Is the GOP Too Timid to Say No to the Religious Right? : A party can only articulate the national interest when it is willing to temper the demands of its supporters.

Scam may be too strong a word, but there's an undeniable element of mutual self-interest in the recent skirmishes between Republicans and Democrats over the political role of religious conservatives.

Both sides are primarily aiming their invective at their own partisans. Democrats are trying to invigorate their activist liberal base by raising the specter of a "radical" fringe using "subterranean tactics" to engineer a "stealth takeover" of the GOP, as Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) breathlessly declared in a recent speech. Republicans are trying to stoke their activist Christian base by accusing the Democrats of a jihad against all Americans of faith.

This hothouse holy war is less a genuine debate than a conspiracy to rouse the faithful. That's too bad, because there is a legitimate issue in the growing prominence of religious conservatives--not whether Christians are "taking over" the Republican Party, but how the GOP deals with the kind of insistent interest-group demands that have long bedeviled Democrats.

Fazio and other leading Democrats are trying to portray religious conservatives as God's fifth column--an insidious force out to subvert not only the GOP but the separation of church and state itself.

But conservative Christians are not a new, singularly threatening movement that needs to be uniquely segregated from American politics. To the contrary: They are a force entirely familiar in American politics--an interest group systematically organizing to expand its influence within one of the national political parties.

In fact, together with the anti-abortion movement, religious conservatives are rapidly becoming the most powerful interest group in the GOP--the equivalent of organized labor within the Democratic Party. Republican pollster Bill McInturff says about one in five GOP primary voters nationwide--and one in three in the South--are religious conservatives. Those figures are comparable to the numbers that unions can marshal in key Democratic primaries.

That parallel points to the real issue raised by the ascent of the religious right: Are Republicans willing to stand up for the national interest when it conflicts with the narrow agenda of their own party's most powerful special interest?

For a political party, that's a dangerous test to fail--as Democrats well understand. For years, Republicans battered Democrats by arguing they lacked the will to say no to powerful constituencies like organized labor and civil rights groups when their demands didn't serve the nation as a whole.

But Democrats began to stiffen their backbone after the disastrous 1984 presidential campaign, when Walter F. Mondale lost 49 states. In retrospect, the turning point came in an early primary debate when Gary Hart asked Mondale to name a single issue on which he disagreed with organized labor. Mondale refused--and indelibly stamped himself the candidate of "special interests."

That was a defining moment, not only for Mondale but also for the party, which increasingly took Hart's message to heart. Although President Clinton has excessively deferred to liberal interest groups on some issues--such as the racial justice measure now senselessly stalling the crime bill--he has stared down civil rights groups to withdraw the nomination of C. Lani Guinier; defied feminist groups with his welfare plan, and, most dramatically, gone to the mat against organized labor to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Where are the comparable examples today of prominent conservatives standing up to the demands of the religious right?

When former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp was asked an updated version of the Hart question recently on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," he hemmed, hawed, filibustered--and couldn't produce a single instance in which he disagreed with broadcaster Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) promises to face down Clinton on health care, but he's shown less resolve in bucking Robertson. The day after Virginia Republicans nominated Oliver L. North for the U.S. Senate last month, Dole signaled his reluctance to embrace a man who has admitted misleading Congress during the Iran-Contra affair, and hinted he might endorse independent J. Marshall Coleman. Dole quickly heard objections from a number of voices, but perhaps most powerfully from Robertson--who informed him that support for North would be "symbolically important from a 1996 point of view" to Christian conservatives, according to one source familiar with the events.

Within days, Dole had endorsed North.

Most revealing has been the Republican silence on the Rev. Jerry Falwell's distribution of a videotape in which, among other things, Clinton is accused of complicity in murder. Paul Begala, a top Clinton political adviser, says that just as Democrats are pressured to denounce black nationalist Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic creeds, Republicans should now be required "to either embrace or denounce Jerry Falwell's accusation of murder against the President."

Hardly any Republicans have stepped up to that bar. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett has condemned Falwell, and Kemp coughed up a milder objection when repeatedly squeezed in a television interview.

But most other leading Republicans have ducked the issue. Asked recently about Falwell's video, Dole, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and likely 1996 presidential candidate Dick Cheney all said through spokesmen that they hadn't personally seen the tape and couldn't comment on it--even though the video's contents have been widely reported. When convenient, these same Republicans have been less scrupulous in their standards of evidence: They have not hesitated to rely on newspaper accounts to condemn the attacks on religious conservatives from Fazio, Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

It is a measure of the GOP's timidity that even some prominent religious conservatives consider it morally untenable to denounce the Democrats while absolving Falwell. Richard Cizik, a policy analyst for the National Assn. of Evangelicals, says the President should disavow the sweeping accusations against evangelical Christians from Fazio and Elders. But he has no objection to Clinton's recent outburst against Falwell.

"I think he (Clinton) needs to draw distinctions, and because I've asked him to do so, it's incumbent on me to do the same," said Cizik, a Presbyterian minister. "I don't think Falwell should do it. It's not becoming of him as a minister, and I say that as a minister."

The reason Republicans should draw such distinctions is not because religious conservatives have any less inherent right to press their agenda than any other group. It is because Hart was right: A party can only articulate the national interest when it is willing to temper the demands of its supporters, not just the groups allied with its rival.

The Republicans are facing that test now on Falwell. They will confront it again as the GOP begins its 1996 debates on issues such as equal rights for homosexuals, and whether to rewrite the party platform on abortion to reflect the conflicting views of the overall GOP electorate more closely than the rigid anti-abortion plank now in place.

"The principle is the same," Hart said in an interview. "The first test of leadership is whether you are able to take on elements of your own party who are not operating in the best interest of the party and the country. Those who try to skirt around it sacrifice their credibility as leaders."

Where the Born-Again Vote Has Gone

Estimates of the number of Americans who consider themselves evangelical, or born-again, Christians vary from about 12% to 25% of the total population, depending on the definition. Exit polls from the past four presidential elections show that white born-again Christians have become a critical element of the Republican political coalition:

1992: George Bush (R): 55% Bill Clinton (D): 26% Ross Perot (I): 19%

1988: George Bush (R): 71% Michael Dukakis (D): 27%

1984: Ronald Reagan (R): 78% Walter Mondale (D): 22%

1980: Ronald Reagan (R): 63% Jimmy Carter (D): 33% John Anderson (I): 3%

Sources: Los Angeles Times exit polls 1992, 1988, 1984; NYT/CBS 1980

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