Aiming to revive the religious right

Influence: Veterans of the evangelical movement are on a mission to regain a prominent role in U.S. politics.

March 26, 2000|By Peter Stone

ON THURSDAY a score of leaders from evangelical and family values groups are scheduled to gather in Dallas for a day of intense talks and planning for this year's elections.

The expected guests include such prominent veterans of the evangelical movement -- the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has just started a campaign called People of Faith 2000; Mike Farris, who runs the Madison Project; Donald Hodel, a former top official of the Christian Coalition; James Kennedy, a prominent Florida evangelical; Tim LaHaye, who heads Family Life Seminars; and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, the leader of the Traditional Values Coalition.

The summit, which is being organized by a little-known but up-and-coming group called Vision America, doesn't have a fixed agenda, but it does have a mission: to figure out how to compensate for the waning influence of the Christian Coalition in electoral politics.

"The Christian Coalition's grass-roots power has evaporated," says one evangelical activist who plans to go to the summit. "We've got to scramble and put something together quickly so we don't get clobbered."

Some religious groups are stepping up efforts to register and educate voters and get out the vote for conservative candidates. Others are hoping to increase campaign contributions to candidates who agree with the groups' views on such issues as ending abortion and the marriage penalty and supporting school choice and conservatives for the Supreme Court.

The Dallas meeting could be a harbinger of new unity among Religious Right groups that often haven't worked well together. The stakes in this year's elections are especially high for these religious groups, because Congress is up for grabs and the next president could choose as many as three new Supreme Court justices.

Several Republican leaders and top National Republican Congressional Committee officials are also concerned that with a weakened Christian Coalition, Democrat-leaning unions will have a field day come November. To offset that political risk, the NRCC initiated regular meetings last year with representatives from such groups as the Madison Project and the Traditional Values Coalition to improve communications and share information about key races this year.

Several factors help explain the Christian Coalition's decline. The group has suffered a drop in revenues and, according to two former top officials, is about $2 million in the red. Personnel changes have also hurt. Ralph Reed, the charismatic executive director, left in 1997. His two successors, Donald Hodel and Randy Tate, departed in 1999. The coalition has also been embroiled in a long-running dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over its tax status and political activities.

Conservative leaders say the coalition shows signs of the wear and tear. Roberta Combs, the coalition's vice president, strongly disagrees. "The organization is just as strong as it's ever been," she says, adding that about $1.3 million of the group's debt has recently been paid off.

But the religious leaders who are going to the Dallas summit are convinced that they can't rely on the Christian Coalition to make the Religious Right's voice heard.

Consider Vision America. Based in Pearland, Texas, Vision America is run by David Welch, a former Christian Coalition grass-roots leader, and Rick Scarborough, a well-known Texas-based evangelical pastor. Welch, a soft-spoken veteran activist who hails from Washington state, eschews any talk of creating another Christian Coalition. His group's goal is to create a pastor-based grass-roots organization that will focus on such core moral issues as abortion, gambling, gay rights and pornography.

Vision America has recruited about 100 pastors in 12 states, including Arkansas, California and Virginia. "We're going to ask pastors to be more active in encouraging their congregations to get involved this year," to boost voter turnout among eligible evangelical adults, says Welch. After opening its offices in July, the group raised about $250,000 last year. Vision America is trying to raise another $1 million for voter-education and get-out-the-vote activities in 2000. It may also prepare voter guides on key litmus issues. To garner more funds, the group has assembled a powerful board of advisers, including Falwell, Kennedy, LaHaye and Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Education and Research Foundation. Falwell recently wrote in his newsletter that he intends to register 10 million voters this year through People of Faith 2000. Other fundraising help and strategic advice is expected from Donald Hodel.

Another group that's revving up its political work is the Madison Project. Chaired by Farris, a leader in the home-school movement, the Madison Project was started in 1994 as a bundling operation to channel large cash contributions to conservative Republicans.

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