Religious right's influence on GOP is unprecedented


WASHINGTON -- The Democrats are shedding crocodile tears over the Republicans' problems with the religious right taking over the party machinery in such states as Texas and Minnesota. In fact, the Democrats are enjoying it all immensely, visions of defectors dancing in their heads.

The Democrats have good reason to be encouraged. There are indeed traditionally conservative Republicans who will desert their party for Democratic candidates if their own nominees seem as extreme as an Oliver North or a Pat Buchanan.

The dismay among these Republicans was apparent all through the 1992 campaign after the convention in Houston at which the religious right was so much in evidence.

But the focus on who controls the Republican apparatus misses LTC the point. State party committees and chairmen don't really have a great deal to do with the outcome of elections.

The real threat to the Republican Party is the effect the primacy of the religious right may have on the way the party's candidates who are not part of it present themselves in election campaigns.

Or, to put it more precisely, will Republican candidates bend themselves out of shape to accommodate the party's ideological extremes? Will, for example, a candidate such as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas find herself obliged to play down her support for abortion rights because it flies in the face of the dogma of the religious right?

Extremism is nothing new in American politics. And it often has cost both parties dearly in a country in which the center is extremely broad and usually controlling. In 1984 and 1988, for example, Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis suffered massive defections among nominal Democrats who considered them too willing to placate the far left in general and Jesse Jackson in particular.

The same was true in 1972, when George S. McGovern was easy to depict as the candidate of "the three A's -- acid, amnesty and abortion."

The Republicans had a similar experience with Barry Goldwater in 1964 after he declared that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." In each of these cases the result was a landslide defeat.

There is a significant difference, nonetheless, in the situation with the religious right today -- simply the fact that there is such an open connection with organized religion.

In the past, Republican conservatives disagreed with Democratic liberals vehemently on a whole range of issues involving both foreign affairs and domestic policy.

But neither side had a religious identification that meant its adherents believed they alone held the high ground -- and that those who disagreed were, by definition, not just mistaken but morally wrong and evil. That is clearly the case today with the attitude of the religious right on two social issues at the forefront of political debate -- the rights of homosexuals and abortion rights.

This doesn't mean there have not been litmus tests for candidates to pass in both parties over the years. The abortion rights issue has been just such a test for Republicans and Democrats alike since Roe vs. Wade in 1973.

But the injection of a religion factor into the political dialogue adds other matters that have been outside the dialogue. For example, will George W. Bush, the Republican candidate for governor in Texas, embrace his state party's call for teaching creationism in the schools?

Rep. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, accused the religious right of using "subterranean tactics" and "stealth campaigns" to take over Republican networks. To which Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour replied that Fazio was practicing "Christian bashing" and was guilt of "religious bigotry."

Both of them were wrong, however. There has been nothing stealthy about the strategy the Christian Coalition and others on the religious right have been following; they have been playing by the rules and candid about their intention to become a force.

But neither is it religious bigotry to say that the introduction of religious dogma into the national political dialogue is something new and disturbing.

In American politics there is a difference between adversaries and enemies -- and between considering the opposition not just dead wrong but morally flawed.

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