Before the Vote is Counted: Christian Coalition Zeroes in on Local Races – and the Future

Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s executive director, has said that in advancing his agenda he “would rather have a thousand school board members and 2,000 state legislators than a single president.”

In recent years, the conservative Christian lobby has sought to achieve political power by building its movement from the ground up, a strategy that has become increasingly apparent in the closing days of 1996 election.

It is a strategy that worries many American Jews who oppose the group’s conservative social agenda and fear its grass-roots strength.

The Christian Coalition has all but abandoned Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole — it considers him too moderate — and is now directing most of its campaign resources toward retaining the Republican majorities in Congress and electing state and local candidates who support its agenda.

To that end, the Christian Coalition is spending $10 million to print and distribute 46 million voter guides to 120,000 churches on Sunday, two days before Election Day. It is also airing informational radio ads and is planning to mobilize more than 100,000 volunteers to get out the conservative Christian vote.

Even if the unprecedented drive makes no impact at the presidential level and fails to provide enough support for embattled GOP lawmakers across the country, most political analysts say it would be a serious mistake to write off the religious right.

The conservative Christians who make up the religious right political movement, analysts say, remain one of the most influential voting blocs in the country – - and perhaps the most influential voice inside the Republican Party.

“In race after race after race, they nominated their candidate for Congress, for Senate, for state legislature,” Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said of this year’s election cycle. “That’s real power in the political process, and we ignore that power at our peril.”

As Reed himself said last week at the National Press Club: “Religious conservatives have crossed the threshold of legitimacy and gained the place at the table they have sought for so many years.

“Whether one means them well or ill, they are indisputably going to be a permanent fixture on the American political landscape.”

For many in the Jewish community, this reality has prompted considerable apprehension.

The Christian Coalition has advanced an agenda in recent years that has often come into direct conflict with positions supported by the bulk of the organized Jewish community.

The group, which claims a membership of 1.7 million, has consistently pushed for constitutional amendments to ban abortion and allow for prayer in public schools.

Loss of congressional control to the Democrats would almost certainly kill its agenda, which is why the Christian Coalition is working hard to help the GOP retain its majorities.

Most Jewish organizations, barred from partisan activity because of their non- profit tax-exempt status, have been limited in their ability to combat the Christian Coalition.

But some groups have been seeking to counter some of the religious right’s influence by distributing voter education materials and holding candidate forums across the country.

A sample sermon contained in the organized Jewish community’s voter registration and education guide spells out Jewish trepidation about the religious right in no uncertain terms.

“The religious right is a threat to our nation, to the Jewish community and to our fundamental liberties,” the sermon states.

It goes on to say that “the leaders of the religious right are peddlers of coercion who, if given the chance, will launch a radical assault on pluralism, civil rights and religious freedom.”

Some Jewish Democrats are directly taking on the Christian Coalition. The National Jewish Democratic Council has encouraged its members to get involved in campaigns across the country to help elect Democrats and defeat Republican candidates “who are supported by the radical right,” said Ira Forman, the group’s executive director.

In addition, the NJDC is contributing more than $250,000 to that end through its independent political action committee.

Jewish Republicans say Jewish characterizations of the Christian Coalition simply reflect Democratic scare tactics and are intended to drive a wedge between the Republican Party and the Jewish community.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition, said Jewish Democrats are guilty of “fear-mongering” in their attempt to portray the Christian Coalition and its constituency as inimical to Jewish interests.

“It’s not in the Jewish community’s interests to focus on what separates us,” Brooks said. It is more important, he said, “to find ways we can cooperate.”

Cooperation so far has been difficult to achieve, particularly when there remain such acute differences on issues involving the separation of church and state.

Regardless of whether candidates backed by the religious right win in 1996, the group’s effectiveness in grass-roots organizing and influencing local races is likely to leave a mark on the future.

Candidates backed by the religious right “are gaining political experience and name recognition which will enable them to be more effective candidates for higher office later on,” said William Martin, professor of sociology at Rice University and author of “With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America.”

This success has left many Jewish political activists all the more determined to work to counter the religious right as a political force.

“These folks believe that time and history are on their side and that they inevitably will be able to impose their agenda on America,” the NJDC’s Forman said.

“They’ll be back in ’98, 2000 and 2004,” he said. “They’re a huge force in American politics, and we are going to be a force against them.”

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