The Christian Coalition, once a surging force in state and national politics, is in disarray, and a leadership vacuum threatens the group's hard-won gains. In the 106th Congress, there's clear evidence of slippage, and the candidates who have targeted conservative Christian voters in the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination can't seem to climb out of the single digits.
But while the religious right is down, it's not out, warn political scientists and political activists alike. The setbacks of the past two years could turn 2000 into a make-or-break year for the movement. Already, there are indications that leaders of major groups are planning to go all out next year to reverse their slide.
There has been an unremitting stream of bad news for this righteous army -- self-righteous, critics contend. It lost big last year when Congress failed to pass a school-prayer constitutional amendment, a top priority for the Christian Coalition and others.
Religious conservatives tied up funding for the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund by attaching anti-abortion language to appropriations bills, but they were surprisingly unsuccessful in passing legislation to curb abortion here.
School vouchers, a goal they share with some Orthodox Jewish groups, edged forward slightly, but the major strides that religious leaders and their congressional flock expected failed to materialize.
Republicans lost ground in last year's congressional elections, in part because of a widespread backlash against the most extreme elements of the Christian right and their friends in the Republican leadership. The November debacle triggered this year's wave of change in the GOP, including the rising influence of a cadre of pragmatic Republican governors interested less in political sermonizing than in governing.
The shift is also reflected in the early handicapping of the 2000 presidential nomination battle.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, conservative but also pragmatic, is a clear front-runner; Sen. John Ashcroft, R- Mo., the early favorite of many Christian right leaders, dropped out months ago. Other candidates with strong support in that political sector, including columnist Pat Buchanan, Family Research Council director Gary Bauer, magazine magnate Steve Forbes and former Vice President Dan Quayle are stuck at the bottom of the opinion surveys -- way at the bottom.
The failure of the effort to impeach President Clinton was so demoralizing that Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich urged followers to drop out of politics entirely and focus instead on building their communities from within.
John Green, a University of Akron political scientist who studies the religious right, said: "There is a strong sense of disarray within the movement. We see it in the internal problems the Christian Coalition is facing and in the increasing conflict among groups."
The Christian right has been hurt by the absence of strong leaders capable of uniting feuding groups and extending the movement's appeal, he said, and by the failure to distinguish between the legitimate social critics in the religious right ranks and the outright zanies.
But it would be a mistake to write these groups off, Green warned.
"I don't think the game is over, but it could be after 2000," he said. "Many of the activists really believe that will be the make-or-break year. They're willing to give the strategy they've been following for two decades one more chance."
If the Republicans lose Congress and fail to gain control of the White House next year, he said, "many in the movement will probably decide to follow Weyrich's advice and go back to saving souls instead of playing politics."
But he pointed to last week's announcement that the Christian Coalition will spend an unprecedented $21 million on the 2000 elections and distribute 75 million voters guides as evidence that key leaders do not intend to go down without a fight.
"Weyrich is saying it's time to drop out, but Robertson is saying, we're having a bad year, so let's dig in and do better," he said.
The Christian Coalition and other groups remain strong in many state capitals, where their grass-roots networks have focused more on nitty-gritty issues such as education policy and taxes, and they still have a strong fund-raising base.
In Congress, Green said, the reduced Republican margin and the fear of a voter backlash make it even less likely the religious conservatives will pass some of the key items on their legislative agenda.
"The [congressional] leadership is very intent on showing they can produce things that voters want -- which means staying away from the divisive social issues," he said.
But Jewish activists say even a fragmented, battered Christian right could cook up some Capitol Hill surprises this year, especially if they limit themselves to smaller initiatives.
"We shouldn't forget that they continue to have attentive audiences in the top House and Senate leaders," said David Harris, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress. "When you start to look away, that's the moment they become the most dangerous."
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is due in town next week for critical discussions on Palestinian statehood. As usual, his arrival will touch off fierce debate in the Jewish world and rhetorical barrages from Capitol Hill.
Washington sources say a deal is in the works to defer a unilateral statehood declaration on May 4, when the Oslo interim period expires. Arafat will reportedly settle for a U.S. promise to press hard for implementation of October's Wye River agreement and for accelerated final-status talks -- but only after the May 17 elections in Israel and the creation of a new government.
There will be no concrete U.S. promise to support statehood at a later date, sources here say.
In the midst of the complex statehood negotiations, Congress was busy fast-tracking a resolution that restates long-standing U.S. policy which opposes a unilateral declaration. The nonbinding measure passed the Senate by a 98-1 vote last week; House passage was expected early this week. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) termed passage a "great victory," and said that it would reinforce "the most fundamental principle of the peace process -- that peace must be achieved through direct negotiations, not unilateral actions," according to executive director Howard Kohr.
But pro-peace-process activists termed the resolution a pre-emptive strike aimed at crippling the administration's ability to mediate.
"There's nothing new about such one-sided rhetoric," said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace-process group. "The only new thing is the attempt to sell it as crucial for the peace process."
Critics of the congressional action pointed out that even though the resolution condemned only a unilateral declaration, numerous newspaper and wire-service stories ran headlines that suggested that lawmakers had shut the door on any process which would result in Palestinian statehood.
In the Zone
Natan Sharansky, Israel's Trade and Industry minister, came to Washington this week with a overloaded to-do list. Right at the top: the announcement of a second duty-free trade zone along the border between Israel and Jordan. That means that goods manufactured in the Gateway Industrial Park, one of the tangible benefits of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, can enter this country duty-free.
The first "Qualifying Industrial Zone," in Irbid, Jordan, "now includes more than 50 factories, including a textile factory with a direct American stake," said U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky at Monday's signing.
Sharansky also inked an agreement to expand cooperation between the two countries in the fight against price-fixing and other illegal trade practices.
That's a particularly sensitive area because of growing conflict over charges the Israeli government has not done enough to stop compact disk and software piracy.
Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is due in Washington next week for a round of meetings, and he'll be greeted by Jewish groups upset about resurgent anti-Semitism in his country.
During his visit this week, Sharansky, a former prisoner of conscience, urged stronger American action in response to resurgent anti-Semitism in Russia.
That plea will be reinforced by a number of Jewish groups. On Thursday, a delegation of Jewish officials, led by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, were to meet with the Russian leader.
"We plan to raise all of the relevant issues, from the rise in anti-Semitism to the ongoing problems of the transfer of military technology to Iran," said Mark Levin, NCSJ's executive director.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle is hot on the trail of the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, and lining up Jewish support and Jewish money is part of his early strategy.
But that could be difficult after this week's announcement of the co-chairs of his campaign organization. Leading the list: John Sununu, White House chief of staff under President Bush. During the Bush administration, Sununu, an Arab-American, was regarded in pro-Israel circles as a major opponent of their agenda.
As governor of New Hampshire, Sununu was the only state chief executive who refused to sign a proclamation that called for repeal of the United Nations' "Zionism as racism" resolution.
The other top co-chair is Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., also an Arab-American. In contrast, Abraham has been helpful to Jewish groups and is regarded as a strong supporter of Israel.
Another top member of the Quayle team: Gov. Kirk Fordice of Mississippi. Fordice, you may recall, ran afoul of Jewish groups in 1992, when he stated flatly that the United States is a Christian nation, just as Israel is a Jewish state.
When fellow Republican governors tried to temper his statement by talking about Judeo-Christian values, Fordice reportedly bristled, telling the Washington Times, "If I wanted to do that, I would have done it."
Fordice, along with several GOP congressional leaders, has also been linked to the Council of Concerned Citizens, described by critics as a white supremacist group.
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