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Election 2004

Evangelicals sway policy in new era

Religious conservatives have the most political power in generations, but many remain convinced that the nation is headed for perdition.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published October 11, 2004

TAMPA -- It is a warm, muggy night, the end of a long day, and low clouds threaten rain. But with their husbands and children fed, the women fight the traffic to Sheryl Young's tidy suburban home in the anonymous sprawl north of Tampa.

Talk of outreach and a candidates' forum will come soon enough. So will fretting over a world gone madly immoral, and the shared consolation they are not alone. But 1 Timothy 2:1-2 tells believers to pray for those in authority, and that is where they will start.

The women bow their heads and close their eyes. Young begins.

"We thank you for opening our eyes to the issues at hand, Lord," she says. "We want to raise President Bush up to you, with everything he's dealing with."

Beth Campbell prays for Bush's Cabinet and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms, and "that people will just wake up, and that we will get back to what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong."

Ede Crosby's voice is low and urgent. "We know you're angry about everything that is happening in our country, our schools, our homes," she says. "We ask how we can be of help, what action points we can take, Lord."

For Young and her guests, all members of the Tampa chapter of Concerned Women for America, there is much to pray about these days. Gay marriage, pornography, the media's liberal bias and myriad attacks on religion -- the courts' hostility to the Ten Commandments, schoolchildren learning about Islam while being hassled for saying grace, Christians coerced to profess "tolerance" for co-workers whose homosexuality offends their beliefs.

As America wades into another presidential election, many evangelical Christians say their beliefs are under assault by the government and mainstream culture, a feeling bolstered by leaders of "profamily" groups who vow to convert that anxiety into votes come November -- to re-elect those already running the country.

"Let's Take America Back!" goes the current campaign of the Christian Coalition. Alan Keyes, candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois and founder of Renew America, a conservative political action group, warns that "American liberty is under internal attack as never before in our history."

At the same time, scholars who study the nexus of religion and policy say recent victories in the courts, in state legislatures and in Washington, D.C., have given religious conservatives greater influence than at any time since the Temperance Movement, which led to Prohibition in 1919.

President Bush is an evangelical Christian who talks openly about his faith and who says America is doing God's work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whose religion regularly affects his policy, from limiting embryonic stem cell research to proposing nearly $3-billion to promote traditional marriage.

The Republican Congress, too, has pleased Christian conservatives lately. In April, Congress banned late-term "partial birth" abortions, though the law likely is bound for the Supreme Court. It also passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which adds penalties for hurting a fetus while committing a crime. Opponents say it's a ploy to undermine legalized abortion.

Congressional Republicans are pushing a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, a priority for conservative groups. At least 39 states already have banned it, and Missouri voters recently became the first in the union to outlaw gay marriage in their state Constitution. Conservative leaders, meanwhile, brag that their lobbying led to the Food and Drug Administration's unusual decision in May to ignore its own advisory panel and reject over-the-counter sales of Plan B, which can prevent pregnancy after sex.

And the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that "under God" should remain part of the Pledge of Allegiance, which many schoolchildren recite.

Philip Goff, a religion professor at Indiana University-Purdue University, describes a wide gap between the political strength they have and the strength they think they have.

"They have taken government. There's no doubt about it. They have more power than any time at least in our lifetime," said Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture there. "But they can't say that they have control, because then they lose power. They have to continue to use that rhetoric -- that paradigm of religious outsider -- in order to rally people to the cause.

"It's the language of the underdog. And the left and the right do it."

But when Sheryl Young, coordinator of the Tampa chapter of the CWA, surveys the world around her, she sees not signs of a conservative rebirth in social policy, but moral chaos.

Society doesn't demand much anymore, she says. Nor does the law. She cites no-fault divorce, a casual attitude toward premarital sex and the growing acceptance of homosexuality. A hit TV show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? How can a teenage girl need mom's consent to get her ears pierced, then get an abortion on the sly?

Young shakes her head: "I think sometimes our freedom here in America has just pushed us over the edge."

Young is 53, a church secretary, a mother and a wife whose life has not always mirrored the values she champions, and who figures her ministry is probably stronger because of it. She is thin, with short, dark hair and a ready smile, someone who can make her points without sounding preachy.

On this night, her living room is a den of Christian activism, if an understated one, with a lone cross on the wall and a big thumb-worn Bible on the kitchen counter. Young's husband, Jerry, escapes with his dinner to the bedroom to watch TV as a half-dozen women arrive.

