Twenty years ago the "religion question" in the US presidential election was whether a Roman Catholic could be elected. This year the question is: Who will get the "born-again vote"?

John F. Kennedy's narrow victory over Richard M. Nixon in 1960 proved that a Catholic can be elected to the White House. But it did not remove religion as a factor in politics.

In 1976 Jimmy Carter, whose widely publicized "born again "experience came at a low point in his career, was helped into the White House by a long-established religious element just beginning to sense its national political power -- evangelical Christianity.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan could siphon off much of that "born-again vote."

Many evangelicals are disillusioned by what they see as President Carter's failure to actively oppose legalized abortion, homosexual rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment. They express almost apocalyptic concern about the decline in the US economy and military prestige abroad. On these issues many now find Mr. Reagan's rhetoric appealing, though his religious faith has played a far less visible political role than Mr. Carter's.

That is, until recently.

Only a few weeks ago Mr. Reagan told reporters in California about his born-again Christian faith. He said he affirmed that faith at his boyhood baptism, not in a traditional evangelical conversion as much.

Since that statement, Mr. Reagan has been speaking in more general terms. His faith, he told a California TV interviewer, stems from a time of need when he developed a new relationship with God.

The participation of the growing evangelical element in American politics is at once nebulous and highly directed.

It is harder this year to know if evangelicals, in the privacy of the voting booth, will see a candidate's religion as so decisive a factor as in 1976.

Quips former Southern Baptist Convention president Jimmy Allen, "In Texas we're getting pretty selective about candidates proclaiming their born-again faith. We always know who's going to run for political office by who shows up in church on Sunday."

But "born-again politics" is becoming much more visible through a combination of militant evangelism, television, and direct-mail campaigning.

Some 40 million to 50 million Americans count themselves evangelicals. They have contributed to the development of worldwide TV and radio broadcasting networks. Some 1,300 radio stations -- 1 out of every 7 in the US -- are operated by Christian broadcasters, according to Jeremy Rifkin, author of a recent book on the influence of evangelicals in American society.

One-third of all commercial publishing is evangilical. And the widespread involvement of evangelicals in industry is reflected in the hundreds of "Christian Business Directories" across the country that list businesses of born-again Christians.

This huge segment of American society is not being taken lightly by the presidential candidates. For example: Jeremy Rifkin says that last month the day after 200,000 Christians marched on Washington to pray and preach for national renewal, he got a call from White House staffers seeking his opinion on the evangelical vote.

John Anderson, whose liberal positions on such issues as abortion are unpalatable to most evangelicals, has, paradoxically, the strongest evangelical background among the candidates. As a freshman congressman in 1961 he pressed for a constitutional amendment to read: "This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God."

Mr. Anderson's political approach has long since changed. But he is not inclined to cut ties with his evangelical background and whatever political clout it could give him.

Evangelicals are often identified in broadest terms as those who have had a "born again" conversion, accept the Bible as authority for all doctrine and Jesus as Savior, and feel an urgent duty to spread their faith. This was the working definition of a 1978 Gallup poll, and it covers a large, diversified, and nationwide segment of the electorate.

the majority of evangelicals are members of politically conservative, fundamentalist Protestant churches led by popular TV evangelists. Some of the best known, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and James Robison, broadcast by TV to millions of viewers in this country and abroad. Bill Bright's "Campus Crusade for Christ" is also known for its politically conservative leanings.

Most of these leaders adamantly oppose (though with different emphases) abortion, movements for greater recognition of homosexuals' rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment. They want government regulation of industry curbed, and they favor a US military buildup. Such persuasions may ultimately align these evangelicals behind Ronald Reagan, although many say they do not see him as an ideal candidate.

Other evangelicals have bolted from certain traditional evangelical political views in recent years. Billy Graham, for one, reversed his strong support of a US arms build-up. He now favors reducing the world's nuclear arsenals. And he has decided to pull back from involvement in the 1980 political arena.

Also among evangelicals' ranks are a growing number of Christians with diverse political views from a cross section of religious denominations -- the so-called "charismatics" who practice "gifts of the Holy Spirit."

Finally, a still smaller group has moved somewhat to the political left. These include the politically moderate college students of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. They also include socially and ecologically concerned evangelicals who matured in the 1960s, like the publishers of Sojourners magazine (Washington, D.C.) which circulates to churches of many denominations.

If the "evangelical right" is disillusioned with the President, the "evangelical left" is even more so, but for different reasons.

"President Carter is getting scarier and scarier with his failure to live up to his ideals on reducing nuclear weapons and [on] human rights, and in his support of military dictatorships around the world," says Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners.

