Christian Conservatives Leave Convention in Great Spirits
They may have been pushed mostly out of the prime-time spotlight, but Christian conservatives left the Republican National Convention on Friday inspired by one of the most socially conservative party platforms in years and determined to reelect a president they viewed as an ideological soul mate.
In a variety of settings mostly removed from the main stage in New York this week, social conservatives trumpeted their support for President Bush and welcomed a return of the “culture wars” they first declared more than a decade ago.
Now, in the 60 days remaining before the election, they plan to register thousands of voters, whose names have been gleaned from church directories, and distribute an estimated 30 million voter guides in churches, malls and other locations. One activist recruited conservatives to infiltrate Democratic-leaning churches and report on liberal ministers who make overt political appeals on behalf of the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
“President Bush supports God, and God supports President Bush, absolutely,” said Judith H. Manning, an alternate delegate from Marietta, Ga., explaining the fervor for Bush. Some conservative activists had complained before the convention that their voices were being muffled. Bush gave only brief nods to their top issues in his nomination acceptance speech Thursday when he called for “a place for the unborn child” in society, expressed opposition to “activist judges” who had supported same-sex marriage and said that religious charities should be able to receive government funds to provide social services.
Still, conservatives left the convention energized. They had victories in platform votes, maintaining the Republican stance against abortion rights, backing Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages and supporting the limits he placed on research using stem cells from human embryos.
Though those positions received considerable publicity, the conservatives’ domination of the platform debate went even further. They won a plank stating that Congress and the president might limit the jurisdiction of federal courts, a response to rulings that forced the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from an Alabama courthouse and that would have stripped the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance had the U.S. Supreme Court not intervened. The platform also declares that only heterosexual couples should receive legal recognition and related benefits.
Moderates were so outnumbered here that they could not even get the platform committee to hear a motion in favor of a “unity” plank, which would have recognized other points of view on such hot-button issues as same-sex marriage and abortion.
“They just hung around, whining in the halls. They didn’t have the votes,” Phyllis Schlafly, a long-time conservative activist, said of the moderates.
The conservative platform positions were not mentioned often from the convention podium during prime time, but conservatives found other venues for airing their stands on social issues.
At a variety of rallies, breakfasts and luncheons, calls for a ban on same-sex marriage routinely drew the loudest cheers from Christian activists.
“We absolutely have to win this battle,” Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said at a “family, faith and freedom rally” Tuesday at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. “If you lose marriage, if you lose the basic unit on which you build families, I fear for the republic. I really do.”
Five hundred conservative Christians roared their approval. All were invited guests at the event, which a flier said was paid for “by the Committee on Arrangements for the Republican National Committee.” Media representatives were told the event was closed.
Brownback, a possible presidential candidate in 2008, applauded passage of the bill that banned the procedure opponents call “partial-birth abortion.” He called on Congress to move a bill to require that mothers be informed of the pain he said their unborn children suffered in some abortions.
“We are going to require that if a child is to be aborted at 20 weeks of age or more, that the mother has to be notified about the pain the child experiences,” Brownback said, and “the mother has to be told ... that the child can be offered anesthesia.”
The second-term senator said it was critical that Bush be the one to appoint federal judges for the next four years to reinforce conservatives in the “culture wars.” That phrase was popularized in 1992 by presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, although many Republicans continue to blame Buchanan and the hard-line conservative message at that year’s convention for contributing to the defeat of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, who was seeking a second term in the White House.
The tougher conservative message in New York also emerged at a reception for the authors of a new book, “Thank You, President Bush,” which the publisher called an attempt to counter the “avalanche” of books denigrating the president.
Self-described former welfare mother Star Parker, one of the book’s authors, praised Bush for fighting same-sex marriage. She said Bush understood that traditional marriage was being threatened by “the profusion of homosexuality in this community that has demanded the church respect their wishes to promote sodomy.” One minister in the audience whispered in response: “Amen.”
Such messages found a receptive audience among at least some of the Republican delegates, two-thirds of whom identified themselves as conservative and nine in 10 of whom said they were members of Christian churches, according to a New York Times/CBS News Poll.
Conservative activist and Bush campaign official Ralph Reed, appearing before Brownback at the “family, faith and freedom rally,” warned the social activists that the solidarity and euphoria they found here should not distract them from the campaign work ahead. He recalled that Republican tracking polls in 2000 had shown Bush solidly ahead just days before the election, a lead that dissolved entirely in the final weekend of the campaign as Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote.
Concluded Reed: “We got out-hustled. We got outworked. And we can’t let it happen again.”
As a result, conservative activists have a number of plans for getting out Bush’s message as Nov. 2 draws nearer. After distributing 70 million printed voter guides through church circulars in 2000, the Christian Coalition of America plans this year to use a similar approach.
This time, however, the organization is likely to print about half as many guides and target them more precisely, into about 17 of the most closely contested states. The coalition has preliminary plans to increase its wallop in those states by distributing the guides not just in churches but in shopping malls and other public places where undecided voters might be found, said William F. Thomson, the organization’s national field director.
The Republican National Committee has tried to encourage more voting by church members by calling on Bush backers in Roman Catholic and other churches to turn their congregation rosters over to the party.
That drew complaints from some religious leaders, who said the move would lead to a politicization of the sanctuary. The Internal Revenue Service has warned both parties that churches might lose their tax-exempt status if they engaged in partisan activities. But Republicans defended the tactic, saying the directories were public documents available to anyone and that the information would be used in nonpartisan voter-registration drives.
On Thursday morning, Colorado Republican Party Vice Chairman Charles Broerman said he had passed on to the party the directories of “hundreds” of churches, containing the names of about 50,000 parishioners, to aid the voter registration drive.
Although Democrats have protested such church-based politicking, Republicans insist they only want to increase registration among all voters. They also argue that they have been held to a different standard than Democratic clerics, who they said had endorsed candidates from pulpits for years, without any threat to their tax-exempt status.
William J. Murray of the Religious Freedom Action Coalition in Washington has taken on the issue of “leveling the playing field” as a personal mission. He has distributed fliers around Madison Square Garden for his “Rat Out a Church” campaign, which will use volunteers to report on Democratic-leaning ministers who violate federal tax law by endorsing political candidates.
“I’m doing this because every two years the left makes every effort they can to intimidate conservative pastors and conservative congregations,” Murray said. The best outcome, he said, would be the overturn of the tax law restrictions against political speech in churches entirely.
“There shouldn’t be a problem” Murray said, “with any pastor, of either party, saying these things in the public square.”
One of the final pep talks of the week came Thursday morning in a rally of Republican Catholics at a midtown hotel. About 150 delegates and guests heard from speakers about Bush’s love of God and Kerry’s string of failures, among them his support for abortion rights, a stand one Republican elected official described as “monstrous.”
White House strategist Karl Rove has said for some time that 4 million conservative Christians didn’t vote in 2000, and several speakers Thursday said the party could not let it happen again.
Rep. Melissa A. Hart (R-Pa.) urged the Catholic Republicans to take the high hopes of the week and bring them back home.
“You are the choir,” she told the group. “But we need you to sing.”