Religious Right Reaches for the Other Party

Next week's Texas primary highlights how Democrats play 'moral values' card.

At first glance, Scott Doyen would seem to be an ideal Republican state representative for the devout rural communities of east Texas. He opposes abortion, favors school prayer, and is "deeply concerned about the coarsening of American culture."

But Mr. Doyen is not Republican; he's running as a Democrat.

"It's unfair to characterize all Democrats as liberals," says Doyen, who will face a moderate Democratic incumbent in next Tuesday's state primary elections. "The vast majority of folks here are fiercely conservative, fiercely Democrat, and devout Christians. But if Democrats don't present them a conservative Christian candidate, many of these people will vote Republican."

On one level, Doyen's campaign is just another sign of the growing - some would say creeping - conservatism of the Lone Star State. But it also indicates a coming of age for conservative Christians in state politics, and a sign of their spreading influence beyond their roots in the Republican Party. Next week's primary vote here in Texas, and similar races across the country this year, will provide the latest test on how much moral values are shaping the debate for American society as a whole.

"There are times in the life of a society when people feel that moral issues are more important than economic ones," says Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of "Values Matter Most." Today's prosperity allows many Americans to turn to lingering social problems, such as drugs, crime, poverty, and broken families.

By focusing on these broader issues, Christian conservatives are broadening their base of support, Mr. Wattenberg says. "The people who were giggling at family values before, now they are counting the votes," he says. "You don't hear giggling any more."

Reaching far

To be sure, moral politics have taken hold across the country. In Maine, Christian conservatives led the repeal of a state law that they said gave special rights to homosexuals. (Maine's popular governor defended the law, saying it merely banned discrimination against gays and lesbians.) Basking in this victory, the national Christian Coalition released its political strategy, showing how members can duplicate the Maine success in the 1998 elections and beyond.

Nationwide, Christian conservatives are a potent voting bloc, particularly in primaries, when turnout is low. But even in the 1996 presidential election, their power was impressive. Exit polls showed 29 percent of the voting public identifying themselves as born-again Christians, making them a larger bloc than any other ethnic group or labor union.

In Texas, conservative Christian viewpoints have permeated every campaign, even in the race for the Texas Railroad Commissioner. In TV and radio ads, Steve Stockman, the Christian conservative favorite, and the more moderate Tony Garza make a special point to talk about their family values, even though the position they seek mostly regulates the oil and gas industry.

True motives

"Values are a shortcut to understanding what motivates a candidate," says Karl Rove, a Republican political consultant. Railroad commissioners may have no control over decisions about crime or school prayer, he says, but moral issues help voters decide which candidate best reflects their values.

In Texas' Tarrant County, the Christian Coalition's answering machine helps take the guesswork out of the decision process. "Vote on Tuesday March 10 for Tom Pauken, Steve Stockman, Harvey Hudson, and Tom Davis," chirps the voice of Stuart Lane, coalition director for Tarrant County, naming all Republicans.

Democrats have long regarded the organizing power of Christian conservatives with suspicion, says state Republican chairwoman Susan Weddington. "Democrats tend to use fear and scare tactics, saying the conservative Christians had taken over the party," she says. "But eventually that worked in our favor. People sat up and said, 'Wait a minute, those are my values too.' "

Even so, Chuck Anderson, field director for the Texas Christian Coalition in Fort Worth, says he has noticed a different tone from the state Democratic apparatus. In 1996, for instance, the Democratic state convention allowed the Christian Coalition to set up an information booth and hold a pro-life caucus for conservative Democrats.

Dealing with both parties may benefit the coalition in the long run, Mr. Anderson adds. "We don't want to become just a subsidiary of the Republican Party, otherwise in 20 years, we'll be just like the labor unions in the Democratic Party - taken for granted."

While some Democrats soften their rhetoric about "the religious right," others say the growing power of Christian conservatives can have a negative effect on state and national politics.

"The stakes here are high on whether we remain a democracy or become a theocracy," says Ed Martin, a Democratic political consultant involved in several campaigns this year. "Religion and faith have an incredibly important role in our democracy, but it's something else when my church quits informing my individual faith and starts instructing the government on how I should behave."

Not all Christians are conservative, of course, and some Texas Christians of a more liberal bent are banding together to offer an alternative to the Christian Coalition.

"People of faith should get involved in politics," says Cecile Richards, head of the Texas Freedom Network, which recently proved its own mettle by helping defeat a school voucher bill in the statehouse. "The historic movements of this century, from the civil rights movement to the fight to end child labor to the antiwar movement, were all led by progressive people of faith."

But while she says "I have trouble equating Christianity with a right-wing agenda," she wouldn't deny the right of Christian conservatives to organize. "I just wish the rest of the people would get active as well."

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