Cultural and social precepts. Religious right optimistic

THIS country has made a complete turnaround,'' says the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a champion of America's religious right. Furthermore, says Dr. Falwell, ``Ronald Reagan has been the finest President since Lincoln.''

It's easy to see why religious fundamentalists like Falwell are so pleased. Mr. Reagan, the most conservative President since Herbert Hoover, has spoken directly to the concerns of much of religious America. He has put the weight of his office against legalized abortions. He favors school prayer. In a bid for support from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, he sent an ambassador to the Vatican. And in line with the wishes of many Protestants and Roman Catholics, he has supported tuition tax credits and vouchers for church-run schools.

Reagan has also made government appointments that delight the religious right -- men like Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel, and Education Secretary William J. Bennett.

Reagan has done even more. He has brought the religious right into his confidence. Before the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the United States Supreme Court, for example, the President called Falwell to discuss the selection.

But has the religious right really won any major victories?

Abortion in America continues at record levels. There were 1,573,900 abortions in the latest reported year, 1982, compared with 586,000 in 1972.

School prayer is still outlawed, and the courts show no signs of budging on the issue.

Federal aid for church-run schools has the warm support of Secretary Bennett at the Department of Education. But the idea appears to be going nowhere in Congress.

The pornography industry continues unabated -- helped in part by video tape machines in millions of US homes. Sex and violence permeate network television and motion pictures.

So why is Jerry Falwell so happy?

``We have never been deceived into thinking that our issues were going to be solved on the short haul,'' says Falwell.

``I think Ronald Reagan has made an earnest effort with all of these issues. . . .

``With less than six years of Ronald Reagan . . . patriotism is back in. We are militarily more prepared than we were. There's a self-respect in this country that didn't exist six years ago. There's an optimism that was not here before. I believe that Ronald Reagan, more than anyone else, has been responsible for the economic upturn.

``Most importantly, I think that he has been a spiritual sparkplug for the country. He has used the White House as a bully pulpit for most of the moral and social issues. And though he's fighting an uphill battle against a stiff-necked Congress, he has never thrown in the towel.''

The courtship of the Reagan White House by the religious right has been reciprocated with enthusiasm. By working closely with major religious groups, Reagan has skillfully captured two traditionally Democratic voting blocs: in the North, blue-collar workers; in the South, conservative whites.

Northern Roman Catholics, who had long been loyal Democrats, flocked to Reagan in 1980, and again in 1984, for a variety of reasons. Like most voters, Roman Catholics responded primarily to their concerns about the economy and foreign policy. But issues like abortion also helped Reagan. So did the President's support for parochial school aid, which his strategists admitted was an open bid for the growing Catholic middle class.

In the Southern Bible belt, Reagan continued breakthroughs that had begun years ago, first with Dwight Eisenhower, then with Richard Nixon. In 1984, the booming economy and Reagan's support for a strong defense were undoubtedly the key reasons that he swept the region. But Reagan's support for private church-school education and his opposition to abortion, feminism, and homosexuality made many Southerners comfortable as they pulled the Republican lever.

Republicans want to keep their growing support from the religious right, and the means of doing that seem clear. Conservatives want changes in the courts, and Reagan seems anxious to make them.

Falwell observes that Reagan ``has made only one Supreme Court appointment, and that a very good one. [But] he has appointed a significant percentage of all the appellate judges and district federal judges, and will have appointed more than 50 percent of all who are sitting by '88.''

The courts have become symbolically important for the religious right. It was the Supreme Court decision on Jan. 22, 1973, which probably did more to galvanize religious conservatives than any other single event. The court ruled 7-2 that no state could prevent a woman from having an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy.

Prior to that decision, 46 states had restricted abortions.

The court was responding to changing American mores. Legalized abortion was already increasing swiftly before 1973; the court simply put its stamp on what was happening.

Since that day, the number of abortions has soared, and the justices have not been forgiven.

Religious conservatives want the 1973 decision reversed; and they want the lawmaking power on this issue moved back to the states, where they think it will again be outlawed.

Falwell continues to be outspoken on the subject: ``Since 1973, my No. 1 priority, outside my pulpit responsibility of preaching the gospel of Christ, has been to bring an end to what I consider to be the biological holocaust in this country, the destruction of the unborn.''

Even with presidential support, Falwell concedes that conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics will probably not get everything they want.

``The abortion issue is not going to be solved easily because 1.5 million women have abortions annually, and the weight of the free-choice movement is strengthened with every passing year in that respect.

``However, I do think we are winning the ideological battle. We are educating the people. All the polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe that abortions are immoral.

``What we have learned is that there will be compromise when change eventually comes; that probably rape, incest, and where the physical life of the mother is threatened, will be exceptions. That doesn't bother me at all. That's less than 1 percent of all abortions.''

The new watchwords for the prolife movement, says Falwell, are ``pragmatism and compromise.''

If that sounds like a chapter out of Ronald Reagan's book of political strategy, well, says Falwell, the religious right is ``finally educating'' itself.

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