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Vote Buoys, Bothers Local Faith Activists

Religion: Liberal group hopes White House will be receptive to position papers. Head of Christian Coalition branch was surprised by the results.

November 09, 1996|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tuesday's election results dismayed a state leader of the Christian right but encouraged Christian clergy who oppose the conservative agenda.

"I'm asking whether we have lost the ability to read the public's mind," Sara DiVito Hardman of Tarzana, who directs the California branch of the Christian Coalition, said Friday.

But the Interfaith Alliance, a fledgling Washington, D.C.-based organization, and the Los Angeles-based Progressive Religious Alliance, a liberal group that declined to affiliate with the national alliance, found hope in the election results that their agendas will prosper in a second Clinton administration.

Leaders of the PRA, which members pronounce "pray," this week began drawing up position papers on subjects from health care and abortion rights to gay and lesbian rights that they hope to present at the White House early next year.

And the Claremont Consultation, a Southern California group of liberal clergy leaders from old-line Christian denominations, has begun a series of postelection meetings in cities from Long Beach to Pomona to recruit and educate followers.

Hardman said she was surprised by some election results, including the 13% margin by which Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole lost the state and by Republican Rich Sybert's loss in the 24th Congressional District, which covers the western San Fernando Valley and parts of Ventura County.

Members of her group worked energetically, she said, distributing twice the 2.6 million voter guides they handed out in 1994, when conservative and Christian right candidates swept the field.

"I've never seen our people more energized," she said. "I almost thought we were going to win the presidential election, at least in California."

Despite Hardman's disappointment, however, the moderate and liberal religious alliances that were formed to contest the Christian Coalition still term the organization founded by Pat Robertson a formidable opponent, especially in elections to legislatures and school boards.

"If we've learned anything from Pat Robertson and [Christian Coalition Director] Ralph Reed, it is that you can't build a national organization from inside the [Washington] Beltway," said Jill Hanauer, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, which has 109 local alliances in 36 states and is adding more.

The alliance generally hews to the middle of the political spectrum--avoiding taking any stance on abortion, for example.

The only Southern California race for which the national alliance published a voter guide was in the 22nd Congressional District. In that campaign it supported Democrat Walter Capps, a longtime religious studies professor at UC Santa Barbara who defeated incumbent Republican Andrea Seastrand, who is identified with the Christian right.

Though the national alliance could not attract the local Progressive Religious Alliance to join, a minister at Los Angeles' First African Methodist Episcopal Church who is on the Interfaith Alliance board of directors says that will not matter in the long run.

"We've all worked very closely together on common issues," said the Rev. Leonard Jackson, an associate pastor at First AME, who belongs to both groups.

Two other clergy are leaders of both PRA and the Claremont Consultation--retired Episcopal rector George Regas of Pasadena and the Rev. Ignacio Castuera, pastor of North Glendale United Methodist Church.

Regas spoke to a gathering of nearly 50 PRA activists Wednesday night at Hollywood United Methodist Church, defining the group's mission in terms of counterbalancing the efforts of the Christian Coalition.

"Some people think that's too defensive, but I think most Americans are still viewing religion through the lenses of the Christian Coalition and we have to put into circulation a more authentic statement of our faith," Regas said.

Castuera, a vice president of PRA, said he found reasons to be heartened by the election results in California. Despite the passage of anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209--which he contended passed because it was "cleverly worded"--Castuera said that voter approval of ballot measures on raising the minimum wage and "the compassionate use of marijuana" shows that self-described religious progressives have an audience among the electorate.

The PRA, whose day-to-day business is handled by David Waskow of the American Jewish Congress, has attracted clergy and lay leaders from old-line Protestant churches, Reform temples, Unitarian congregations and the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Churches, among other religious groups.

Neither the Christian Coalition nor PRA leaders see themselves as positioned to the extreme right or left of the religious-political spectrum.

Rabbi James Kaufman of Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, a founding member of PRA, said that his group is developing "reasonable, moderate positions that represent the majority of views" of religious people.

"I don't consider it an extreme left-wing position to support [abortion] choice, immigration rights and same-sex marriages," said Kaufman, whose 1,050-family synagogue is the largest and oldest Reform temple in the San Fernando Valley.

"If the triumph of moderation means that 1 million have been pushed off the welfare rolls, that is not good," Castuera said. "If the triumph of moderation means homophobia, then gay and lesbian people will continue to be persecuted."

Castuera said that the PRA, after completing its policy recommendations in mid-January, hopes to present them personally to President Clinton, perhaps with the aid of a friendly minister at the Methodist church where the first family worships in Washington.

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