- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

Religious activists in the national election are relying on time-tested techniques, including galvanizing black church or evangelical swing voters and trying to expel pamphleteers from sanctuaries on Sunday.

The evangelical-based Christian Coalition has distributed its national voters guides this year by Internet, and the rival Interfaith Alliance is campaigning to urge churches not to circulate them.

The Catholic vote is expected to reflect the national averages and hinge on a mood of "disappointments" with the economy and scandal in the church, while the urban black vote is seen as key in certain gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

"A number of our chapters are downloading the vote guides and distributing them," said Ron Torossian, media director for the Christian Coalition.

Though he would not say which races conservative religious activists are targeting, he said, "Our internal polls are looking good, and we feel we can sweep the Congress."

Republicans are looking for a net gain of at least one seat to take control of the Senate and to maintain their seven-seat advantage in the House.

The Interfaith Alliance, founded to "counter the religious right," is targeting "voter education" with press conferences and rallies in states where the races are hot: Minnesota, Missouri, Georgia and Louisiana.

"We warn religious leaders and houses of worship against offering even an implicit religious endorsement for the partisanship self-evident in these voter guides," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the alliance.

The alliance has sent that message in 35,000 letters to houses of worship nationwide but in particular to the states with close contests, which include Colorado and Iowa.

The Christian Coalition voter guides record the stances of candidates in the races on campaign finance, human cloning, same-sex partner benefits, school vouchers, taxes, abortion and funding for faith-based initiatives.

The guides are based on voting records from Congressional Quarterly and questionnaires sent to candidates.

But more liberal activists may be working just as hard to contact a voter base affiliated with churches or synagogues.

"My guess is that the progressive forces are working very actively, a lot more than we might expect," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "It's below the radar screen of national observers."

The black vote, meanwhile, continues to be a key in states with large urban populations.

"The churches are watching very intently," said the Rev. Chuma Okoli of East Orange African American Episcopal Church in Houston, where gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races are tight.

Mr. Okoli said his church has welcomed candidates and literature from both parties but that "the hardest thing is to get people motivated to see the big picture" and go to the polls.

He preaches that voting "gives you a clear conscience" even if the candidate does not win.

Political scientist John White of Catholic University, who will study the Catholic vote from exit polls, predicted that the economy and ethnic identity will drive Catholic voters more than issues such as abortion, religious schools or the death penalty.

"There's a mood of disappointment over the economy, over corporate America and the sex scandal in the church," he said. Despite the fact that Boston has been at the center of the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal, political activists have not tied affairs of the church to the campaigns.

The major divide, he said, is that Americans who attend church more frequently are more likely to vote Republican. "The more you attend church, the more you vote Republican, and that goes for Catholics," Mr. White said.

Though the mostly Catholic Hispanic vote has grown in importance, it is not yet driven by religious belief but more by ethnic identification or desire for social benefits, which the Democratic Party promises more, he said.

"It's the sense of ethnic identity, not Catholic values per se," Mr. White said.

Wednesday, after a visit to the White House, Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs said a priority would be to "elect Senators who will vote for judges who will not legislate from the bench."

A coalition activist who requested anonymity said it was much easier to bring out the troops when President Clinton was in the White House and that it remains difficult to excite voters about judicial nominees, even though judges often play a large role in matters of morality and religious freedom.

"It's easier to fight against something than for something," the activist said. "Judicial issues are a lot harder to get your hands on."

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