecumenical group."
America's moral decline is of concern to all people of faith, say coalition officials, and so their group's agenda would have natural appeal beyond the universe of white born-again Christians.
A recent survey showed that the Christian Coalition's 1.7 million members are largely Protestant, with 16 percent Catholic and 2 percent Jewish. The racial breakdown is not known, but Willie Richardson, publisher of National Minority Politics magazine, says, "There are more blacks speaking at this year's conference than attended last year's."
Without saying so explicitly, the Christian Coalition is going after the Democratic Party's traditional base. Mr. Reed perhaps hinted as much in a talk to conference-goers: "You know, all week the media's been saying we want to take over the Republican Party. Our ambitions are a lot higher than that!"
Leaders of the American Jewish Committee and the Rainbow Coalition scoff at the notion that religious conservatives could lure many of their people away. Clyde Wilcox, a specialist on the religious right at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., agrees. But he sees some potential for inroads among Catholics.
Not all Catholics would be comfortable with a group that prefers the tough-love approach to helping the poor over the Vatican's tradition of "social justice." But there are obvious points of convergence: opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and extramarital sex, support for school choice, devotion to the traditional family.
The Catholics are also an attractive target for the Christian Coalition because of their sheer numbers, and therefore the potential for donations. "They're doing it [starting the Catholic Alliance] for the money," says a Catholic activist who is a candidate for the job of alliance director. "There are 58 million Catholics in this country, and if [the coalition] can get 500,000 of them to join, that's significant."
Reed clearly has lofty goals: He has said he wants his $25 million budget to go up to $50 million to $100 million. He has also said he wants access to 100,000 churches, up from the current 60,000.
Among blacks, outreach director Stephan Brown knows he has a tough job. Not only do most blacks vote Democratic (out of habit, he says), but even conservative black churches are leery of white groups trying to use them for the sake of appearing diverse.
In an interview, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was miffed when told that the Christian Coalition had distributed to all conference-goers a "pledge" bearing the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and asked them to sign it. "They embrace his personal ethics agenda, but reject his social justice agenda," Mr. Jackson says. "It is both a mockery and hypocritical."
The Christian Coalition may have the toughest case to make among Jews. This year, the organization and its founder, the Rev. Pat Robertson, have fought charges of anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Lapin dismisses the charges, calling them quibbles over symbols rather than substance.