Evangelicals may not fall into ranks behind 'New Right'

If they have their way on election day, "New Right" evangelical Christian activists will: * Bring to the polls vast numbers of newly registered white fundamentalist Christians.

* Knock the props from under the evangelical support Jimmy Carter once enjoyed.

* Tip big-electoral-vote states toward Ronald Reagan.

* Win Senate seats for a half-dozen conservative politicians whose "moral" views approximate their own.

But claims of a massive Reagan-leaning evangelical impact on the election now appear to be overblown.

To be sure, the results are hard to predict. Evangelical-backed organizations like Moral Majority have registered thousands -- perhaps millions -- of new evangelical voters nationwide. The Christian Voice organization has supplied thousands of those voters with score cards that compare Mr. Reagan's views on issues such as school busing and capital punishment with Mr. Carter's, according to selected biblical-moral criteria. And anti-abortion groups associated with the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee plan a pre-election leaflet barrage around the nation to elect Reagan and other anti-abortion candidates. Much of their effort is targeted at evangelical Christians sympathetic with their view.

But leading analysts of both evangelical and secular New Right organizations express as much doubt as optimism about the outcome of the evangelicals' campaigning for these reasons:

* Pollsters for the Christian political right say their organizing is still at a relatively immature stage. Many new evangelical voters have been registered. But they may not have been "cultivated" well enough to change their long-entrenched voting patterns -- such as the traditional support of Southerners for Democrats, a pattern that would benefit Mr. Carter.

* Among newly registered evangelicals, political organization has often been inefficient. Many are still not likely to vote, observes Paul Weyrich, executive director of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress in Washington. And many remain poorly informed and could end up voting against the candidates rated most highly by New Right evangelicals.

* It is true that President Carter cannot count on the uniform support he received from evangelical Christians in 1976. Many are disturbed by what they perceive as his failure to take a stand against abortion, homosexual right, and the Equal Rights Amendment. They think Ronald Reagan will take such a stand.

But polls also show that wide differences in political opinion exist among evangelicals. On the abortion issue, for example, one evangelical-sponsored survey shows that although almost all evangelicals personally oppose abortion, many would allow it in some circumstances.

* Evangelical groups have not capitalized much on the one issue some pollsters think would be most effective in convincing pro-Carter evangelicals to shift to Reagan -- prayer in schools.(Mr. Carter favors such prayer but not a constitutional amendment instituting it.)

Thus, some analysts of New Right evangelical groups concede that evangelical voters -- newly registered and old -- are far from a monolithic force. Even in states with a large influx of new evangelical voters, their votes may ultimately split between Carter and Reagan, and thus be neutralized.

Nevertheless, no one is ready to discount the importance of New Right evangelical voters.

Right-wing evangelical organizations are making an allout push in big-electoral-vote states in the Midwest and South where the Carter-Reagan race is neck and neck -- most significantly, in Texas (26 electoral votes), Illinois (26), Ohio (25), Florida (17), Indiana (13), Alabama (9), and Iowa (8).

Registration of new evangelical voters in rural areas may number many tens of thousands, according to state coordinators of Moral Majority, founded by evangelical pastor Dr. Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Va. In Florida, unsubstantiated estimates run from 30,000 to 50,000. In Texas estimates are put at 75,000 -- easily enough to tip a close election.

Extensive media drives have also been launched by some evangelical-backed organizations and broadcast networks. A television show produced by evangelist James Robison, for example, has been widely circulated through Texas and other states. The hour-long program is critical of government involvement in issues it says are the prerogative of family and church -- such as abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It urges people to evaluate candidates on the basis of their stands on these issues.

The National Conservative Political Action Committee is sending direct mailings to several hundred thousand Democrats in swing states. These analyze national and local candidates' positions on prayer in schools and abortion. The Washington-based group may spend over $2 million in support of conservative candidates around the nation, including "saturation TV commercials" on behalf of Ronald Reagan in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Christian Voice and Moral Majority leaders are adamant that their public education efforts are not aimed to endorse candidates, but to make clear their stands on moral issues so that voters can decide. But Moral Majority emphasizes values that are consistent with many positions in the Republican platform.

Organizers have been no less vehement about informing evangelical voters about the positions of senatorial candidates -- especially where well-known liberal senators are seeking re-election against opponents whose views correspond more favorably with New Right evangelicals' moral positions.

On the one hand, evangelical analysts do not feel that they will be able to dislodge Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California and Sen. Birch Bayh (D) of Indiana. Mr. Cranston's support in California cities is too strong. And evangelicals' criticisms of Mr. Bayh may have backfired, since they have been seen by many as exports from out-of-state.

But if there were defeats of Sen. Frank Church (D) of Idaho, Sen. John Culver (D) of Iowa, and Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota -- still close races -- it could well be partly the result of evangelicals' efforts. And if Republican challengers Don Nickles, Jeremiah Denton, Frank Murkowski, Mack Mattingly, and John East were to win in Oklahoma, Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, and North Carolina, respectively, much credit would probably go to New Right evangelicals.

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