WASHINGTON — Surrounded by Republican congressional leaders, the Christian Coalition on Wednesday issued a 10-point legislative program that would restrict late-term abortions, permit greater religious expression in schools and other public places and eliminate the Department of Education.
"Our purpose is not to legislate family values, it is to ensure that Washington values families," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the 1.6-million-member organization, founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
The release of the coalition's "contract with the American family" at a press conference crowded with Republican leaders--led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--vividly testified to the group's growing clout within the Republican Party.
But the contract also suggested the extent to which the coalition is integrating itself into the overall Republican political effort. In some ways, the contract is most notable for omitting issues that could split the GOP coalition--such as restrictions on gay rights or a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
Some other social conservatives have already begun grumbling that the Christian Coalition is more concerned about consolidating Republican political control than advancing the social conservative agenda. But Reed insisted that the coalition, the most powerful group in the social conservative movement, is attempting to avoid the mistakes of Democratic interest groups that placed the Clinton Administration in a difficult position with excessive demands early in his presidency.
"These are the 10 suggestions, they're not the Ten Commandments," Reed said. "This is a public-policy document. It is not a theological statement. We make no threats. Today we issue no ultimatums, and we make no demands of either party."
One reason Reed does not need to raise his voice is that Republicans now almost universally consider Christian conservatives a foundation of their political coalition. In the 1994 election, self-described religious conservatives constituted at least 20% of voters--and cast fully 75% of their votes for Republican congressional candidates.
That electoral clout was evident at the press conference in the presence of a phalanx of Republican leaders. Trooping to the microphone, Gingrich; Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a leading contender for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, all uniformly praised the coalition blueprint. "We are committed to scheduling the hearings, to scheduling the mark-up and to scheduling the bills on the floor," Gingrich said. "We're committed to implementing the contract with the family."
After the press conference, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.)--the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination--met with Reed and coalition members from 40 states and issued a statement praising the plan.
The coalition plan immediately came under fire from other religious organizations, as well as from liberal-leaning groups that support abortion rights and a strong separation between church and state.
"It's a sad day in American politics when a TV preacher's political front group dictates the agenda for the United States Congress," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group based in Washington. Robertson did not attend the press conference. He was traveling in Zaire.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is basing his uphill campaign for the presidential nomination largely on combatting the influence of religious conservatives in the party, also condemned the package. "It contradicts separation of church and state," he said on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America." "It opposes a woman's right to choose."
But the coalition agenda also drew criticism from some other social conservatives who considered it too mild. "The coalition contract will be a way of giving the Republicans a lot of outs on our issues," said Martin J. Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network, a smaller religious-conservative organization pushing its own version of a social agenda contract. "This, to me, is going to set our movement back."
Indeed, the coalition's contract is mostly composed of ideas that extend beyond the traditional concerns of the social conservative movement and have demonstrated broad appeal for conservatives of all stripes. The coalition hired GOP pollster Frank Luntz to measure public support for its agenda. The coalition, which spent $1 million lobbying for the GOP campaign manifesto known as the "contract with America," plans to spend twice that much pushing its own plan, Reed said.