A Brewing Fight on the Right

The presidential race is exposing fissures among evangelicals

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A demonstrator who opposes abortion outside the Supreme Court.

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In a meeting room at a Washington hotel, an unlikely coalition of evangelical and progressive leaders announced last week that after a few years of hashing out what divides them, they have seen the light.

"We are ready to end the culture wars," religion scholar Robert Jones said. The group, organized by Third Way, a progressive organization that looks for new approaches to economic, security, and cultural issues, laid out a framework to ease the rancor that has characterized their relationships. Key to the plan: finding common goals on issues like gay rights and abortion—from affirming the human dignity of gay people to emphasizing the shared desire to reduce the number of abortions. "None of us want to compromise on our moral standing, and we will continue to disagree," said Florida minister Joel Hunter. The effort, however, provides a path "to heal divisions in this country."

But perhaps most striking was the evangelicals' rejection of what they characterized as the stridency of influential Christian right leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Their search for a broader agenda and a more civil tone is just one manifestation of the deepening struggle within the wider evangelical community over who speaks, both morally and politically, for the nation's estimated 60 million born-again Christians.

That struggle will play out this week on a much larger stage. More than 2,000 conservative evangelicals are expected in the nation's capital for a two-day "Values Voters Summit" that will feature speeches by all nine Republican presidential candidates. The event is sponsored by the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council, a dominant conservative evangelical organization. The highlight: a straw poll that promises a glimpse into who these restive conservatives can envision themselves supporting in 2008.

The stakes are high. With only a dozen weeks before the first votes are cast, conservative evangelicals, who compose about half of the born-again movement, are increasingly concerned about the GOP nominee. The kind of power they wielded in electing President Bush in 2004, when 78 percent of evangelicals helped give the president his second term, could be but a memory. Many have watched in dismay as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who supports legalized abortion and opposes a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, continues to lead Republican preference polls. Some evangelicals are openly disdainful of Giuliani, but others are counseling caution.

"We've got a number of imperfect candidates to pick from," says Gary Bauer, head of American Values, a conservative group. "There is not a clear consensus." Even Bauer, who ran for president in 2000, would acknowledge that his assessment is a titanic understatement.

Unacceptable. Dobson is the most prominent of those to have labeled Giuliani as unacceptable. And he's said the same about Sen. John McCain, who in 2000 called conservative evangelical leaders "agents of intolerance," and Fred Thompson, who believes gay marriage decisions should rest with the states. Dobson recently said that he would support a minor-party Christian conservative if the major parties pick nominees who favor abortion. "This has been really frustrating," says Tom Minnery, senior vice president at Focus on the Family.

So frustrating that Bauer is now publicly disagreeing with how his friend Dobson is handling the situation. Supporting a third-party candidate, Bauer says, would only "guarantee four years of a president who will devote her energies to destroying the conservative movement," referring to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. It is unwise for Dobson to rule out candidates, he says, even if they don't satisfy all of the movement's constituencies. "You can't stop Giuliani with nobody," says Bauer.

Last week, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, stirred the pot further. "There's no desire to create a third party," he said, "nor is there any action underway. We drew a line on the life issue and it's a line we're not willing to cross." If the Republican nominee supports legal abortion, Perkins said, the party should write off conservative evangelical votes. Says GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio: "It's better to stay in the tent and wield the threat than to try and carry out the threat."