Heirs of Christian Right Push Agenda Harder With GOP

New leaders, citing override of gay-rights law in Maine, unfazed by sagging clout.

For the Christian Coalition - the brand name of religious conservatism - the signs of trouble are unmistakable.

In 1997, donations plummeted from the previous year's record revenues, staff were laid off, and minority outreach programs ended. The coalition's media-savvy director, Ralph Reed, has moved on, and his successors are struggling to chart a clear course - and find a voice in Republican Party politics.

On top of all this, Americans are rewarding President Clinton with the highest approval ratings of his presidency, even as he is caught in a swirl of allegations over his personal life. "Family values," the stock in trade of religious conservatives, don't seem to be uppermost in public thought.

But don't be fooled, say experts on the Christian right. One need look only to Maine to see a religious conservative movement that is as strong as ever where it counts - at the grass roots. In a special referendum Feb. 10, Christian conservatives turned out their voters and eked out a surprise victory to repeal Maine's law supporting gay rights.

"The obituary for the Christian Coalition that some have written is premature," says Christian right opponent Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Still, political observers don't dispute that the religious conservative movement has entered a period of soul-searching, and that its leadership - which extends well beyond the Christian Coalition - is in flux.

This changing of the guard is part of the evolution of any social movement, they say, but in this case, the implications for the Republican Party could be profound. Two conservative leaders on the ascendant - Gary Bauer, a former top Reagan administration aide and head of the Family Research Council, and James Dobson, head of the multimedia ministry Focus on the Family - are more hard-line than Ralph Reed, now a political consultant.

While Mr. Reed preached pragmatism and compromise - thus winning a seat at the table of the national Republican Party - Mr. Bauer and Mr. Dobson are more willing to openly defy the GOP. And while Reed was admired for his media and organizing skills, some were skeptical of his politics. They wanted more tangible proof, at the national level, that their efforts were paying off. Some complained that the Republican Party wasn't placing enough emphasis on "their" issues - abortion, education, public prayer, homosexual rights.

Enter Bauer and Dobson. Bauer is talking about running for president, a move that has boosted media attention to his hard-line views and concerned other potential GOP hopefuls, who fear he'll siphon away conservative votes. Membership in and donations to his Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, are way up. Dobson, who has until now stayed above the political fray, reportedly told a convention of conservative leaders recently that he's thinking of quitting the Republican Party and doing "everything I can to take as many people with me as possible."

Such maneuvers by Bauer and Dobson could make trouble for the GOP, as well as the religious right itself. In the 10 years since the Rev. Pat Robertson handed Ralph Reed the mailing list from his 1988 presidential campaign, religious conservatives have won hundreds of elected offices. For those winning the political game, breaking away from the GOP would seem to make little sense.

"Many of the more moderate elements of the Christian right already have another movement, called the Republican Party," says James Guth, a religious right expert at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

But some on the right who feel the Republican Party has let them down may feel they have little to lose. Mr. Robertson and the Christian Coalition's state leaders met for three days last week to discuss the future. Many observers believe the group has no choice but to play a harder-line brand of politics, demanding more from the Republicans who rely heavily on religious conservatives. But the coalition has no plans to work outside the political framework.

"While there may be concern with a lack of progress in moving conservative issues forward in the Congress, we need to continue our commitment to the two-party system," says Arne Owens, Christian Coalition spokesman.

What's really happening to the religious right is the plateauing of its membership numbers, says John Green, a Christian right expert at the University of Akron in Ohio. In a way, he says, Reed had the easy part: organizing disgruntled religious conservatives who were ripe for mobilization. But the growth of that movement could only go so far.

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