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Christianity, Politics Mix at Convention

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The Christian Coalition of California would like to convert those who think the conservative political momentum of the Reagan era is over.

Leaders of the group said Friday that the American electorate still values the same issues it did during the Republican administrations of the 1980s. They blamed the GOP losses in 1992 on the political machinery, not the political message.

So when the Christian Coalition opened its first statewide convention in California on Friday, it put a heavy emphasis on the need for building a powerful grass-roots network.

“The reason for this conference is, in the Lord’s words, ‘My people perish for lack of knowledge,’ ” Sara Devito Hardman, director of the California organization, told the audience of about 150 people Friday at the Anaheim Sheraton Hotel. “So learning and training is very important. We’re here to learn how to further the cause.”

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The cause includes a conservative social agenda such as opposition to abortion, gay rights, tax-supported arts and higher taxes. But beyond the specific positions, leaders also described a moral decay in America since government has strayed from the religious underpinnings upon which it was founded.

“The whole worth of American society was built upon the teachings of the Bible,” said Guy Rodgers, national field director for the Christian Coalition in Washington. “It has taken decades of assault on that to erode it. . . . (Now) we’ve got a culture to live in that doesn’t look good any more.”

The Christian Coalition, which grew from the 1988 presidential campaign of televangelist Pat Robertson, reports a membership of 22,000 people in California and about 350,000 nationwide. Although many of its leaders are active members of the Republican Party, the group is also nonpartisan and does not endorse political candidates.

Instead, its organizers say the coalition is intended to educate voters about the political positions of candidates largely by distributing literature to voters. Hardman said the group passed out more than 4 million voter guides in California for the election last November.

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She did not recall how many races the coalition targeted in California last year, but she said the campaigns included a variety of offices and issues ranging from local school board and city council races to the national contest.

Looking to next year’s elections, Republican leaders have expressed concern that the party’s efforts could be jeopardized if its members are divided over emotional “litmus-test” issues like abortion. Some have urged conservative groups to downplay abortion as a campaign issue.

Hardman acknowledged that abortion “has certainly divided” Republicans. She did not suggest any changes in the Christian Coalition’s opposition to abortion, but she said “We need . . . perhaps to be more tolerant of other’s issues.”

“This is a deeply held belief; we need to not use it as a divisive issue,” she said.

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Rodgers said he thinks the focus on divisions within the Republican Party are “overblown.” And he challenged the complaint that Christian conservatives are seeking to dominate the GOP and exclude those who don’t agree with their issues.

“My experience has been that I see more effort by the moderate types to exclude us,” he said. “It is not us trying to be exclusive--it’s usually the other way around.”

The convention continues today with fired White House aide Oliver North scheduled to speak.


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