Alarmed by the religious right's political clout and the erosion of support in Washington for social programs, the heads of six old-line churches met this week in the nation's capital to map a counterattack.
In recent years, religious denominations with more liberal social agendas than the conservative religious right have been ineffective in their efforts to develop a political response, in part because many churches have been forced to cut their Washington staffs because of declining revenue.
But as the Republican-controlled Congress, despite Clinton's veto earlier this week, continues to push through a federal budget that includes cuts in programs that assist single mothers, the elderly and the poor, liberal church leaders have grown increasingly restive.
In a memo urging national church leaders to attend this week's conference, the head of the National Council of Churches said it is time for old-line churches to respond.
"The 104th Congress has backed away from the federal commitment to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in society, in part in response to the effectiveness of the Christian Coalition," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, which represents 33 denominations with 51 million members.
What remains to be seen is whether the church leaders will be able to agree on a strategy. Campbell's office said she wants a single voice, under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, that would increase its Washington staff. But other church leaders, including Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, say a coalition would be easier because not all churches agree on all issues.
Conservative religious leaders have been able to mobilize their supporters through a network of radio and television programs hosted by evangelical Christians and the sophisticated political machinery of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
The liberal response has come primarily through private meetings between elected officials and religious leaders, but there are signs that that is changing.
On Thursday, more than 50 self-described "progressive" evangelicals and other Christian leaders were peacefully arrested--singing hymns and quoting the Bible as they were led away--as they staged a protest inside the Capitol to dramatize what they said was the failure of federal officials to consider the needs of the poor during the budget debate.
Another group of Roman Catholic bishops and liberal evangelicals are developing a study course on faith and politics that they will distribute nationwide to encourage churchgoers to support government programs that reduce poverty, homelessness and violence.
At this week's conference on the liberal response, more than a dozen churches were represented--six of them by their leading clerics, including the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Moravian Church in America and the Reformed Church in America.
Other participants were the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, American Baptist Churches, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Church of the Brethren, American Friends Service Committee, Unitarian Universalist Assn. of Congregations and the Swedenborgian Church.