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Believers aim to ‘reclaim’ America

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

Third of three parts.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The 5,200-pound slab of granite bearing a replica of the Ten Commandments rests in isolated splendor, set off by red and blue nylon sheets, on a flatbed truck parked on the front lawn of a church.

It's not just any church, either. Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is a signature evangelical congregation in southern Florida -- its gleaming white, 303-foot steeple visible for miles around.

This same Ten Commandments monument was famously installed by Roy Moore, then chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in the rotunda of the Judiciary Building in Montgomery in the summer of 2001.

Justice Moore's monument is something of a piece de resistance in the renewed effort by Christians and others of faith to preserve the place of the Almighty in the public square.

On this February day, the Commandments in granite is a top attraction of the annual "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference that drew 942 faithful to Coral Ridge Presbyterian, also stop No. 130 on the monument's nationwide tour. During breaks, conferees surround the slab, taking pictures and admiring the Bible verses and patriotic quotes inscribed on all four sides.

They recall the federal court order in 2003 that the monument be removed because it violates the Constitution's prohibition "against the establishment of religion." They talk about how fellow justices had to sue to remove the defiant Justice Moore -- whom they consider a godly man -- from office.

Inside the palm tree-ringed church, Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, preaches on "A God-Blessed America: How It Could Happen and What It Could Look Like."

Loosed from its biblical moorings, Mr. Land tells the assembly that "a pagan America" can only become home to a legion of ills: harvests of fetal tissue and eggs from women's bodies, marriage redefined as any union with a variety of partners, single-parent families as the norm, a low age of consent for child-adult sex, hard-core porn on television.

Change will come when "a certain percentage of American Christians known only to God humble themselves and pray," Mr. Land says. "He will lean over from heaven and pour out a blessing, not only on Christians, but on non-Christian and Christian alike."

In such a "God-blessed America," he says, streets and schools would be safe, divorce and illegitimate children would be rare, and the elderly would live with their families and not in nursing homes.

"In an American society that preaches Judeo-Christian values, rooted in biblical theology, not all will be Christian, but they can at least live according to [shared] values," Mr. Land concludes.

The conference, designed to energize Christian activists, is the work of the Center for Reclaiming America (CRA), an eight-year-old public-policy group founded by Coral Ridge.

For two days, participants hear the words of rising stars in the politically active arm of American evangelicalism. One is the Rev. Rick Scarborough, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Pearland, Texas, and founder of Vision America, which seeks to involve pastors in public policy debates.

"All God is waiting for is for the church to show up," Mr. Scarborough says, in a message that earns him a standing ovation.

Standing firm

This series has examined the legal battles against religion in public life waged by a network of organizations that includes humanists, atheists and radical feminists as well as liberal or secular Jews and Christians.

The clashes highlight a growing determination of religious conservatives to stand firm for the Judeo-Christian principles of the nation's founding. People of faith are confronting the gathering tide of secularism and a coarser culture in a variety of ways.

A loose coalition of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics worked for President Bush's re-election in 11 battleground states, helping to make "moral values" a front-burner topic. Such activism is an essential part of any campaign to "reclaim" America "from those who have used the courts primarily to divorce America from her moral heritage," CRA spokesman John Aman says.

"We won the White House on pro-family values," explains Gary Cass, the group's new executive director, "but we're losing in the courts" on those same values.

But, he adds: "Since the late 1980s, the conservative movement has become more organized, better funded and more sophisticated. We're not going away. There is too much at stake for our children and grandchildren."

Mr. Cass, 48, moved to Fort Lauderdale last summer to add some muscle to the Center for Reclaiming America after pastoring churches in the San Diego area, serving on a school board there and recruiting evangelical Christians to run for office.

His group's Web site, www.reclaimamerica.org, is loaded for action. A string of petitions ranges from "Defund Planned Parenthood" to "Free Our Churches." The latter refers to a bill before Congress that would allow religious organizations -- including pastors -- to support or oppose political candidates without losing their tax-exempt status. Elsewhere are pleas for donations, lists of rallies and details on reaching Congress.

Another feature of the Web site is "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," an expose of the American Civil Liberties Union illustrated by a photo of a snarling wolf. The copy describes ACLU-inspired lawsuits and the organization's "war against religion."

The center last summer formed a lobbying group, Liberty's Voice, to be based in Washington and go head to head with the ACLU in disputes over religious liberty.

The group hopes to put a policy activist in 12 regional offices across the country. Another goal is to field activists in every congressional district, beginning with the key Electoral College states of Florida and Ohio.

Mr. Cass says his goal this year is to raise $2 million, including $1.2 million to finance the lobbying group and three other initiatives: media outreach, an online campaign called National Grassroots Alliance and a think tank, the Strategic Institute.

'Intellectually engaged'

The Strategic Institute, with a staff of five analysts, expects to enter the debate on pornography, homosexual activism, the creation-evolution divide and "life" issues such as abortion and stem-cell research. First to sign on is Kelly Hollowell, 40, a Virginia Beach patent attorney who taught bioethics at the University of Richmond and Regent University in Virginia Beach.

The National Grassroots Alliance began in 2001 as a lobby for Senate confirmation of John Ashcroft as President Bush's first attorney general. It now has an e-mail list of 400,000 names. Over two days in late February, 107,000 of them appeared on an online petition appealing for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to save the life of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who would die of starvation March 31 after her husband successfully sought to have her feeding tube removed.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. is doing his part from Louisville, Ky., as a leading American evangelical and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In the past three years, Mr. Mohler dramatically increased his output of Internet and radio commentaries and newspaper op-ed pieces on topics such as stem-cell research, same-sex "marriage," human cloning and the definition of the family.

"There was an entire constellation of issues that demanded attention," Mr. Mohler, 45, says in an interview. "I wanted to mobilize Christians to become intellectually engaged and politically aware."

