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They Won’t Stand on Common Ground

Times Staff Writers

Among the droves of conservative Christian lobbyists arguing their points of view in Washington, one relatively little-known group has a simple formula for setting itself apart from the crowd: Don’t give an inch.

Concerned Women for America always takes the most uncompromising positions. The group, founded 25 years ago in San Diego, almost never settles for half a loaf. And at the first hint of backsliding, it attacks its conservative comrades with the same fury it unleashes on liberals.

In a town run on the art of compromise, it is an unusual and lately galvanizing strategy.

“We’re not just anti-liberal. We put principle above all,” says chief counsel Jan LaRue. “We hold anyone’s feet to the fire if we think that they’re compromising on principle.”

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That unflinching strategy -- plus an $11-million annual budget, more than $200,000 in political action money raised last year and 500,000 members ready to flood Washington with letters, e-mails and personal visits -- has begun to make the once-marginal group a player to reckon with.

As the group’s leaders see it, President Bush’s reelection means their moment has arrived.

“I believe God has built up an army,” says Lanier Swann, director of governmental relations, who moved to the organization from the offices of Sen. Elizabeth Hanford Dole (R-N.C.). “Following Nov. 2,” Swann says, “they’re ready to march.”

What Concerned Women for America is ready to march for may be the most zealous interpretation of what it means to be a Christian conservative.

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Like other such groups, for example, it opposes abortion and marriage for gays and lesbians. But the organization also objected to this year’s proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because, officials say, the language did not go far enough -- it did not ban civil unions. They hope a 2005 version will close loopholes that could have sanctified marriage by another name.

The group opposes hate crime legislation too, because it says making attacks on gays a special crime suggests the government approves of homosexuality.

In addition to drawing immutable lines in the sand, the group finds ways to advance its interests. So its antiabortion efforts not only include pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to rescind approval of the RU 486 abortion pill, but also seek enactment of the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. That measure, to be introduced in the coming Congress, would require doctors to tell a woman seeking an abortion after 20 weeks that the fetus would feel pain during the procedure. It also would require doctors to offer anesthesia to both the mother and fetus.

Still another proposal would give ultrasound machines to all birth-control clinics -- so a woman would be “more informed about the life developing inside of her,” said spokeswoman Rebecca Jones.

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Religious liberty, as the group defines it, includes lifting the Internal Revenue Service ban on churches participating in politics. And it includes cheering judges who display the Ten Commandments in public places and championing courts that uphold the right of schoolchildren to say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Robert H. Knight, director of the group’s Culture and Family Institute, an in-house think tank, is among those who object to the use of nonspecific holiday greetings instead of “Merry Christmas.” He says “millions of Americans are waking up to the fact that the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is less a happy greeting than a pointed assault on our civil liberties.”

The organization also has been a leader in the attack on “Kinsey,” the movie about the life of sex-research pioneer Alfred C. Kinsey. The “ultimate goal” of Kinsey and his followers, the group’s website says, has been “to normalize pedophilia, or ‘adult-child sex.’ ”

In the group’s view, Kinsey and the movie reflect much of what is deplorable in contemporary American life.

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“The agenda of the left is to make religion strictly private and pornography public,” Knight said. “And the people behind this agenda, more often than not, are homosexual activists.”

How quick the group is to attack those who deviate even slightly from its principles was illustrated by the recent fight over whether Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who supports abortion rights, should become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Concerned Women for America joined other conservative Christian groups in prompting Specter to make a public pledge not to oppose antiabortion judicial candidates -- and to assure that all nominations reached the Senate floor -- as the price of getting his chairmanship.

But the group went a step further. It also criticized Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) when he defended his fellow Pennsylvanian. Santorum is a staunch foe of abortion and a champion of conservative positions. In a 2003 interview with Associated Press, he linked homosexuality to bigamy and incest.

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Similarly, the group did not hesitate to cross swords with James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and a powerful voice among conservative Christians, over his proposed Federal Marriage Amendment barring same-sex marriage.

The White House endorsed Dobson’s proposal, but Concerned Women for America said the measure might permit states to sanction civil unions. The proposed amendment was voted down in Congress and Dobson, whose organization did not respond to requests for comment, was said to be furious about the group’s intransigence.

