Christian political power rises from civics program Group urges nation back to 'spiritual foundations'


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The political power of religious conservatives might be most acutely felt in Washington. But the basis for that power -- the instruction and encouragement of the people who vote -- takes place away from the politicians and the polling booths, in church basements and at convention-style gatherings such as one being held in Fort Lauderdale.

Since Friday morning, more than 800 people from 39 states have been at the Broward County Convention Center for a three-day conference, "Reclaiming America for Christ," an event organizers describe as a "mini-course in Christian civics."

Speakers have discussed the economy, education and constitutional law, all the while urging their audience to get involved in public life.

"We're trying to restore the moral and spiritual foundations of the nation," said the Rev. D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, which organized the event.

In secular circles, Mr. Kennedy commands little of the name recognition of, for example, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

But among evangelical Protestants, Mr. Kennedy, the conservative senior minister of the nearly 9,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, might be at least as well known, in part because of his weekly television and daily radio programs, broadcast nationwide and overseas, as well as his writings, which make him a significant presence in Christian bookstores.

Lately, Coral Ridge Ministries has raised Mr. Kennedy's profile even further by establishing the D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington, to offer spiritual counsel to members of Congress and their staffs. The center's director, Frank Wright, who was active in anti-pornography and anti-abortion efforts, said: "We think the staffers are the key to what goes on up there."

In an interview at his church, a large, modern building with a soaring spire, Mr. Kennedy described a nation undergoing a harrowing moral decline, with legalized abortion and pornography being signal examples of the social rot.

The remedy, he said, is for conservative Christians to make their influence felt through political and social activity and, more importantly, by personally evangelizing others.

"You cannot force a Christian ethic on a non-Christian culture," he said. But he said he believed that more people were becoming born-again Christians and that within a decade or so, this would manifest itself in some "very dramatic" societal changes.

Slogans on T-shirts being sold at the conference refer to this struggle for the nation's culture, with "Take It Back" printed on the front.

On the backs are quotations from John Adams, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin and Mr. Kennedy, which, taken together, put forth the view that good governance and faith in God are linked.

A quote from John Adams, for example, says, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people."

Mr. Kennedy said in the interview, "There has been systematic elimination of this understanding, so that many Americans have no idea that this country was founded on any religious foundations."

Speakers here have contended that a theft of the nation's historical memory is under way, led by liberal judges with militantly secular ideas of constitutional law and anti-religious professors, who are rewriting textbooks to delete mention of faith's importance in the nation's past.

In a speech Friday afternoon, Edwin Meese III, an attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, quoted from the Mayflower Compact to offer evidence of the "religious antecedents of our country." He urged his audience to write letters to Congress and newspapers and to call radio talk shows.

And Donna Gentry, 55, of Washington, Ind., said she had begun campaigning as a Republican candidate for an open seat in the Indiana Legislature, having narrowly lost her race two years ago.

A mother of six grown children, she said she was concerned about "the moral issues," abortion and casino gambling, which she opposes.

The conference, she said, "just reinforces the ideas I already have, and it gives me the motivation that I can make a difference."

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