| POLITICSChristian activism lags as S. Fla. rally opensHundreds of Christian activists gathering in Fort Lauderdale to rally for their conservative agenda faced waning momentum.BY ALEXANDRA ALTER[email protected]
In a sanctuary decked with red, white and blue banners, hundreds of Christian activists will gather at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale starting today to rally around a common goal: claiming America for Christ.
These lobbyists for Jesus want more than souls. For two days, rising stars on the religious right will promote prayer in schools, a ban on gay marriage, an end to abortion and abolition of tax rules preventing pastors from endorsing candidates.
But in a year that has delivered arguable victories to Christian conservatives -- including two Supreme Court appointments -- some leaders on the Christian right say they now face an unexpected challenge: keeping their base motivated for what's shaping up to be a long, difficult and expensive fight.
But the momentum that brought record numbers of believers to the polls in 2004 has waned. In a year of large-scale natural disasters, Christian charitable dollars have been redirected from political causes to relief efforts. And -- perhaps most damaging of all -- scandals involving former House Majority leader Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff have discouraged some Christians.
Even Gary Cass, executive director of Coral Ridge Ministry's Center for Reclaiming America for Christ and a self-described soldier in the culture war, said he senses a ''general malaise'' among conservatives.
'People like myself say, `This is normal. We should stay engaged. We need to stay and fight,' '' Cass said. ``We're hoping this will be a little shot in the arm for everyone.''
In previous years, the ''Reclaiming America for Christ Conference'' has helped energize Christians. Nearly 1,000 evangelicals from more than 40 states gathered at Coral Ridge in February 2004.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, hailed President Bush's reelection as ''a pro-life, pro-family, pro-Judeo-Christian win.'' Cass rolled out plans to raise $2 million to launch a lobbying group in Washington, 12 regional political action offices and activist networks in all 435 House districts.
But a year later, the center has scaled back its ambitious strategy to reshape national politics along biblical lines. Plans for a strategy institute and the regional offices have been quietly set aside. Some of the center's activities have been set back by budget realignments, Cass said.
This year, only about 700 people registered for the conference. ''In '05, we had just come off the '04 values voter phenomenon. People in our movement were encouraged and there was a lot of momentum coming in,'' Cass said. ``I think we're running a bit behind.''
In Florida, Christian activists lagged in their efforts to sponsor a 2006 statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and are shooting for 2008.
The movement also took a blow last year during the Terri Schiavo controversy, when courts upheld a decision to remove the vegetative woman's feeding tube despite Christian activists' intense lobbying efforts for congressional intervention.
Nationally, Christian conservatives lost a critical ally on pro-life issues when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist supported embryonic stem cell research. They lost a legal battle over the teaching of intelligent design in Pennsylvania. And Bush has been silent lately on a federal pro-marriage amendment.
Now ethical scandals surrounding Republican leaders have implicated some Christian conservatives. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, accepted about $4 million from Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist, to organize Christian opposition to Indian casinos. Reed said he didn't know the money came from rival casinos.
Marvin Olasky, editor of the evangelical weekly World magazine, said the scandals might discourage some from political activism.
''If people think that there are some folks who are immaculate, then this will be a shock,'' he said. 'There may be a tendency among some evangelicals to think that anyone who gets involved in politics is engaging in manipulative exercises. There may be a tendency to shy away from it and say, `That's worldly. We don't want to be a part of it.' ''
Christian activists say they're not giving up the fight, however.
''Far too often, Christian people have confined their activities inside the church house as opposed to translating their faith into action,'' said Rick Scarborough, Baptist pastor and founder of Vision America.
Rev. D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America has had a major stake in the right's rise to political prominence. As the lobbying arm of Kennedy's $37 million Fort Lauderdale-based evangelical empire, the center has been at the forefront of the fight to promote conservative Christian values.
While the center has fallen behind on plans to extend its national reach, support for its core issues remains strong. This year, scheduled speakers at the Reclaiming America conference include Scarborough (who will give remarks based on his forthcoming book Liberalism Kills Kids); lawyer David Gibbs, who represented Terri Schiavo's parents last year in their legal battle to keep the woman's feeding tube in place; Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Florida GOP Rep. and Senate hopeful Katherine Harris.
The alliance between Christian conservatives and the Republican Party likely will endure as long as Republicans mirror social conservatives' views on gay marriage and abortion, said John Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio and an expert on evangelical voting behavior.
But evangelicals may withdraw their support if Republican leaders fail to deliver on those issues, he said.