Sunday, September 30, 2007

The religious right's political power ebbs

WASHINGTON — Palm Sunday two years ago was a glorious day for Christian conservatives.

A president who'd proclaimed Jesus his favorite philosopher was racing back from vacation to sign a bill rushed through a compliant Congress at their bidding — a last-minute gamble to keep alive a severely brain-damaged woman in Florida.

That, however, was the peak of the Christian conservatives' political power.

Today, their nearly three-decade-long ascendance in the Republican Party is over. Their loyalties and priorities are in flux, the organizations that gave them political muscle are in disarray, the high-profile preachers who led them to influence through the 1980s and 1990s are being replaced by a new generation that's less interested in their agenda and their hold on politics and the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is in doubt.

"Less than four years after declarations that the Religious Right had taken over the Republican Party, these social conservatives seem almost powerless to influence its nomination process," said W. James Antle III, an editor at the American Spectator magazine who's written extensively about religious conservatives.

"They have the numbers. They have the capability. What they don't have is unity or any institutional leverage."

The Religious Right never had absolute power in the Republican Party. It never got the Republican president and Republican Congress to pursue a constitutional amendment banning abortion, for example.

But it did have enormous clout in party politics and a big voice in policy, and it's lost much of both heading into 2008.

In the presidential campaign, for example, candidate Rudy Giuliani consistently leads national polls of likely Republican voters despite his support for abortion rights and gay rights, not to mention his three marriages.

Fred Thompson boasts of a strong voting record against abortion, yet he admitted recently that he doesn't go to church regularly and wouldn't support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage because he'd rather leave it to the states.

"He is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians," social conservative James Dobson said sarcastically in an e-mail to fellow conservatives. "Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me."

Yet Thompson's support as measured by polls nationally and in the early voting states apparently hasn't suffered.

And all of the top Republican candidates felt free to skip a values forum in Florida organized by some of the country's top social conservatives, including Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association.

The candidates will appear at a similar values voters gathering in Washington, D.C., but the snub of such high-profile social conservatives in a politically important state such as Florida would have been unlikely in the 1980s or 1990s.

"None of these candidates are ignoring conservative Christians," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, "but they're not giving them as much attention as occurred in past elections. … There is at least the perception that these voters don't have the influence they once had."

In church, the generation of politically active, high profile evangelists such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell is giving way to new preachers such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, who shun partisan politics or are willing to embrace Democrats.........

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