Religion News Service/Newhouse News Service - Conservative Christians Want More From Bush This Time

By Jeff Diamant, Religion Reporter, The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright 2005 Religion News Service/Newhouse News Service

They pushed hard for his re-election, and now that President Bush is starting his second term this week, conservative Christian leaders across the country want their agenda put in motion as soon as possible.

They demonstrated that victory would not be quiet for them when they pounced in fury, and with effect, after an influential senator said he would try to block prospective Supreme Court justices who would end abortion rights.

They want abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem-cell research banned. They want judges who will let prayer back in public schools. They want churches to receive taxpayer money to run social programs.

And, political observers say, they are better poised than ever to get what they want.

In the quarter-century since the Moral Majority helped Ronald Reagan get elected, and in the decade since the Christian Coalition helped Republicans retake Congress, the political movement of Christian conservatives has matured far beyond their national identity with those two organizations.

Now, instead of taking political leads from a small core of leaders like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Rev. Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, conservative Christians have their values promoted at a more decentralized, grass-roots level by a host of national and local groups that expertly use the Internet and radio to summon quick and powerful political responses.

"Now you see a group of leaders instead of a voice singing solo," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of the most influential of the groups. "You have a chorus of voices singing the same message, and it's resonating."

Nationally, some other influential groups include the American Family Association, the Marriage Amendment Project, Focus on the Family, Catholic Citizenship and American Values. There are also local groups like Center for Moral Clarity, which helped push the ban on same-sex marriage in Ohio two months ago.

Taking advantage of the Internet, many of these groups send out frequent e-mail "updates" that help them serve as watchdogs for their national agenda.

"Twice a week we send an e-mail alert to several hundred thousand people," said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association. "The Internet has changed everything. It used to take a lot of time to get the word out, you had to get a letter written, get it in the mail.

"Now it's instantaneous. Every group has e-mail, Web sites, e-mail activists, phone calls, radio. You can really pack a punch in a moment's notice."

Political opponents of Christian conservatives have been outmatched in recent years, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"There isn't anything in terms of a religious counterweight to the religious right," said Lynn, whose group sends its own e-mail updates. "You don't have only Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson doing the work, but there's a lot of local and regional religious-right entities that have been emerging. They're able to mobilize people more locally."

What does this mean for their conservative agenda? Wildmon, whose brother, the Rev. Don Wildmon, formed the American Family Association almost 30 years ago, said the groups will push hard for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and for conservatives to fill the Supreme Court vacancies that are expected during Bush's second term.

"People who voted for (Bush) voted for him to put in conservative judges," Tim Wildmon said. "We'll have to see what he does. We've been disappointed before by presidents who said they were going to do that ... and then appointed judges who voted to uphold Roe vs. Wade and have been liberal on other social issues.

"I feel this time, with the strength of our groups, hopefully President Bush will do the right thing. If he wavers, we're here to let people know."

While many of the groups have been around for years, they have grown in stature since the late 1990s. Their biggest boost in activity has come in the past two years with the push against same-sex marriage.

Late in 2003, a collection of these organizations began meeting quarterly in Arlington, Va., to strategize. They now call themselves the Arlington Group and include about 60 organizations. Groups with the same goals, and that presumably compete for the same sources of revenue, are cooperating.

For example, Perkins, of the Family Research Council, traveled recently to Columbus, Ohio, to meet with the Center for Moral Clarity. "There's some overlap with what they want to do with their organization and what FRC is doing, but I came up to support them," he said. "I don't think there's a problem with having too many people out there saying the same thing. It's good to be working together, to have a unified effort."

To be sure, the Christian conservative movement still has its big names, including Perkins, Don Wildmon, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and the Rev. Franklin Graham. And Robertson and Falwell still have followings.

"There are still voices that are deemed the heavyweights," said Shannon Royce of the Marriage Amendment Project, who like Wildmon and Perkins is part of the Arlington Group. "But I think you're also seeing a lot more of the grass-roots folks at the local level really step up and get involved."

Christian conservatives are enthused by their prospects in the current political environment, as well as by their opponents' setbacks.

"You can't help but notice how in the last 10 years they've lost the Senate and the House, and now the White House," said Tim Wildmon. "In that respect, our side feels rejuvenated and feels more people in the country believe like we do, maybe even more than we thought were out there. We feel a lot of momentum right now after the election results."

Of course, Christian conservatives still may not get what they want. Even with Bush in the White House and majorities in Congress, a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution is considered a long shot. Bush has said he does not feel the country is ready to overturn Roe vs. Wade. And in the Senate, Democrats have a potentially powerful weapon at their disposal: the filibuster.

Still, one conclusion is inescapable. Christian conservatives, whose movement began because they felt alienated from mainstream culture, have now joined that mainstream, said Barry Hankins, professor of history and church studies at Baylor University.

"There is an analogy I use: The Christian right, broadly decentralized, is as much a constituency of the Republican Party as labor used to be for the Democratic Party," he said. "People had to pay attention to what labor was going to say about certain issues. I think the Christian right has the same status in the Republican Party."