They flop into the comfortable, blue-striped sofa and matching chairs, around a coffee table with a plastic ivy centerpiece that later will be moved to make room for cake and cubed cantaloupe. Now the table is covered with pamphlets: a Concerned Women for America guide to lobbying from home, a brochure on the dangers of RU-486, the abortion pill, and one called, "The Shocking Truth -- Exposing the Safe-Sex Lie."

In the news that day, Democrats pestered President Bush about Iraq. In Tampa, police sought the driver of a Toyota who killed two children and injured two more, then raced away. In St. Petersburg, a former Playboy centerfold with HIV preached the gospel of safe sex to college students.

Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore, lost his job for planting the Ten Commandments in his courthouse lobby and refusing an order to remove it. But the hot topic is same-sex marriage, which has galvanized the religious right like nothing since abortion was legalized in 1973.

All insist they have no problem with gay people. "We're not saying they shouldn't have dignity in their life," said Kathy Blackwell, 54, a former high school teacher who is earning her master's in English literature. "But it's God that established the definition of marriage as man and woman."

If men can marry men, where does it stop? wonders Campbell, 48, an information technology specialist at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. Children? Incest?

"Beasts?" asks Blackwell.

Crosby, like the others, sounds exasperated. "Where did the United States of America get off trying to rewrite morality?"

They discuss the monthly issue of the Legal Alert, by the Seminole-based Christian Law Association, which offers evidence of the persecution: Minnesota officials tried to stop a student with an antiabortion bumper sticker from parking in the school lot. A New York teacher was reprimanded for discussing his Christian beliefs with other teachers. A Colorado student was threatened with suspension for refusing to watch an R-rated movie in English class.

Crosby, a church secretary, recounts a tale from a friend who said her second-grade daughter was sent to the principal's office for saying grace at lunch, here in Hillsborough County. "That is why we feel we're under attack," she said.

It's a common sentiment, as right-leaning groups portray themselves as victims, much as minority groups did in the 1990s, when "politically correct" notions of diversity and tolerance gained currency.

Under this mantle, court rulings against the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and government offices are assaults on religious freedom and free speech, not protection against state endorsement of religion. The same goes for school prayer.

By the time Linda Pugsley arrives, the women bubble with umbrage: President Bush is too often blocked by the Congress. Then liberal judges foil the good work of Congress and state legislatures. Christians don't have equal footing.

Pugsley, a booming, charismatic chaplain in the Civil Air Patrol and associate pastor at a Tampa church, warns that moral anarchy leads to civil anarchy. Look at Rome. Look at San Francisco.

"They say you can't legislate morality," Pugsley said, "but we can have moral legislation."

Meanwhile, in preaching tolerance for gays, abortion, atheism -- in its relentless rush to avoid offense -- the left has grown intolerant of those who don't agree, they say. Speaking against gay marriage "right now means you are full of hatred, a bigot," Young says, "and that's unfair."

The others nod gravely.

On a chain around Sheryl Young's neck is a small Star of David, inset with a heart and a tiny cross. It is a nod to her Jewish heritage, and a small sign of the unlikely path she has taken to Christian conservatism.

Young was raised in a family of Democrats in Chicago, the lone Jewish family on a block of Irish Catholics. Her family wasn't very religious -- her father was an atheist -- and they kept a few Jewish holidays mainly for cultural reasons. As a child, she learned about Jesus at a friend's house, and she recalls how one day the girls traded talismans -- a cross for her star of David. Their mothers met in the street to trade them back.

After graduating from high school in 1968, she attended the University of Illinois to study theater. It was a time and place where casual sex and marijuana were the norm. She worked for Robert F. Kennedy's campaign in 1968. Later she would vote for George McGovern over Richard M. Nixon, then Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan.

Young studied musical theater, and after college she directed plays at a Catholic girls school in Chicago. She married, then divorced after three years.

She blushes when she describes how she met her current husband, Jerry: It was at a disco, in 1978. Both worked in restaurant and hotel management, and they moved to California to escape the Chicago winters. Looking for a place with nice weather where they could also afford a home, the Youngs then moved to Tampa in the mid '80s and set about living the American dream: buying a house, raising their daughter, advancing their careers.

So Young was unprepared for the day in 1987 when Jerry walked into a Baptist church in north Tampa and renewed his childhood relationship with Jesus. "I didn't know if our marriage would last, because I didn't want any part of it," she said.

