Religious Right Groups Seek Greater Voice In National Politics

At first glance, these would seem to be heady days for Religious Right strategists. Their candidate, George W. Bush, was elected president in 2000. Religious conservatives dominate the GOP leadership in the House and Senate.

But for some Religious Right leaders, that just isn't adequate. Change, they say, isn't happening fast enough.

Many religious conservatives were jarred by a Supreme Court ruling last summer striking down state laws that criminalize homosexual sex between consenting adults. The decision, coming from a high court with seven of its nine members appointed by Republican presidents, infuriated many on the Religious Right and sparks a strategy review.

"Obviously, in some ways Christians are losing the culture war, certainly on this issue [of gay rights]," TV preacher D. James Kennedy told Religion News Service. "The time has come for us to re-examine the situation we're in."

Paul Weyrich, a longtime Religious Right activist who heads the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, agreed.

"The president is a religious conservative. The Senate majority leader is a religious conservative. The speaker of the House and the House majority leader and the majority whip are all religious conservatives," he said. "Yet we make only marginal, incremental progress. We really have to rethink our strategy."

Ken Connor, who until recently led the Family Research Council, said too many religious conservatives are afraid to criticize GOP leaders.

"They go to an East Room ceremony or a Rose Garden signing or to the White House Christmas party and say, 'Look at all the influence I have,'" he said. "In reality, they've been bought off cheap."

In the wake of Bush's election, some Religious Right groups experienced a downturn in contributions and support. The Christian Coalition, for example, has seen its budget and membership plummet. The group was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, but in December of 2001, Robertson severed his ties to the organization. It has lost clout ever since.

Some Religious Right activists take the view of Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evan­gel­icals."You don't need an evangelical lobby," Cizik told the Knight Ridder News Service. "You've got an evangelical in the Oval Office."

Seeking to re-energize the movement, some Religious Right leaders are seizing on gay marriage as a wedge issue. Although the Supreme Court's sodomy ruling did not deal with gay marriage, Religious Right leaders have insisted that the decision opens the door to the legalization of homosexual unions. A recently formed group, the Alliance for Marriage, is pressing for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Some Religious Right leaders believe the gay marriage issue will pay off for ultra-conservative candidates at the polls. In Michigan, Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, is pressuring lawmakers to alter the state constitution to limit marriage to heterosexuals.

Glenn predicted that the gay marriage issue will be prominent in 2004 and that all candidates for public office will be forced to take a position. (See "Marriage Proposal," page 4, for more on how the Religious Right hopes to exploit this issue.)

In other news about the Religious Right:

 Ken Connor, head of the Family Research Council (FRC), resigned in July. Connor cited "professional and personal reasons" for the departure, but sources close to the organization told Christianity Today that Connor stepped down after a disagreement with FRC's board of directors over a proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.

According to the sources, Connor did not want FRC to spend a lot of time lobbying for the amendment, which he saw as unlikely to be adopted. Connor instead proposed focusing FRC time and resources on "runaway judges."

Connor, who had led FRC for three years, declined comment. He has returned to his native Florida, where he is considering a run for the U.S. Senate.

FRC's new president is Tony Perkins, a former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Perkins, 40, took control of FRC Sept. 1. During his time in the Louisiana legislature, Perkins was best known for promoting school prayer bills and introducing legislation to curb abortion.

 Anti-gay activist Peter LaBar­bera has been named head of the Illinois Family Institute, an affiliate of Focus on the Family. LaBarbera had previously worked at Concerned Women for America, where he churned out anti-gay propaganda.