Rocky Mountain Backlash Against the Religious Right

Group of religious 'moderates' steps into political fray with 'code of civility.' But some say religion and politics don't mix.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, it was the dawn of a new era in American politics: Conservative Christians staked their claim to power in the political arena and never looked back.

Now a new religious group is taking on right-wing Christianity, charging that the movement's political views have dominated for too long without a counterpoint from the religious community.

"For close to 20 years now, the religious right ... has pretty much been the group that has weighed in on political issues as they relate to religious life," says the Rev. Michael Carrier, chairman of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. "But [it] does not speak for all Christians, nor does it speak for all people of faith."

As the religious right plays an ever-larger role in shaping the political debate on issues ranging from school prayer to the right to die, a backlash against its conservative agenda is emerging. Here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the religious war is fueled by decades-old tensions between the state's conservative south and more-liberal north. But nationwide, the battle here - and the move by more and more people of faith to seek a new voice in politics - hints at a more fundamental change: Religious issues are increasingly becoming matters of public policy.

"What we're seeing is a politicization of American religion," says Carl Raschke, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver. "When you look at hot-button issues like abortion and gay rights, those are religiously charged."

The mingling of religion and politics is perhaps nowhere more fitting than in Colorado. In the southern half of the state, Colorado Springs is headquarters to nearly 80 Christian evangelical groups: Among them, Focus on the Family, which claims a mailing list of 2.4 million Americans. Meanwhile in Denver, liberals sport T-shirts proclaiming, "Focus on Your Own Family."

New to the fight

Into this setting, a group of self-described "moderate" Christians, Jews, and Muslims founded the Colorado chapter of the Interfaith Alliance one month ago.

The group's mission, says Mr. Carrier, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, is to ensure a diversity of religious views in political debate. Its chief tool: a "code of civility," essentially promising that religion not be used as a weapon for political ends. (It recently asked primary election candidates in the state to sign the code; about 30 out of 55 candidates agreed.)

At the same time, the issue of whether mixing politics and religion is beneficial for either has received greater attention as groups like the Interfaith Alliance jump into the political fray. For his part, Professor Raschke disagrees with the idea that political activism and religion must be mutually exclusive. "I think it's dishonest to create the impression that religious people are being inappropriately political by taking a stand on issues [such as abortion and gay rights]," he says.

The Promise Keepers, a group founded by a former University of Colorado football coach, is a perfect example of the successful blurring of lines between religion and politics, Raschke says.

A diversity of voices

But members of the Interfaith Alliance say that Christian conservatives are trying to monopolize the Christian voice in national and local politics. "Conservatives don't have a right to claim that theirs is the only viable expression of faith that should guide public policy," Carrier says. "Yet their message seems to be that the only good Christians are Republicans, and that God has taken up residence in the Republican party."

The Christian evangelical movement counters that the accusations are false, as well as immaterial. "We don't say to people, 'Go out and become Republicans,' " says Paul Hentrick, spokesman for Focus on the Family.

Noting that religious conservatives are steadily gaining constituents nationwide, Mr. Hentrick refutes the Alliance's claim that it represents the mainstream. And he and others also take issue with the code of civility, saying that it shows the Alliance is only paying lip-service to the concepts of diversity and democracy. "They say they want diversity, but they want to drive social conservatives out of the fray," he says. "They're asking people to sign this code of civility, while at the same time excoriating people who don't believe in it."

Members of the Alliance - which has affiliates in 36 states - counter that they respect the right of religious conservatives to speak out - but only insofar as they exhibit tolerance for other viewpoints. They claim that Christian evangelical groups portray their religious beliefs as superior to others - including Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, and other Christians.

"The religious right has a narrow perspective, and they want politicians to address it," says Rabbi Steven Foster of Denver's Temple Emanuel, and a founding member of the Alliance. The civility code, therefore, is an attempt to limit "self-righteous" campaigning that aims to manipulate voters through moralizing, he says. "The major issue is the use of religion as a tool to coerce people."

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