WASHINGTON — In sharp contrast to the opening weeks of the last Congress, religious conservatives are flexing their muscle early and often in the new Congress.
This heightened assertiveness holds important implications for the cohesion of the Republican Party, especially as economic conservatives battle over their agenda and House Speaker Newt Gingrich struggles to regain a firm hold on his leadership.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the powerful Christian Coalition, put it starkly this week: "If I have a message today for the Republican Party, it is that the most dynamic issues, the winning issues, and the cutting-edge issues in American politics today are moral and cultural, they are not fiscal and economic."
Only 80 days into the session, the Christian right can point to legislative victories: The House passed a bill to ban so-called partial-birth abortions. It also passed a nonbinding resolution to support the public display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. A bill to bar use of federal funds for doctor-assisted suicide is winding through Congress.
In addition, Christian conservatives are strongly backing a bill that would allow government vouchers for religious schools and government funds for religiously based drug treatment. And this week, religious conservatives unveiled what some call the most important bill of all: a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools.
"The religious right is more aggressive in this Congress than ever, period, even compared with the early days of the Reagan administration," says Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a constitutional watchdog group that ardently opposes the religious right.
"But how it will turn out is uncertain," Mr. Lynn adds, noting that with President Clinton still in the White House, social conservatives will have a hard time enacting their agenda.
Two years ago, religious conservatives stood on the sidelines as the new Republican majority sought to change the nation with its Contract With America. Tough social issues - such as abortion and school prayer - were conspicuously absent from the agenda.
Now religious conservatives, a significant minority in the Republican coalition, are demanding more for their loyalty and activism.
"There's been some rustling in the grass roots," says John Green, an expert on the religious right at the University of Akron. "Some religious conservatives are saying, 'We've been carrying the Republicans' water, and what have they done for us?' "
Ironically, the current House of Representatives has slightly fewer members in the religious-right camp than the last Congress (about 153 this time versus 163 last time out of 435 members, says Lynn). In the 100-member Senate, the Christian right picked up a few seats, now claiming 38, by Lynn's count. Brian Lopina, a lobbyist for the Christian Coalition, agrees they lost seats in the House and gained in the Senate, but won't be specific.
But the numbers matter less than the way in which the social conservatives are throwing their weight around. Their only significant loss thus far in the 105th Congress was over international family-planning funds.
Mr. Lopina of the Christian Coalition denies that the activism of religious conservatives is linked to any frustration. "Our constituents are very happy," he says, putting forward a list of 23 "Christian Coalition legislative victories" from the 104th Congress, ranging from welfare reform to homemaker's retirement accounts to limits on abortion. Rather, he says, "there's been a vacuum in terms of bills reaching the floor" of the House, and religious conservatives have jumped into the breach created by Mr. Gingrich's struggle.
Rep. Chris Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, agrees that the Christian right is "just filling a void." But he takes strong exception to Mr. Reed's comment placing social issues above economic matters. "They're saying while Rome burns, we should be eating grapes," he says.
It's also possible to look at the Christian right's victories in the 105th Congress and see something less than a juggernaut. The passage of the partial-birth abortion ban was a solid victory, but also a virtual rerun of its passage in the last Congress. The March 5 vote on the Ten Commandments, a show of support for an Alabama judge who had been ordered to take the commandments off his courtroom wall, was nonbinding. So although it passed 295 to 125, it does not necessarily indicate how members would vote on the newly worded constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools and other religious expression on public property.
The battle over the prayer amendment could be especially tough. Some political conservatives are reluctant to amend the Constitution in general. And the religious community is deeply divided over the wording of the amendment. The version that was announced by Rep. Ernest Istook (R) of Oklahoma will be actively opposed by the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Christian Legal Society.
Stephen McFarland, general counsel of the Christian Legal Society, says the amendment as worded does not protect the interests of religious minorities.