"In fact, none of the candidates is articulating a radical social vision," he says. "We're worried that nothing is being debated that's important from the Gospel's point of view -- the needs of the poor, stewardship of the earth and its wealth, the need for peacemaking in a rapidly proliferating arms race."

Among the evangelical left (which does not see itself as politically "liberal" per se), John Anderson may pick up some support, particularly from the moderate Intervarsity Fellowship. But many do not feel that his moderation on issues like abortion and armaments goes far enough.

Due to the growing evangelical diversity and wariness about the appeals of candidates, evangelical leaders do not expect any one candidate to totally dominate the evangelical vote.

Most evangelical leaders interviewed think the President will no longer be able to win the solid Democratic South. Pat Robertson speculates that a shift to Reagan may occur among many in the President's own Southern Baptist denomination (13 million evangelical Christians) and among up to one-half of the nation's total evangelicals.

Not all would agree. Former Southern Baptist president Jimmy Allen, for one, thinks that the President will retain the overall support of Southern Baptists.

The outcome may ultimately depend on the impact of the so-called "electronic church," the far-reaching Christian broadcast networks.

"The question is whether broadcasters like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson will make political endorsements on the air, or insinuate them, and if people follow their lead," observes Richard Quebedeaux, a scholar of evangelical Christianity.

Mr. Robertson and Dr. Falwell told the Monitor they do not plan to endorse specific candidates on the air.

Says Mr. Robertson, "We on the Christian Broadcasting Network will not make endorsements. But we will certainly have vigorous discussions and debates, urge Christians to be good citizens and register to vote, and possibly do interviews with the candidates.

Other evangelicals are throwing in their lot with campaigns for Ronald Reagan and other conservative candidates -- campaigns spearheaded by aggressive young conservative activists known as the New Right.

The extent of this activism could make born-again evangelicals the strongest force in American politics in the next few years, says Richard Vigurie, head of a leading mass-mailing organization for conservative causes.

* Dr. Falwell, a strong New Right voice, says he will not be endorsing Mr. Reagan in his broadcasts. However, he says the former California governor is the only candidate he could now "swallow." And he plans a massive TV drive to educate people on political issues.

* Dr. Falwell's affiliated political action organization Moral Majority, has a project working through 72,000 churches nationwide to get evangelicals registered to vote. In Alaska, Moral Majority members recently chose the largest bloc of delegates to the Republican state convention. their presidential preference, Ronald Reagan, won all 19 of the state's delegates to the Republican National Convention.

* The gathering of the 200,000 on the Washington Mall made the evangelical presence clear again to national lawmakers, although co-organizer Pat Robertson says it was not intended as a political rally. "The goal was to repen for our sins, pray for the nation, ask God's forgiveness, and evoke the divine assistance in a time of extraordinary crisis," he says.

* Former Senate staffer Paul Weyrich's Committee for a Free Congress in Washington has targeted some 150 congressional races in which to back evangelical and conservative candidates.

* Other activist groups are campaigning directly. Christian Voice (CV) in Pacific Grove, Calif., for example, is a political lobby representing Christians and clergy of 37 denominations, most of them evangelical. CV has endorsed and financially supported Ronald Reagan since the New Hampshire primary. It also plans a radio-TV blitz as the election draws nearer to proclaim Reagan as an alternative to President Carter and to defeat 50 congressmen not living up to its standards on 14 moral issues.

"It's not an attempt to defame or say someone is personally immoral," explains the Rev. Richard Zone of CV. "Rather we believe that moral accountability has made this country strong. We want to return the consciousness of political responsibility to Christians at the grass-roots level and their leaders."

Still many evangelicals remain in doubt about the presidential candidates and wary of manipulation by the New Right or the "electronic church."

Above all, leaders are torn over the question of to what extent political activism can be an answer to America's social problems.

"It's my feeling that we're going to face issues that transcend any man's ability to solve," reflects Pat Robertson. "in the coming years we're concerned that catastrophic weather changes could have a disastrous effect on food supplies of the world, and there could be chaos in the Middle East oil fields which brings Europe to its knees, that the world is teetering on the edge of a major banking collapse, and that developing countries are billions of dollars in debt, some of them on the edge of default.

Here the evangelicals share the dilemma of most Christian churches. Ultimately, they feel, the answers to such problems must be Christian ones, not political ones. Yet they feel impelled to keep tabs on the political scene since government today is legislating on issues highly important to them.

How evangelicals resolve this dilemma will say much about the degree to which they see politics 1980 as an event with religious stakes.

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