Headed into the
2008 election season, Christian conservatives are weary.
Their movement has lost iconic leaders, and the Republican
presidential field is uninspiring. But they may have
found hope in a trailer on the campus of Bell Shoals
Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla.
There, in Annex
Room No. 3, Ruth Klingman nods as a leader in Florida's
pro-family movement describes how same-sex marriage would
open the door to other ''aberrant forms of marriage.''
He holds up a printout of ''polygamy pot lucks'' as
says afterward, she will do her part to pass a
constitutional amendment cementing marriage as a union
between one man and one woman in this presidential
The first Family
Impact Summit had minted a new activist -- tangible
results from three days of talks and workshops meant to
replenish the roots of the Christian right.
''I just feel the
opposition is growing so strong, I need to grow
stronger,'' said Klingman, 34, who drove two hours from the
one-stoplight town of Hawthorne to join activists in
this Tampa suburb.
Organized by a
scarcely known Tampa-area Christian group, the summit,
which ended Saturday, sounded a back-to-basics theme:
that evangelicals are called to be active citizens to
combat threats from the left; that the work must
involve not just national advocacy groups but local
people and pastors; and the fight requires patience and
sentiment is a reminder of the challenges facing the
key allies in Congress when the Democrats retook Congress
in 2006, movement pioneers Jerry Falwell and D. James
Kennedy died this year, and there's apathy over the
current crop of GOP presidential candidates.
weekend's summit had its disappointments. Organizers had
hoped up to 350 people would attend, laying the
groundwork for a new Florida activist network.
But only 104,
nearly all from Florida, had registered by Friday. A
workshop on the basics of grassroots activism drew a handful
of people -- and one was a spy, an activist for
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
researching the opposition.
''There will be
peaks and valleys, but I don't know if people understand
the depth and breadth of our movement,'' said Gary Cass,
former executive director at Kennedy's Center for
Reclaiming America for Christ, which closed after the
South Florida preacher fell ill.
''While we lament
the loss of our leaders, their ideas that have been
sewn into the larger church culture are just now starting to
germinate and take root.''
In a sign of just
how much Christian activists want new blood, the summit
drew some of the movement's heavyweights, including former
GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, Richard Land of
the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious
Liberty Commission, and Tony Perkins of the Family
organizing group was a Tampa-area shoestring operation: the
Community Issues Council, previously known for fighting a
local bikini bar. The group's sole full-time employee
is former state Christian Coalition operative Terry
national-local partnerships are the way to go right now,
Kemple said: ''It means more troops on the ground and
more feet on the streets.
''The old saying
is all politics is local. It gets people involved.''
The power of
state-level organization was seen in 2004, when the November
election saw 11 states pass amendments prohibiting same-sex
marriage; the amendments' presence on ballots was
credited with driving up GOP turnout.
The next marriage
battleground is likely in Florida. In the workshop that
won Klingman over, John Stemberger of the Florida Family
Policy Council described the particulars: volunteers
have collected 597,702 verified signatures toward the
611,009 needed to get an anti-same-sex marriage
amendment on the fall 2008 ballot.
Mark Rozell, a
professor of public policy at George Mason University,
said state and local groups tend to stick close to social
issues that please religious conservatives. Many in
the movement wrote off the national Christian
Coalition as just another mainstream GOP group vying
for power after it got involved in foreign policy and tax
cuts, he said.
''Even if these
local groups merely exist for one election cycle and go
out of existence, they can still have a real impact turning
people out to vote,'' Rozell said.
marriage, abortion remains the cornerstone issue for
conservative Christians, the one that got evangelicals
involved in contemporary politics in the first place,
said Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention. The GOP
needs to take that into account when picking its
presidential hopeful, he warned.
Republicans are foolish enough to pick a pro-choice
candidate, they've given the Democratic Party a
license to go hunting for evangelical votes,'' Land
There is only one
GOP hopeful who fits that description: front-runner
A Pew Forum on
Religion and Public Life survey this month showed white
evangelical Protestants are the only major group that
considers social issues like abortion and same-sex
marriage very important to '08 presidential
decision-making. But even among that voting bloc, social
issues trailed the Iraq war, the economy, and other domestic
conservatives also are watching whether a second-tier GOP
candidate can break through, said Tom Minnery, a vice
president of Colorado Springs-based Focus on
the Family. But Minnery already is highlighting other
races for the control of Congress and several state
down-ballot races will be significant, and I hope that will
make people excited,'' he said.
In Tampa most
panels stuck to hot-button themes aimed at getting Florida
conservatives involved in politics: The Homosexual Agenda.
Life Issues. Redeeming the Culture Through the Legal
System. The Church and Voter Registration. Several
speakers highlighted threats from militant Islam, an
increased emphasis in the movement.
If many of those
topics seem familiar or tired to people outside the
movement, their power to move people should not be
underestimated, said John Green, a senior fellow with
the Pew Forum. The audience might just have been
activists-in-training in Florida over the weekend, but it
could be much larger in November 2008.
origins of the movement in '70s, obituaries have been
written several times -- and they've always turned out
to be wrong,'' Green said. ''This is very long-lived
movement, in part because it has this capacity to
renew itself at the state and local level.'' (Eric Gorski,