WASHINGTON — Many moderate Republicans, including veteran U.S. senators, have concluded with a mixture of alarm and amazement that the religious right--already a potent grass-roots force--is poised to take control of the national party and precipitate a political confrontation unparalleled since the rise of Barry Goldwater 30 years ago.
And, they say, middle-of-the-road Republicans have only themselves to blame: While Christian conservatives have worked tirelessly to take over party organizations at all levels from coast to coast, GOP moderates have remained passively on the sidelines, unwilling to fight with members of their own party over abortion and other explosive social policy issues that dominate the conservatives' agenda.
Unless their own wing becomes more aggressive, these mainstream Republicans warn, the religious right will reach Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson's stated goal of winning "a working majority of the Republican Party" by 1996. And that could alienate millions of independent voters.
"If we let this thing continue to percolate without attacking it head-on," declared Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a leading moderate, "we will assure President Clinton's reelection."
In 1964, Arizona Sen. Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination after a grass-roots campaign by the conservative wing of the party but was mauled in the general election by Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson.
Although Specter reported some progress in a quiet campaign to persuade Republican senators to oppose addressing the abortion issue in the party's 1996 platform, he has not convinced Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour or other GOP leaders. They have told him that failing to include an uncompromising anti-abortion plank would alienate Christian conservatives. The 1992 GOP platform called for a "human life amendment" to the Constitution, outlawing abortion in all circumstances.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, another GOP moderate, shares Specter's assessment. The religious right "has taken over a lot in Kansas," she said, "including my own county organization."
"Part of the problem," Kassebaum said, "is that moderates aren't willing to work in the trenches, while the Christian conservatives have gone door to door and worked hard and won control fair and square. My hat's off to them for that."
The view is widely held that moderates have been "asleep at the switch," in the words of former Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.). Arthur Kropp, president of the liberal People for the American Way, which issued a recent report detailing extensive religious right victories in the GOP, criticized the Republican moderates.
"I'm no fan of the religious right," he said in an interview, "but they didn't steal anything, they have just worked harder through the process to win the party over to their side and there has been no challenge to them by the national party."
Already religious conservatives are far more potent than they were in 1992, when they dominated the Republican National Convention with an uncompromising platform and fiery rhetoric that--in the view of many analysts--hurt George Bush's bid for reelection.
While it is the religious right's unyielding anti-abortion stance that has most worried moderates in the past, Pat Robertson has won wide support for another position that is anathema to most mainstream Republicans and independents: challenging the basic American principle of separation of church and state.
Robertson has denounced the principle as "a lie of the left," stirring Christian conservatives to action throughout the country. Specter said that he was shocked when Iowa Republicans booed him last month after he stressed church-state separation and declared the Texas GOP convention, where delegates carried signs saying "A Vote for Our Candidate is a Vote For God," was "wrong philosophically" for defying the principle.
The Arizona Republican Assembly, recently formed to push for conservative candidates within the GOP, declared that God "has ordained moral absolutes which govern the universe" and that the Constitution is "the product of divine Providence."
Robertson, through his own national television program and other media, has done "a tremendous job of trashing the whole idea of church-state separation," said the Rev. Robert L. Maddux Jr., a Bethesda, Md., Baptist minister and former director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Robertson has "deliberately confused the idea of church-state separation with rhetoric about Christians participating in government," and the idea has taken on a bad odor among most religious conservatives, Maddux declared. "It's part of a scary movement that has duped a lot of good people with conservative leanings."
GOP moderates are even more concerned about what the rising influence of uncompromising conservatives will do to the image of the party in the eyes of independent voters.