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Religious Right Stepping Up to Political Pulpit

REPUBLICAN REIGN. Orange County conservatives and the pursuit of power . Fourth of five parts.


Ten years ago, they were widely dismissed as a political fringe group. Today, conservative Christians are a driving force in the local GOP, helping to set the party's platform and raising millions of dollars to get their candidates elected.

Money linked to religious conservatives from Orange County bankrolled the successful campaigns of dozens of legislative candidates over the last five years, giving Republicans long-sought control of the Assembly.

In another victory just three months ago, legions of volunteer foot soldiers helped in getting out the vote to oust two Orange County school board members they considered too liberal and replace them with like-minded conservatives.

And, to further galvanize them into a voting bloc, more than a million voter guides compiled by Orange County's Rev. Louis P. Sheldon are circulated each election nationwide as thinly disguised attempts to tell the faithful which candidates to support. A decade ago, only 25,000 of such guides were handed out.

"We are the largest grass-roots effort in America, and we're growing every election cycle, particularly in Orange County," said Sheldon, the founder of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative Christian lobbying group. "We vote according to the word of God . . . [and] the Republican Party tends to be more biblical in its views."

Although they represent only about 20% of the local GOP, according to a recent Times Orange County Poll, religious conservatives have made their pro-Christian, antiabortion, anti-gay agendas a focus of the party's platform. Well-financed, carefully organized and highly motivated, they are emerging as one of the most aggressive and able power brokers of the 1990s.

Aspiring Republican politicians line up to seek endorsements and campaign cash from conservative Christians. They vie for space on campaign mailers and voter guides. And they cozy up to religious leaders, hoping for a favorable mention during Sunday sermons before election day.

By most accounts, religious conservatives started scoring their greatest electoral success with local school boards several years ago. They are increasingly making their presence felt at city councils, at the state and federal levels, and within the local party structure.

"We're always considered extremists, but we're not. We're intelligent people up on the issues," said June Cerruto, a member of the Republican Central Committee. "People act like being a good Christian is a liability to our party, but it's not. It's an asset. We should keep government out of religion, not the other way around. Religion has a place in government."

Despite religious conservatives' clout, a growing number of party members warn that the social agenda of the religious right will ultimately weaken the GOP, locally and nationally.

According to a new Times Orange County Poll, religious conservatives are out-of-step with a majority of Republicans in the county, who favor abortion rights and oppose mandatory school prayer. Debates on gay rights and abortion only deepen the division, many Republicans complain.

"The whole attitude has changed within the county as far as political support and backing. It's gotten more and more conservative," said County Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who is against abortion but believes the issue should not be a litmus test for political candidates.

Bergeson said that if the Republican right wing, including religious conservatives, wants the party to prevail, "they are going to have to keep an image that's acceptable to all Republicans."

Members of the county's business community also have expressed concern that the party's increasing focus on social and moral issues jeopardizes other GOP concerns, such as reducing regulations on business and downsizing government.

Moderate and fiscally conservative Republicans know that without broader appeal, the party may appear extremist and alienate badly needed support. Successful Republican politicians also know that they need to toe the line by appealing to religious leaders one day and meeting business leaders the next.

Before the March primary, Republican candidates carefully sent out campaign mailers touting their antiabortion stances, as well as their "pro-business" positions.

Religious conservatives, however, care little for compromising their issues to broaden the party's appeal to other elements. For them, the Bible is the basic guide for life and politics.

"This is a battle for the soul of America and the battleground is on moral issues," Sheldon said, standing behind a desk in his office covered with books with titles such as "Homosexuality: A Freedom Too Far," "ACLU: The Devil's Advocate" and "Who's Afraid of the Religious Right."

"The conservative Christians must march into the political arena," he said.

And they have.

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