Surrounded by Republican congressional leaders, the Christian Coalition on Wednesday issued a 10-point legislative program that would restrict late-term abortions, permit greater religious expression in schools and other public places and eliminate the Department of Education.
"Our purpose is not to legislate family values, it is to ensure that Washington values families," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the 1.6-million-member organization, founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
The release of the coalition's "contract with the American family" at a press conference crowded with Republican leaders--led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--vividly testified to the group's growing clout within the Republican Party.
But the contract also suggested the extent to which the coalition is integrating itself into the overall Republican political effort. In some ways, the contract is most notable for omitting issues that could split the GOP coalition--such as restrictions on gay rights or a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
Some other social conservatives have already begun grumbling that the Christian Coalition is more concerned about consolidating Republican political control than advancing the social conservative agenda. But Reed insisted that the coalition, the most powerful group in the social conservative movement, is attempting to avoid the mistakes of Democratic interest groups that placed the Clinton Administration in a difficult position with excessive demands early in his presidency.
"These are the 10 suggestions, they're not the Ten Commandments," Reed said. "This is a public-policy document. It is not a theological statement. We make no threats. Today we issue no ultimatums, and we make no demands of either party."
One reason Reed does not need to raise his voice is that Republicans now almost universally consider Christian conservatives a foundation of their political coalition. In the 1994 election, self-described religious conservatives constituted at least 20% of voters--and cast fully 75% of their votes for Republican congressional candidates.
That electoral clout was evident at the press conference in the presence of a phalanx of Republican leaders. Trooping to the microphone, Gingrich; Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a leading contender for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, all uniformly praised the coalition blueprint. "We are committed to scheduling the hearings, to scheduling the mark-up and to scheduling the bills on the floor," Gingrich said. "We're committed to implementing the contract with the family."
After the press conference, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.)--the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination--met with Reed and coalition members from 40 states and issued a statement praising the plan.
The coalition plan immediately came under fire from other religious organizations, as well as from liberal-leaning groups that support abortion rights and a strong separation between church and state.
"It's a sad day in American politics when a TV preacher's political front group dictates the agenda for the United States Congress," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group based in Washington. Robertson did not attend the press conference. He was traveling in Zaire.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is basing his uphill campaign for the presidential nomination largely on combatting the influence of religious conservatives in the party, also condemned the package. "It contradicts separation of church and state," he said on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America." "It opposes a woman's right to choose."
But the coalition agenda also drew criticism from some other social conservatives who considered it too mild. "The coalition contract will be a way of giving the Republicans a lot of outs on our issues," said Martin J. Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network, a smaller religious-conservative organization pushing its own version of a social agenda contract. "This, to me, is going to set our movement back."
Indeed, the coalition's contract is mostly composed of ideas that extend beyond the traditional concerns of the social conservative movement and have demonstrated broad appeal for conservatives of all stripes. The coalition hired GOP pollster Frank Luntz to measure public support for its agenda. The coalition, which spent $1 million lobbying for the GOP campaign manifesto known as the "contract with America," plans to spend twice that much pushing its own plan, Reed said.
The Christian Coalition contract calls for the elimination of most functions of the Department of Education, a pilot program of school vouchers that would provide subsidies for parents to send their children to private schools, the $500-per-child tax credit approved by the House earlier this year and a plan to allow mothers who do not work outside the home to establish individual retirement accounts.
It also urged exploration of ways to give private charities a larger role in delivering social services to the poor, new measures to restrict access to pornography on the Internet and cable television, steps to condition federal aid to prisons on requirements that states institute programs to require work and victim restitution from prisoners, and transfer of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation to private hands.
The most controversial elements in the coalition manifesto are likely to be those that deal with the religious conservative movement's traditional top priorities: abortion and religious expression in public settings.
On abortion, the group urged a three-step program: imposing new limits on abortions conducted late in pregnancy; ending federal funding for organizations that provide abortion counseling, as well as international groups that include abortion as part of family planning, and reversing an Administration policy that requires states to provide Medicaid funding for abortions in cases of rape and incest.
Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, noted that the coalition's contract still expresses support for eventual passage of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion--even though it does not call for Congress to consider such an amendment in this session--and said the group's agenda is a first step "on the road to that ultimate goal--the back alleys."
Michelman also noted that the contract's language appears to suggest support for limiting abortions conducted in the second trimester of pregnancy. Currently 40 states impose limits on third-trimester pregnancies but earlier abortions are protected by Supreme Court rulings.
On religious expression, the coalition urged Congress to pass a "religious equality amendment" to the Constitution that would allow for greater religious speech in public institutions and potentially permit some forms of prayer in public schools, which was barred by a Supreme Court decision in 1962.
Reed said the group's intent is to protect "student-initiated or citizen-initiated" religious speech in public settings--such as allowing Nativity scenes to be displayed on courthouse lawns or permitting students to request a nondenominational prayer at graduation. He said the group firmly opposes any measure that would reinstate mandatory classroom prayer. "We don't believe that any child anywhere in America of any faith should be required or compelled to say a prayer with which they disagree," Reed said.