Religious right throws its weight behind Reagan reelection effort
Washington — The so-called religious right is pulling out all stops to reelect President Reagan. Through a vigorous voter-registration drive, fund-raising activities, televised religious broadcasts, and close cooperation with the New Right political activists, fundamentalist ministers are seeking to have a significant impact in the 1984 election.
Their objective is to convert the religious right - or Christian right, as some call it - into a powerful force capable of getting its conservative social agenda enacted.
According to civil-libertarians, academics, and other observers, the religious-right campaign is better organized and funded than in 1980.
''The consensus among scholars now is that the religious right, while nowhere near a majority in the national electorate, represents a formidable political force,'' says A. James Reichley of the Brookings Institution.
''After suffering some setbacks in 1982, fundamentalist leaders this year are going all-out on behalf of Reagan and conservative candidates for Congress, aiming to prove their continued clout in national politics,'' he says.
''There is every indication that they are stronger, more sophisticated, and having more impact than ever before,'' says former Rep. John Buchanan, a Republican from Alabama. ''It's hard to believe that they'll just go away after the election.''
Mr. Buchanan, a Baptist minister who was targeted by the religious right in the 1982 election and defeated after eight terms in Congress, is chairman of People for the American Way, an organization founded by TV producer Norman Lear four years ago to combat the Moral Majority. Concerned about the growing influence and impact of the fundamentalist right, the organization this month has launched its own $1 million media campaign to counter what it regards as a disturbing trend - the effort of the religious right to inject its sectarian views into politics, government, and the public schools.
Leaders of the religious right make no secret of their goals. ''My earnest desire is that in this election ... the President will not only win, but we will win also in the House and the Senate so that in the next four years he can do the things that the American people want him to do,'' says the Rev. Jerry Falwell, president of Moral Majority.
The Moral Majority, Christian Voice, and other groups represented in the religious right have come together under the American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV), apparently a successor to the Religious Roundtable, which was so prominent in 1980. Headed by the Rev. Tim LaHaye, a San Diego evangelist, and supported by such TV evangelists as Mr. Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker, ACTV has under way an intensive drive to register more than 2 million new voters. Some 40,000 local pastors across the country are said to be vigorously mobilizing their congregations to register and go to the polls.
Evangelical Protestants, including fundamentalists who largely make up the religious right, traditionally were passive politically and had among the lowest voter turnout rate. They tended to be in rural areas and of low income. Also, the evangelical churches in the 1960s taught that politics was irrelevant to the human condition and that the purpose of the churches was to ''save souls.'' Some evangelical leaders, like the Rev. Bob Jones, are still critical of the Falwell movement.
''Low voter participation was an expression of a religious position,'' says Dr. Reichly, author of ''Religion and Political Realignment.'' ''But that changed dramatically in the early 1970s, to the point that the evangelicals now are among the highest participants in elections. Not all the first-time registrants are for Reagan and not all are being brought in by the churches. But the churches are having a substantial effect.''
There is a difference of opinion over just how much impact the religious right had in the 1980 election. The Moral Majority claims about 4 million votes for Reagan. But most observers today put the figure at about 2 million votes, primarily in the South. Dr. Reichley notes that 61 percent of all evangelicals voted for Reagan in 1980.
There is nothing inherently new or wrong in churches playing a role in election politics. Black churches also are active in registering voters and promoting the election of favored candidates. And the Roman Catholic Church is heavily involved in the politically sensitive issue of abortion.
''It's not unconstitutional, and people should be encouraged to participate in the political process,'' says Joe Conn, spokesman of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). ''But one can quarrel with the policies of the religious right, many of which are at variance with the First Amendment. And the fact that they are growing more adept and influential should be alarming to the moderates on the other side.''
Civil libertarians and religious groups voice concern that the fundamentalist right is working vigorously for changes in the public arena - government-sanctioned prayer in the schools, an anti-abortion amendment, tuition tax credits - that would impose sectarian views on the electorate and erode the separation of church and state.
Equally disturbing to them is the fact that the religious right has established close links with the White House and is conspicuously exploiting these links in its mailings to voters. President Reagan received leaders of the ACTV at the White House last June and has vigorously courted evangelical audiences, including at the GOP convention in Dallas. Critics thus charge that Reagan has irresponsibly nurtured the religious right for his own political ends.
Among its activities, ACTV is also distributing brochures rating the Republican and Democrat platforms and members of Congress on the basis of their positions on abortion, homosexual rights, defense spending, the Equal Rights Amendment, school prayer, and other issues.
''Although most political candidates claim a Judeo-Christian heritage, it's important to examine carefully their actual position on the biblical-family-moral issues,'' says the magazine Presidential Biblical Scoreboard. ''Their personal convictions on these issues will determine the future direction of our nation - either toward or away from Judeo-Christian values!''
Television broadcasts, reaching millions of people a week, are also used as a vehicle for political promotion, including drumming up support for Mr. Reagan. Mr. Buchanan says Falwell's organizations, including Moral Majority and the ''Old Time Gospel Hour,'' will spend $100 million for air time and political organization work this year. ''That's more than Reagan or Mondale are spending, '' comments Mr. Buchanan. ''There's a far more blatant use of the airwaves now.''
Although there are no formal links between the religious right and the secular New Right, considerable personal interchange takes place. Religious groups get together frequently with such New Right organizations as the Committee for a Free Congress, headed by conservative activist Paul Weyrich. Both the religious and the political right support the same social agenda and are working to defeat the more moderate candidates in such states as North Carolina, Texas, and New Hampshire. In addition to their influence on the GOP platform, religious right elements also are seeking to make their weight felt in Republican Party organizations. In Minnesota, for example, a group known as the New Christian Conservatives now is said to control the state Republican Party.
Such groups as People For the American Way and AU are troubled about the implications of implementing the absolutist views of the fundamentalist right in a pluralistic society, the essence of which is compromise and give and take. ''The concept of the inerrancy (i.e., literalism) of Scripture is being applied to the political agenda,'' says Mr. Buchanan. ''If you disagree with our agenda, they say, you are immoral and unpatriotic. It's a new form of McCarthyism.''
Even if Reagan is reelected in November, it is not clear that the religious right will succeed in pushing through its conservative social agenda in the Congress. Such New Right spokesmen as Richard A. Vigurie are critical both of the President and of Republicans members of Congress for their weak support of conservative social proposals.
Howard Phillips, another leader of the New Right, forecasts that Reagan ''is likely to tilt futher left in a second term'' because there are fewer conservatives in key administration positions, because a declining economy will curtail the President's bargaining position, and because attention in the next four years will focus on the Republican succession struggle.
But the religious right's strategy is to keep building its political influence, meantime waiting new conservative appointments to the Supreme Court to abet its cause.