But she started going to church, too. Three months later, while digging through the Bible for contradictions with which to needle her husband, she was struck by the feeling the Bible indeed reflects the word of God, and she had better follow it. Soon, she accepted Jesus as her personal savior.

She came to view the Bible as God's road map for life: for marriage, for the treatment of children, for a just society. She says her foul language virtually disappeared, but her transformation from "liberal as they come, prochoice, live-and-let-live" to Christian activist was slower.

Several years passed before she opposed abortion, and she didn't vote for a Republican presidential candidate until Bob Dole in 1996. That was about the time God led her toward activism, too, at a Christian women's conference in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The theme was applying the Bible to everyday life, but Young found herself mesmerized by the keynote speaker, Nancy Shaeffer, a former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia who ran a group called Family Concerns Inc.

Shaeffer warned that liberal activists were pushing progay, antifamily policies in the schools, and Christians were letting it happen. Among the evidence she offered was a picture book called Heather Has Two Mommies , about lesbian parents.

"I said, boy, where have we been? We've had our heads stuck in church sand," Young said. "I realized then that there was an agenda being pushed (with ideas) that were not good for our children, that were not good for the health of our families, and were not good from a governmental standpoint, taking liberties with the Constitution."

By the mid 1990s, prayer had led her to the Concerned Women for America, whose focus includes promoting abstinence and fighting abortion, gay rights and the United Nations threat to U.S. sovereignty.

Three years later, she was leading the Tampa chapter, holding prayer meetings, recruiting members and speaking to Christian groups. She became the communications liaison for the CWA in Florida. She got her own copy of Heather Has Two Mommies .

* * *

Young often cites Hosea 4:6: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge."

So she has become a walking library of articles, Bible verses, opinion pieces and statistics that support the conservative worldview. Much of her information is reliable, some is debatable, but she's never without an opinion.

When talking to Hillsborough teens at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting, she preached abstinence from sex and warned that microscopic pores in condoms are larger than the virus that causes AIDS. (Public health officials say studies show the virus cannot pass through latex condoms.)

With Democratic senators blocking the president's antiabortion nominees to the federal bench, such as Judge Thomas Pickering of Mississippi, Young offers transcripts of judicial hearings from the Clinton administration, when Democratic senators complained about Republican stonewalling of their nominees.

When talk turns to homosexuality, she offers a Washington Times story about a psychologist who believes gays can go straight. From the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she cites a study showing condom use among gay men had dropped since the mid 1990s, another argument against practicing homosexuality.

She fires off weekly e-mails to friends and ships alerts from the CWA and other groups about legislation and regulatory action that might affect the conservative cause, urging them to contact their congressional representatives. She has written letters and guest columns for local newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune . The subjects ranged from school threats to parental authority, to the "True Nature of Tolerance," to the defense of Promise Keepers.

At Young's last job, in customer service for a Tampa copier company, she kept a poster on her cubicle wall: "What's popular is not always right, and what's right is not always popular," it read.

For four years, she shared that cubicle with a gay man named Larry Smith.

Young made her views clear, and he was open about his. Once she wrote him a letter peppered with Bible verses that made a case against homosexuality, and for God's love.

Smith, 38, described her as respectful and compassionate, someone who could teach the shriller voices of the religious right a thing or two about outreach. They became close friends, and this spring she attended his graduation from graduate school.

"She basically served as a witness just by being who she was, and not by trying to force the way she thinks," he said.

Smith is still with his partner of nine years. He's ambivalent about gay marriage, but says it's hard for gay couples to get benefits such as employer health insurance and rights of survivorship. "The aspect of gaining the same rights that a heterosexual couple have, a married couple, yes, it's appealing."

* * *

Christian conservatives have not always sought to break bread at the political table. Dr. James W. Penning, author of Christian Political Action , said their activism virtually died after the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which brought the theory of evolution to the classroom.

But that changed in the 1960s and '70s, as evangelicals responded to the Equal Rights Amendment, the legalization of abortion by Roe vs. Wade, and the advent of gay rights.

"There was a feeling that particularly the courts, and to some extent the Congress, had lost touch with conservative values, and things were spinning out of control," said Penning, a professor of political science at Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority in 1979. Two years later, Pat Robertson launched the Freedom Council, which begat the Christian Coalition. By 1994, with the Republican takeover of the U.S. House and a reliable foil in President Bill Clinton, evangelicals were solidly ensconced as political players.

Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition in Miami, which organizes churchgoers and lobbies for their causes, said now is a good time to be on the right, though many in the rank-and-file may not realize it.

