IN November 1992, when President Bush was soundly defeated in his reelection bid, the Christian conservative movement appeared to have run aground. Almost two years later, nothing could be further from the truth.
One need look only at the roster of speakers at last weekend's convention here of the Christian Coalition to understand the crucial role of conservative Christian activists in American politics today. Former Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, and a host of other prominent Republicans, many of whom are contemplating runs for the presidency, spoke to the packed auditorium.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Chesapeake, Va.-based Christian Coalition, says that within the Republican Party, ``there's still a tremendous amount of nervousness out there'' about dealing directly with issues the coalition holds dear, such as abortion.
``The Republican Party, most of the past two years, has been trying to recover from post-Houston trauma syndrome,'' said Mr. Reed in an interview at the Washington Hilton, where the convention was held. He was referring to the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, at which Christian activists played a central role.
Christian Right Muscles Into Big Time
At the time, moderate Republicans fretted that Bush's reelection bid was wounded by the involvement of the Christian right.
But now, says Reed, ``I'm sensing a sea change in that,'' witnessed by the parade of prominent Republicans addressing the convention. ``We're now not viewed as a liability; we're viewed as an asset,'' he says.
Opponents of the Christian Coalition also extol the group's growing power, though in a warning rather than admiring tone. The liberal group People for the American Way, in a report on the coalition released Friday, called it ``a remarkable political machine'' that is ``poised to influence dozens of elections.''
Last week, a religious-right candidate lost in his bid for the Minnesota Republican gubernatorial nomination, demonstrating the difficulty that can be encountered in expanding support beyond grass-roots activists.
But the Christian Coalition appears undaunted, with 1.4 million members and a $20 million budget. The November elections, in which Republicans are expected to make substantial gains, have energized the coalition. And because it is a nonpresidential election year, with lower turnout expected, the relative strength of activists will be greater, says Michael Cromartie of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
Reed is reluctant to make any firm claims about the coalition's role in the Republican Party. Press reports have stated that the coalition plays a dominant role in between 12 and 18 state Republican parties, but Reed demurs.
``We don't want to dominate the party,'' he says. ``We simply want to be able to play a role commensurate with our numbers and with the work that we do. And I would hope that the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party would not view that as control or dominance. I view it as participation.''
One state in which the coalition plays an indisputably large role is Texas, which has 162 chapters. ``In the last two years, it's been boom, boom, boom,'' says Margie Moore, a member of the board of the Harris County, Texas, Christian Coalition. She estimates that attendance at meetings has risen 70 percent since 1992.
Mrs. Moore and her husband, Billy, are working on both local and congressional races. Crime and education, she says, are the top issues motivating people to get involved.
President Clinton's unpopularity in the nation has also fed the coalition's growth. ``We were too comfortable in the Reagan years,'' says Mrs. Moore. ``We had someone up there with our concerns and values, and we thought that was enough.''
Now, she and her husband say, they realize that it wasn't enough just to have a sympathetic figure in the White House, and that change had to begin at home.
Their remarks hint at a coalition success two years ago that grabbed headlines: Victories by coalition supporters in local races, such as school boards, that seemed to catch the Democrats by surprise. Some ran as so-called ``stealth candidates,'' because they did not openly align themselves with the Christian conservative movement.
The Christian Coalition says it does not endorse or recruit candidates. Rather, it puts out voter guides and compiles ``scorecards'' rating candidates against the positions of the coalition on issues ranging from abortion to taxes to gun control. For this fall's elections, the coalition will distribute 57 million pieces of voter-education literature, says Reed.
Reed says he doesn't think there are more candidates this year rated highly by the coalition than there were two years ago. But, he adds, ``I think we have more who will win.'' Anti-Clinton feeling will help, the inclination of Perot voters to go Republican will help, and the changed environment on the ``family values'' issue will help, says Reed.
``The debate has shifted,'' he says, ``and now we control the terms of the debate.''