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For evangelicals, a bid to 'reclaim America'

For the faithful who gathered in Florida last month, the goal is not just to convert individuals - but to reshape US society.

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Some are already involved in their communities - in antiabortion actions, in trying to prevent removal of feeding tubes from Terri Schiavo, or in efforts to oppose same-sex marriage by defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

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Gabriel Carpenter, from Dryden, N.Y., works at a local crisis pregnancy center and is a coordinator for the now-required sexual abstinence program in New York public schools. He and his wife, Penelope, say they hope to "learn more about how to share America's Christian heritage with others."

Christianity and patriotism are interwoven throughout the gathering, from Christian and American flags marched into the sanctuary, to red, white, and blue banners festooning the church complex, to a rousing "patriotic concert." Several speakers emphasize the idea that America's founders were largely Christian and that their intent was to establish a biblically based nation. (No mention is made of other influences on the Founding Fathers, such as Englightenment thinkers or issues of freedom of conscience.)

David Barton, a leading advocate for emphasizing Christianity in US history, deftly selects quotes from letters and historical documents to link major historical figures such as George Washington to a Christian vision, and to suggest that the courts and scholars in the last century have deliberately undermined the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

Critics, including historians and the Baptist Joint Committee, challenge the accuracy of some of Mr. Barton's work, including what he calls "the myth of separation of church and state."

In "Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America," religious historian Randall Balmer of Columbia University writes that a "contrived mythology about America's Christian origins" has been a factor in the reentry of evangelicals into political life, helping sustain the conservative swing in American politics. Barton and others say they are recapturing truths hidden behind a secularist version of history, while critics say they are producing revisionist history that cherry-picks facts and ignores historical evidence.

But Barton is clearly a favorite speaker, with a theme buttressing the identity and purpose of those eager to reform the country. And there's plenty for them to do. Coral Ridge's Center for Reclaiming America is building a grass-roots alliance around five issues: the sanctity of life, religious liberty, pornography, the "homosexual agenda," and creation vs. evolution.

The Center aims to increase its 500,000-strong "e-mail army" to 1 million, and to encourage Christians to run for office. It has plans for 12 regional offices and activists in all 435 US House districts. And a new lobbying arm in Washington will target judicial nominations and the battle over marriage.

"If they don't vote our way, we'll change their view one way or another," executive director Gary Cass tells the group. As a California pastor, Dr. Cass spearheaded efforts to close abortion clinics and recruit Christians to seek positions on local school boards. "We're going to take back what we lost in the last half of the 20th century," he adds.

"Taking back" is a major theme - taking back the schools, the media, the courts.

It's time to "take back the portals of power," and particularly those of commerce, because "commerce controls all the gates - to government, the courts, and so on," says businessman Michael Pink in a workshop. Recounting his own business success based on in-depth Bible study, Mr. Pink says he's now urging wealthy Christian businessmen to start using their earnings to purchase such prizes as ABC and NBC.

Interspersed between worshipful singing, prominent activist leaders tout recent successes. Alan Sears of the Alliance Defense Fund, who has led the charge in the states against same-sex marriage, talks of victories in Ohio and California and the phalanx of 800 lawyers now trained for the fight across the US. Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association highlights growing impact on the entertainment industry, from spurring FCC regulatory actions against broadcast indecency to causing major companies to pull their ads from TV programs.

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