He acknowledges that evangelicals have lost several high-profile battles recently. Most jarring, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states could not prosecute sodomy between consenting adults, a major win for gay rights, and same-sex couples began marrying in May in Massachusetts.

But when Verdugo scores the issues in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., he says conservatives win two-thirds of the time: "The difference is that the 30 percent that we didn't come out on top were the prominent ones, and that's what people listen to."

As president of the Rutherford Institute, a religious liberties legal group, John W. Whitehead often battles secular indiscretion. Recently, a Virginia school barred a senior from singing a Celine Dion song at graduation because of its title, The Prayer , and a Christian AT&T employee in Denver was fired for refusing to sign a company statement pledging tolerance for gays.

But Whitehead says his side usually wins, as it did in Denver. These days, most affronts can be solved with a phone call or letter. "I'd say from the mid '80s on, the victories have started piling up."

As President Bush works toward re-election, he continues to court evangelicals. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, leads the Bush campaign in the South.

He also used a congressional recess to install Judge Pickering, whose nomination was stalled by Democrats in the Senate, to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Using executive orders and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, he has bypassed congressional barriers to allow religious groups to run public social service programs.

In August, the president announced $31-million in funding for abstinence-only sex education programs for teenagers, a priority for conservative family groups.

"The federal government now allows faith-based groups to compete for billions of dollars in social service funding, without being forced to change their identity and their mission," Bush told graduates of Concordia University, a Lutheran school in Wisconsin, in May.

Mention the president's Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Young and her friends turn sour. Kerry, a Catholic, supports abortion rights, and his Senate votes often are socially liberal.

During a lunch break one day, Young and Beth Campbell discussed their allegiance to the Republican Party, and how they believe Bush lives his faith more than Kerry. Campbell can't believe some of her relatives are still Democrats.

Young noted there are some good Democrats -- Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative from Georgia, leapt to mind. Even Clinton did a good job with welfare reform, she added.

But she fears a terrorist attack before November may cost Bush the election, which would cost America its security: "I think if a Democratic president is elected, he'll submit to the terrorists. I think the Democrats are that soft."

Is there a risk to linking Christian conservatism so closely to a political party? Young acknowledges their cause is sometimes undermined by those who use the Bible as a cudgel, or who claim a monopoly on family values, or who preach hate toward gays.

"Any group that claims the Bible gives them the right to hate anyone doesn't know the Bible," she said, citing a list of supporting verses, from John 13:34 -- "Love one another" -- to Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

Some worry playing politics forces Christians to compromise their beliefs. Whitehead, of the Rutherford Institute, said evangelicals have been too willing to give Republicans a pass on matters other than social ones. He noted that few religious legal groups are fighting the USA Patriot Act, out of loyalty to Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. The Rutherford Institute is challenging several of its provisions, including the expansion of police powers of search and seizure.

"A lot of Christians, they think George Bush is a Christian, whatever he does is right," Whitehead said. "A Christian can't really take that position.

"It's not George right or wrong. It's, "What is the truth?' And that's where religion and politics get murky. Politics is not about that. Politics is about compromising until you solve something."

* * *

Each weekday morning, Young makes the 40-minute drive to a large, mostly African-American church near downtown Tampa. She's a secretary, the lone white person in an office of five. She believes God led her to this dog-eared neighborhood to deliver his word to people who are struggling.

She keeps the pastor's schedule and coordinates the youth choir. She and her pastor have asked that the church's name not be published, for fear of backlash for Young's conservative views.

Four nights a week, she and Jerry head to Westfield Shoppingtown Citrus Park for a little exercise. As they walk the mall, they watch boys pull their pants low as soon as their parents drop them off, see the girls sporting belly rings and tight, short skirts.

Recently, they stopped at a poster ad for Skechers sneakers. In the ad, the young model was wearing a skimpy satin number. Around her were explosions and a hot young couple apparently about to break all kinds of rules.

Neither Sheryl nor Jerry Young is a prude; remember, they met in a disco in the '70s. But they say that such ads, like the kids' suggestive clothing, are emblematic of moral decay, and of parental irresponsibility. That whatever the concerns about mixing religion and politics, inaction carries a price.

"God doesn't want us to be silent. He wants to see what we're going to do about it," she says.

Her eyes sweep the food court, peopled with youth.

"When you see kids that have been told there's no right or wrong from whatever you feel at the moment," she said, "what can we expect from the next generation?"

[Last modified October 11, 2004, 04:20:10]

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