Religious Right Is Outside White House Looking In : Lobbying: After 12 influential years, conservatives meet reversals. Some expect setbacks to be rallying point.
It started with Billy Graham’s refusal to back out of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremony, despite fervent pleas from the religious right.
Then, just days later came the new President’s lifting of a “gag rule” barring federally funded family planning clinics from giving abortion advice, and his reaffirmation of a campaign pledge to allow homosexuals in the military--moves that renewed criticism in conservative religious quarters that Clinton had strayed far from his Southern Baptist teachings.
Those actions, delivered with the speed of a thunderbolt, left members of the Christian Right little room for doubt that, for the first time in 12 years, they were on the outside of the White House looking in.
“It looks like it’s going to be a very rough four years, possibly even eight years,” said Paul L. Hetrick, vice president of James C. Dobson’s Focus on the Family, which produces nationally syndicated radio programs popular with conservative Christians.
Courted during the Reagan and Bush administrations, the politically active evangelical and fundamentalist Christians were a linchpin in White House strategies to win popular backing for presidential causes. They were vocal, committed and represented an increasingly active electoral bloc, estimated by the Bush White House at between 30 million and 33 million strong.
But last November they backed George Bush and vilified Clinton for supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy and backing the enlistment of homosexual men and women into the armed forces.
“I think those extreme forces on the religious right are going to find themselves irrelevant,” said the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, a noted civil rights advocate and vice president of the National Council of Churches, who sat on one of Clinton’s transition groups.
“It’s not because anyone is shutting the door in their face,” said Chavis, “but because their ideology increasingly does not apply to the American condition.”
Graham’s decision to offer the invocation and benediction at Clinton’s inaugural was yet another sign that the end times appear to have arrived at the White House for the religious right.
In a letter to the evangelist, members of the bloc said they feared his participation would be interpreted “as a positive endorsement of Mr. Clinton’s anti-Christian agenda.” But Graham was unmoved, sticking to a statement he had issued earlier. “I intend to do all in my power to help Mr. Clinton once he is President,” he said.
Even former White House special assistant Leigh Ann Metzger, who was Bush’s liaison to evangelicals, acknowledged that the religious right closed off avenues of communications with the White House with its unbending opposition to Clinton initiatives.
“You put priority on groups that are supportive and help you get out your message,” Metzger said in a recent interview. “Clearly, those who supported (President Bush’s) policies were the ones that were going to get our attention.”
Now, having lost the battle for the White House, the religious right is shifting its attention to Capitol Hill and to state and local elections. They see Clinton’s positions on issues such as abortion rights and gays in the military as a rallying cry to build membership rolls.
“Our wake-up call has come. We’ve had a swift kick in the pants. We’ve been laying back on our laurels for 12 years and it’s going to be a rude awakening,” said the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, noted for its opposition to homosexuality.
Religious right leaders say their telephones have been ringing off the hook since Clinton moved on the issues of abortion rights counseling and gays in the military. They compare the potential for membership growth to the bonanza reaped by environmental groups when James Watt was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Interior in the early 1980s. By pointing to Watt’s record as anti-environmental, the Sierra Club and other organizations said they significantly boosted their membership rolls.
“I don’t think there’s any question but that Clinton’s payoff to the gay lobby is mobilizing the support of middle Americans who favor a more traditional approach to social issues,” said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, headquartered in Chesapeake, Va.
Reed said that by the end of this year the coalition hopes to double its national membership to 750,000. He said the coalition is planning a mailing to as many as 6 million households that will show how members of Congress vote on such issues as abortion, gay rights, education vouchers, tax relief to families and stiffer penalties for “deadbeat dads” who fail to provide child support.
Sarah Hardman, the Van Nuys-based California director of the Christian Coalition, said the Robertson organization is working to qualify an initiative for the June, 1994, state ballot that would provide parents with public funds to pay for private school tuition. The group, which includes evangelical Christians and “pro-family Roman Catholics,” claims 22,000 members statewide.
“The whole conservative evangelical movement has become localized,” said Richard Cizik of the 5-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals, based in Wheaton, Ill. “It’s a tactical change. . . . Mao was right: For the capital to fall you have to control the countryside, and we lost sight of that fact.”
Conservative Protestants are not alone in their concerns. Last November, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, said abortion foes must now target Congress. With Clinton in the White House, Mahony said anti-abortion forces could no longer count on a veto.
While the religious right deals with what it sees as its political excommunication, other religious leaders--particularly those in mainline Protestant denominations that espouse liberal causes, from rebuilding inner cities to strengthening social welfare programs, health care and civil rights laws--see their star on the rise.
Before he took office, Clinton and transition team leaders not only conferred with a host of religious leaders, but named mainline religious figures to transition subcommittees working on issues such as urban decay.
“Things are looking up,” said Chavis. “The difference is that the liberal Protestant community was just about locked out (of the Bush White House). This time we will not be locked out.”
But Metzger, the former Bush aide, said Clinton should not walk away entirely from the religious right. It is possible, she said, that Clinton can win important backing on specific issues.
Clinton met recently in Little Rock with 14 religious leaders--including 10 Southern Baptists and the Rev. Charles Swindoll, pastor of First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, Calif.--to discuss an array of sensitive issues, from abortion to homosexuality.
The meeting was initiated by Clinton’s pastor, the Rev. Rex Horne of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. In a telephone interview, Horne said he came away from the two-hour luncheon at the governor’s mansion convinced that Clinton would try to keep up the dialogue.
Clinton, Horne said, didn’t change his mind on abortion or homosexuals in the military--views that differ sharply from his denomination’s. Neither did the church leaders change their minds.
“He shared some of his struggles in those issues and how hard it is to make decisions in certain areas, particularly for him, if I’m recalling right,” Horne said.
“Many of (the church leaders) did not support him during election. They told him they would pray for him and would be open to trying to help the country,” Horne said. “They didn’t leave as supporters of a Democratic President or of those issues of conscience and conviction they cannot support. But they said they would keep the lines of communication open. That was the main thing.”