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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Christian Coalition loses influence, but could get second wind for election

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 (JTA) – As the Christian Coalition faithful gathered here for their annual “Road to Victory” conference, Republican presidential hopefuls took to the dais one by one. With the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who declined an invitation to speak, each of the candidates took a turn courting votes from the nation’s largest and most powerful group of religious conservatives. Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson came close to endorsing Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s presidential bid, telling reporters he is “completely comfortable” with Bush and believes he is “worthy of the support of the coalition.” The extent to which that support matters, however, is an entirely different story. There is no question that the power of the conservative Christian lobby has waned in recent years. After establishing itself as a potent electoral force that has helped rally voters behind conservative Republican candidates in every election since 1990, the group is entering the 2000 election cycle with its reputation badly battered. Financial problems, disarray in the ranks of its leadership, loss of staff and revelations that it inflated its membership numbers have beset the organization in the past year, coming on the heels of defeats many of its candidates suffered in the last election. The coalition also suffered a devastating blow when the IRS denied the group tax-exempt status, concluding that its political activities are too partisan. Although the organization claimed a victory in a federal judge’s decision that cleared the coalition of wrongdoing alleged by the Federal Election Commission in advocating the election of Republican candidates, the group has nonetheless found itself struggling to regain its credibility. For the group’s ideological opponents, including most Jewish groups, that has come as a welcome development. Still, experts who monitor the political activity of the religious right emphasize that it would be a mistake to write off the Christian Coalition and the religious right as a political force. Religious conservatives still account for about 17 percent of the general population, according to William Martin, a professor of sociology at Rice University and author of “With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America.” “That’s not a juggernaut, but it’s not a fringe in American life,” Martin said. “They are not a majority, but their commitment to voting gives them a strength beyond their numbers.” Robertson, for his part, has acknowledged that the coalition is battling a lack of enthusiasm among members – and that its fund-raising goals have not been reached. “It hasn’t been easy. Let’s face it,” he told CNN’s “Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields,” adding that his organization has been in a state of transition since Ralph Reed departed as executive director. “But we’re coming back. And this weekend to me was a major turning point.” Speaking at last week’s conference, Robertson predicted “a powerful religious revival” leading up to next year’s election. Although many of the coalition’s critic say the group continues to overstate its influence, most caution against dismissing it as a political force. “I certainly think it’s still got the possibility of getting a second wind,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “In the past, it’s been easy to declare these far- right religious movements dead before they were actually interred.” At the same time, he said, the group is clearly “falling into a deep sleep.” The real test of the organization’s strength will be its ability to mobilize its grass roots, Lynn added. “The strength of the coalition lies in its ability to gets its local activists in conjunction with local churches to distribute voting guides that support their candidates,” he said. “If the grass-roots troops wither away, there’s no real power in the Christian Coalition.” After seeing last week’s conference, Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said, “It’s hard, frankly, not to be impressed with the parade of Republican candidates who still feel that it’s important for them to come and appear before the group.” Bush’s speech to the conference, however, was noteworthy for what he did not say. Unlike his rivals, the GOP presidential front-runner did not touch on many of the core concerns of religious conservatives, including school prayer and gay rights. He made only a passing reference to abortion. For the most part, he delivered his standard stump speech – a move that some political observers said reflected both his large lead in the polls and the fact that the coalition no longer appears to have the same hold over candidates it once did. Meanwhile, Jewish activists who have countered the coalition in battles ranging from abortion rights to school prayer, say they plan to monitor the group’s activity vigilantly in both the electoral and legislative arenas. “One of our real changes and one we’re committed to,” Pelavin said, “is to meet them head on and help policy-makers, whether in Washington or elsewhere in the country, understand that they don’t represent the only religious voice on issues of concern.”

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