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They Can Take Power, But They Can't Use It


Washington. -- You wouldn't know it from the standing-room-only crowds that packed the Washington Hilton for the Christian Coalition's annual conference last week, but there are severe limits to what the coalition, and more broadly the Christian right, can accomplish politically.

These limits become apparent whenever the religious right begins to win power, and not merely wield influence, in cities and states. Look at what has happened recently in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

In the May 1994 school-board election, Shelly Uscinski, a volunteer for Pat Buchanan in 1992 and the president of the Republican women's club, defeated incumbent board chairman Ken Coleman by three votes. Her campaign literature stressed her support for "improving the quality of education," but in a low-turnout campaign, she relied on support from the town's two fundamentalist ministers who opposed the introduction of an AIDS curriculum, and on mailings from conservative taxpayer groups.

Once in office, Ms. Uscinski joined forces with two recently elected council members, Chris Ager and Virginia Twardosky, to advance the agenda of the religious right. The three of them, forming a "majority bloc" on the five-member board, pushed through a moment of silent prayer, tossed out the schools' health curriculum and banned Planned Parenthood literature. They also rejected a new plan for a voluntary interdisciplinary school-within-the-school on the dubious grounds that it was "outcome-based education," a charge that has become a religious-right shibboleth.

Mr. Coleman and the board minority immediately accused the three of doing the Christian Coalition's bidding, but they denied belonging to the organization. That was undoubtedly true. Like many religious conservatives, they had been fellow-travelers rather than dues-paying members. But in September 1994, the coalition paid Ms. Uscinski's expenses to address last year's "Road to Victory" conference in Washington, where, she said, she was "in Republican heaven." Afterward, she joined the coalition, and both she and Ms. Twardosky began attending strategy meetings.

Ms. Uscinski's membership in the Christian Coalition infuriated her opponents, but like the proposal for a moment of silence, it might have passed unnoticed. In January, however, fundamentalist minister Paul Norwalt, who had backed the elections of Ms. Uscinski and Ms. Twardosky. proposed that Merrimack schools teach creationism in their science curriculum. The two women defended Mr. Norwalt. Ms. Twardosky told the " Boston Globe, "If you're only going to teach evolution, then your God is King Kong. I'm sorry -- my children and grandchildren did not come from apes."

More than 200 people packed the school-board meeting to protest the creationism plan. One Merrimack parent's fumed: "It's ludicrous. They cut money for computers and yet they're considering creationism." When even more parents showed up the next month, the majority bloc passed a resolution limiting debate on council proposals to the last 15 minutes of meetings.

Knowing they would lose, the majority bloc tabled Mr. Norwalt's proposal until after the May school-board election. But the election proved a disaster. With 4,086 citizens voting, 1,000 more than ever before, Mr. Coleman and one of the minority incumbents won the two open seats with a 1,500-vote margin over their religious-right opponents.

In July, Mr. Ager unveiled a proposal, adapted from religious-right efforts in Texas and California, forbidding teachers from presenting homosexuality "in a positive light" and counselors from referring gay students to homosexual organizations. Mr. Coleman tried to get counselors to introduce a substitute resolution that forbade the district from "promoting" homosexuality, but the board's majority insisted on its broader wording.

The majority hoped to recoup popularity with the anti-gay stance. Instead it confirmed growing fears that Merrimack was becoming what one resident called a "Gooberville in Arkansas."

Mr. Ager and Mmes. Uscinski and Twardosky are probably finished. Says Mr. Coleman, "My appraisal is that these people couldn't get re-elected if they were giving out $100 bills to everybody." They even face problems with their most devoted followers. "I was completely ignored," Mr. Norwalt said. "I have chosen to start my own school, where I can teach the truth."

The events in Merrimack show that when religious conservatives push not merely token reforms like a moment of silence (which the sincerely devout recognize as a canard), but proposals that contain explicit religious content, they are likely to be repudiated.

And Merrimack is typical of the new America. Its suburban voters are more Republican than Democrat, but they support Bill Weld and Christie Whitman rather than Ollie North and Pat Buchanan. If the religious right can't win in Merrimack, it won't ever be able to set the nation's agenda.

Merrimack also demonstrates the dilemma that the religious right faces as a sectarian movement. As Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed understands, it can succeed publicly as long as it couches its religious concerns in popular, universal terms and supports Republicans such as Bob Dole or Phil Gramm. Mr. Reed has been leery of identifying the coalition with Pat Buchanan, even though many of the coalition's rank-and-file back him.

But when the coalition pursues a path of milquetoast reform, it risks alienating Mr. Norwalt and its most fanatic followers. Without the fundamentalist ministers and their churches, the Christian Coalition would become just another direct mail-financed letterhead organization.

More important, the imbroglio in the New Hampshire suburb testifies to the Christian right's nugatory contribution to American education. The "majority bloc" pledged to improve the quality of education in Merrimack, but they did precious little to change what actually goes on in classrooms. Instead, they have embroiled the school board in sterile controversies about school prayer, quackery and homosexuality.

In Merrimack and elsewhere, parents have real worries about how schools are preparing their children for an economy and society that stresses skills and concepts that didn't exist two decades ago. The Christian right appears to be the last group in America equipped to address those concerns.

John Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

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