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Focus on Issues: Activists Join Forces Across Nation to Combat Strength of Religious Right

Peggy Norman is proud of her list.

Over the past 18 months, the Portland-based director of Right Watch has compiled the names of 30,000 Oregon residents with links to the Christian religious right.

She will use the list to identify candidates for local office with ties to the religious right, tracking them at public forums and publicizing her findings in a voter’s guide.

Like other local activists who have been drawn into the battle against the growing influence of candidates for local office who are backed by the religious right, Norman insists the only way to fight them is on the ground.

“To counter grass-roots organizing, you have to do grass-roots organizing,” she said.

For the past several years, candidates backed by conservative Christian groups have succeeded in quietly capturing a growing number of seats on local school boards, planning commissions and other bodies. Now small cavalries of grass-roots activists across the United States have mounted counteroffensives.

And what began as local opposition efforts are coalescing into national groups, working to articulate a unified strategy for countering right-wing activities, and providing the resources for local efforts to advance grass-roots campaigns.

Though a few years behind the religious right movement in organization and strategy, activists on all levels are gaining momentum as they slowly master the nuts and bolts of grass-roots political organizing.

Jewish groups have taken a leading role in rallying against the religious right, charging that attempts by right-wing fundamentalist and evangelical groups to influence public school curricula and gain national political power are part of an effort to obscure the constitutional distinction in America between church and state.

There is also concern that frequent calls by the religious right for a “Christian America” are meant to exclude the practice of other faiths.

UP AGAINST FORMIDABLE OPPONENT

The National Jewish Democratic Council will soon publish a manual detailing strategies for organizing against the religious right, which is meant to be a blueprint for local activists.

The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, meanwhile, has reprinted a questionnaire to be given to candidates, gauging their positions on issues ranging from sex education to school prayer.

NJCRAC also has encouraged its 117 member community relations councils around the country to monitor local races by circulating and publicizing candidate questionnaires and, if necessary, running opposition candidates.

Pat Lewis, press and policy director of the Jewish Democratic council, explained that Jews are particularly sensitive to perceived threats to religious or political freedom.

“We’ve heard those things before, and it’s never worked out well for us,” Lewis said.

But activists are up against a formidable opponent, whose sophisticated political organizing skills and finely tuned media savvy have parlayed it into a national political force.

Spearheading Christian Right activities is the Christian Coalition, a branch of the international evangelical operation led by Pat Robertson, and the California-based Citizens for Educational Excellence, led by Robert Simonds.

Taking advantage of low voter turnout in local elections, groups with ties to these national organizations identify and mobilize core groups of supporters, to elect slates of pro-right candidates.

They also play on traditionally low media coverage of these races, declining press interviews and denying or disguising their affiliation with national groups on the religious right.

Once elected, however, these candidates generally begin to move on a cluster of flagship issues, including staunch support for prayer in schools, the teaching of biblical creationism, implementation of abstinence-only sex education, banning of books deemed to be anti-Christian, and elimination of the federal Head Start program and multi-cultural curricula.

INFRASTRUCTURE NOT YET IN PLACE

Opponents of the religious right have responded by forming coalitions of parents groups and local activist organizations, and by soliciting the endorsement of teachers unions and prominent citizens for slates of moderate candidates.

They also have sought to defuse the so-called stealth strategy of religious-right candidates by distributing the results of candidate questionnaires and researching the background and ideological affiliation of candidates.

Activists say they also hope to thwart the self-declared strategy of the religious right: to build a cadre of local political office-holders who will move up the political ranks, eventually running for state and national offices.

The theory, which has been affirmed in counter-campaigns from California to Virginia, is that once voters realize that their district has been targeted by the religious right, they will be moved to go to the polls.

But observers say that there is still a great deal of catching up to do.

“We’re talking about building an enormous response to an enormous problem,” said Matthew Freeman, director of research at People for the American Way. “The infrastructure is not yet in place for people to fight back.”

From the start, the religious right has had distinct advantages, including its ability to draw from an identifiable constituency — those people belonging to churches affiliated with the movement — and to pool their resources into a common agenda set by national Christian-right organizations.

Opposition activists are working in reverse, trying to gather groups working on divergent issues, like reproductive rights and free speech, into coalitions that focus just on the religious right.

And opponents say messages from the religious right — such as the common refrain that prayer will end violence in schools — are both tempting in their simplicity and cheap.

“Prayer is free, other programs cost money,” said Lewis of the Jewish Democratic group.

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