Dobson should not have been surprised. Concerned Women for America is especially vigilant when it comes to anything involving homosexuality. When Sen. George V. Allen (R-Va.), a staunch conservative, voted for hate-crime legislation this year, the group attacked him.

To some liberal groups, all this makes Concerned Women for America what one gay rights leader calls “the looniest of the loony.” Referring to the organization’s tendency to turn on conservatives who it believes compromise, he says, “This is an organization that has no problem eating their own.”

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But Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, which Concerned Women for America was formed in part to combat, says that goes too far. “They are not the super wackos,” Gandy says. “They’re just very conservative, very traditional in their view of the woman’s place.”

What makes Concerned Women for America increasingly hard to ignore, however, is not so much its message as the muscle behind it.

The key is its ability to generate floods of mail and personal visits to politicians from activist members and a cadre of citizen lobbyists -- women who voluntarily come to Washington once a month to lobby for Concerned Women for America’s causes.

“The power comes from the lobbying presence on the Hill and the women who come to Washington every month,” says Michael Schwartz, who recently left the group to work as chief of staff for Sen.-elect Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

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“CWA’s membership is very responsive,” Schwartz says. “If the organization says, ‘Write to your House member,’ they will. Apart from AARP, CWA is the next best in generating mail.” The AARP is a 35-million member lobbying group for Americans older than 50.

At the grass-roots level, the organization has built a network of several hundred prayer action groups, whose members meet monthly to pray and mobilize for legislative goals sent from headquarters to 21 state directors.

In addition, so-called action alerts posted on the organization’s website, www.cwfa.org, tell members whom to criticize -- or sometimes applaud -- and where to write. The membership includes men.

If there is a cloud on the group’s horizon, it is its apparent difficulty in building a steady team of top leaders in Washington, especially a president. The organization has fired two chiefs in the last few years.

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The difficulty, some analysts say, lies with its founder and chairman of the board, 75-year-old Beverly LaHaye. The mother of four and wife of bestselling Christian author Tim LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America after experiencing a kind of political epiphany while watching feminist leader Betty Friedan on television in 1978.

As LaHaye tells the story, when Friedan said that she spoke for America’s women, LaHaye stood up in her living room and declared, “She’s not speaking for me.”

LaHaye’s husband has written more than 50 books, including the “Left Behind” series and a sex manual he coauthored with her called “The Act of Marriage,” which sold more than 2 million copies. He also was a pastor at a church in San Diego and helped found a group of Christian schools.

Prior to founding Concerned Women for America, Beverly LaHaye had little to no personal involvement in conservative Christian causes.

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After seeing Friedan, however, she called together eight friends. Then she rented a hall in San Diego and put an ad in the newspaper inviting women to a meeting opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. LaHaye said she came up with “Concerned Women for America” because she couldn’t rent the hall without a name.

She says she was stunned when 1,200 women showed up, and she literally trembled when she got up to speak.

But her message struck a chord and the organization took root.

Some 25 years later, LaHaye cannot seem to find a suitable person to take over as president. “When the right woman comes along,” she said in a rare phone interview, “I will be happy to step aside.”

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That has not happened yet. And since LaHaye now lives in Palm Springs and visits Washington only twice a year, the organization’s staff works without day-to-day central direction. LaHaye says she has stayed in touch by telephone, but some say the lack of a president has hurt the group’s effectiveness.

“The most difficult thing for any organization is the transition from the charismatic founder to an institutional leader,” says Schwartz, the group’s recently departed lobbyist. “I wish CWA were the exception, but it has had this endemic difficulty. There’s no question the organization would be more potent if it solved its succession problem.”

Meantime, the organization has developed a sort of expert-level directorate. Every Monday, senior staff members brainstorm about strategy. And they rally the membership with “action items,” using e-mails, calls, letters and, of late, appearances on mainstream media outlets.

“It works because we are all Christians; we aren’t big egos,” says Wendy Wright, the group’s senior policy director and its United Nations lobbyist. “It isn’t a territorial struggle. We have a common cause.

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“God is in control,” she says. “He helped to raise up the Concerned Women for America to the position we are in now. We are faithful to the work he has for us to do.”


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