Across the country, evangelicals are forming a potent alliance, says Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a watchdog group in Washington that monitors the religious left.

"Not just evangelicals, but Catholics, too, have some political clout and are getting respect," Mrs. Knippers says. "Some people in the Democratic Party are having to pay attention to us. They've realized they've overlooked an important constituency. A lot of people think it's wrong to have an entirely secularized society, with no room for acknowledging God.

"There's a quiet determination to draw the line," she says. "The religious left is all smoke and mirrors. In terms of the religious landscape right now, the initiative is ours."

Christians in court

Modern Christian legal activism got its start in 1982, when a 36-year-old lawyer named John Whitehead founded the Rutherford Institute.

Mr. Whitehead's initial investment was $200; he now operates with a $2.5 million annual budget. He asks a network of more than 500 lawyers to work pro bono on one case a year involving religious liberties.

"When I first started Rutherford, there was no cohesive litigation strategy," Mr. Whitehead, now 58, says from his home in Charlottesville. "A lot of these Christian lawyers thought, 'Would Jesus go file a lawsuit?' and they were debating this issue constantly.

"My main emphasis was [that] even if you lose, litigation often has great education value."

The Rutherford Institute gained new prominence in 1997, when it helped Paula Jones file a sexual-harassment and discrimination lawsuit against President Clinton.

Its recent court victories include decisions allowing prayer and other religious expression at the Alamo in Texas and permitting an 11-year-old Muslim girl to wear a head covering to an Oklahoma public school.

Another Virginia lawyer, Jay Sekulow of Virginia Beach, started going to court in the mid-'80s on behalf of religious liberty and the rights of Christians.

Today Mr. Sekulow, 48, is chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a District-based constitutional law firm. The Rev. Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster, founded the center in 1990 as a Christian answer to the ACLU.

Mr. Sekulow successfully argued several cases before the Supreme Court to protect the free speech of pro-life demonstrators and allow public school students to form Bible clubs on campus.

The pivotal shift in strategic momentum for the center, Mr. Sekulow says, came when he stopped arguing from the establishment clause of the First Amendment that he views as guaranteeing free exercise of religion. He began arguing instead on free speech grounds against religious discrimination.

Both lawyers say they are optimistic, though cautious, about the future of religious liberties.

The country is seeing a "growing, strong, serious movement" of Christians, Jews and Muslims who are open and uncompromising about their faith, Mr. Whitehead says, even if that could spark a "backlash" in the public square.

Mr. Sekulow says much rides on the outcome of the "constitutional showdown" in the Senate over Democratic filibustering of President Bush's judicial nominees.

"This is going to impact every cultural issue we have right now because of the increased role the courts are taking," Mr. Sekulow says. "The next month is going to be the key month."

Joining forces

Separating church and state is in the interest of American pluralism, ACLU President Nadine Strossen argues. "Many people with deeply held religious beliefs don't want the government to interfere by having government sponsorship," she says in an interview.

"I fear the removal of the Judeo-Christian foundation of our society," Dennis Prager, a conservative Jew, wrote in his syndicated column after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted last May to remove a tiny cross from the county seal because the Southern California ACLU threatened to sue. "This is the real battle of our time, indeed the civil war of our time. The left wants America to become secular like Western Europe, not remain the Judeo-Christian country it has always been."

Binyamin Jolkovsky, editor of the Web site JewishWorldReview.com, argues that the ACLU and other civil liberties groups act counter to Jewish principles in efforts they depict as protecting minority religions.

"Jews who take their Judaism seriously don't want God taken out of the public square," Mr. Jolkovsky says.

A loose network of conservative Protestant, Catholic and Jewish groups coalesced during the 2004 election season not only to send Mr. Bush back to the White House but to add Republican seats in both the House and Senate.

Shortly afterward, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, announced that he would restart his pioneering organization to take on new challenges.

Mr. Falwell is re-entering the fray after a reawakening over the past decade of a theologically conservative movement in which religious groups quietly help, advise and emulate each other.

In early March, for instance, the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a Catholic answer to the ACLU, sent out a fundraising letter that, with a few minor changes, could have come from the Center for Reclaiming America.

"America's greatness lies in our Christian roots," the letter reads. "To a great extent, the key to maintaining those Christian roots depends on the ability of the [Catholic] Church and our bishops to proclaim the truth on the great moral issues of our time. Our enemies at the ACLU and elsewhere know this as well."

The move to counter the secular left also has the attention of Christian leaders who are black. Some brokered first-time alliances during the recent election season with white evangelicals over the issue of same-sex "marriage."

The Rev. Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Lanham joined other black pastors in Los Angeles in February to announce a "Black Contract With America on Moral Values," with the goal of promoting socially conservative legislation.

"Some of us in the evangelical community have been painted as mean-spirited and inarticulate," Mr. Jackson told 153 evangelical leaders during a March 10 gathering at the Hart Senate Office Building. Disarming such perceptions is simple, he said, adding: "The black community, with its needs, would team with the white evangelical community, with its power. We can change the way America thinks about religion."

From his vantage point in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Mohler agrees that more Americans are mobilizing against secularism but also has a warning.

"Some on the left are negotiating a way to use Christian language while keeping their liberal commitments," he says. "Evangelicals need to be more sophisticated in terms of looking past the language to what proposals are being offered."

Mr. Mohler intends to alert his audiences to such hidden hazards.

"Whether it's too little or too late is yet to be seen," he says. "Millions of Americans are awakening to the fact that something significant has happened in American society and unless they do something, the very future of the American experiment is threatened."

Staff writer Jon Ward and researcher John Sopko contributed to this report.

Part I

Religion under a secular assault

Part II

Why Bush threatens secularism