WASHINGTON - Their interest and their influence fading, Christian conservatives are struggling to regain the power that not long ago helped Republicans elect a president and win control of Congress.
Since Bill Clinton left the scene, Christians have retreated from elective politics, no longer stirred to anger by a president they abhorred, and frustrated by their inability to enact laws barring abortion and permitting school prayer. In 2000, about 4 million Christian conservative voters sat out the election.
At the same time, the Christian Coalition, the group that once helped channel votes with machine-like precision, is striving to reinvent itself after the loss of both its founder, Pat Robertson, and its chief political tactician, Ralph Reed. Meeting in Washington yesterday for its annual political session, the group brought in televangelist Joyce Meyer as co-host to boost attendance.
The affair had an air more of religious revival than political rally. It failed to draw any top Bush administration officials, and members of Congress who did attend spoke to a half-empty convention hall.
"We're here today in Washington to let the political establishment know that the Christian Coalition is still in business," said Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a candidate for Senate. He added that the group was "more effective, more powerful, more committed than ever."
John Fugatt, the director of the group's California branch, has a different opinion.
"It's getting worse, not better," said Fugatt. He said many of his fellow conservative Christians seem complacent since George W. Bush won election and Republicans are strong in Congress. "They think things are good, and they go home to soccer and Little League."