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Christian conservatives mobilize to rev up `values voters'

Rallies work to energize conservative Christians

To the daunting challenges facing Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections, add another: angry "values voters" who feel used and abandoned.

"We put these people in power in 2004," said Sue Means, a home-school activist from suburban Pittsburgh. "I really expected more. I'm disappointed."

The failed federal marriage amendment, waffling on stem cell research, no new limits on abortion - Means sees little but broken promises from the Republican Congress. And she's far from alone among like-minded people whom many credited in 2004 with helping pass same-sex marriage bans in 11 states and being key to President Bush's re-election.

"There are a lot of people that are somewhat disillusioned and have a feeling of betrayal for having worked so hard and have Republicans be so unresponsive," Dr. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, said after speaking at a rally here this week. "How that will play out, I really don't know."

Such discouragement is just one of several obstacles facing Republicans in mobilizing Christian conservatives this year.

Midterm elections excite fewer people anyway. A signature issue, such as a ban on same-sex marriage, is on the ballot in fewer states this year. And the federal government has promised to crack down on church-based partisan politicking after complaints about such behavior in 2004, which could suppress religious leaders' involvement and dampen turnout.

Dobson and others are working hard to counter that possibility, even as they acknowledge their disappointment.

"Whether Republicans deserve the power they were given, the alternatives are downright frightening," Dobson told more than 3,000 attendees at the Pittsburgh "Stand for the Family" rally.

The event was the first of three designed to energize Christian conservative voters. All three are in states with hotly contested Senate races: Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Tennessee.

The Pittsburgh event was part political rally, part church revival. Held at a downtown hockey arena, it featured entertainment by the Christian pop group The Sounds of Liberty. An enormous American flag hung behind the speakers, who included Dobson, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Gary Bauer of American Values. All warned of threats to religious liberty, to marriage and, as Perkins put it, of "our children being indoctrinated with homosexuality in our public schools."

All the speakers stressed that they wouldn't tell people how to vote.

But if a politician shares his principles on issues from judges to marriage "and is committed to the God of the universe, and from my perspective, Jesus Christ his only begotten son ... it would be a sin not to go to the polls and vote for him or her," Dobson said.

Attendees munched on hot dogs and fries (the arena's beer coolers sat unplugged and empty) as they cheered the speakers and swayed to the music. Many attended with church groups and studied Bibles as they waited for the program. They were encouraged to "pray, prepare and participate" by, among other things, taking bulk packages of voter guides prepared by the conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute to distribute at their churches and asking pastors to hold voter registration drives.

"We can stand for the Lord Jesus Christ!" the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland, Wash., roared to thunderous applause.

It appeared to have its intended effect. Means said she was "definitely energized." Becky Schran, who came with about 20 others from Walnut Grove Assemblies of God Church outside Pittsburgh, said she hoped the rally "gets more information out to people and gets them attuned to what's going on."

Similar efforts are under way across the country. In Missouri, home of another tight Senate race, a ballot initiative on stem cell research has energized social conservative voters. There, Texas evangelist Rick Scarborough has led five church rallies, with two more scheduled, to rev up voters to oppose the initiative. In Washington this week, the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit included a training session on "Getting Church Voters to the Polls."

And gay marriage bans are on the ballot in eight states this year, including three with close Senate races: Arizona, Virginia and Tennessee.

"When you have a marriage amendment on the ballot, it makes it that much easier" to motivate conservative Christian voters, said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "And on balance, they'll vote for the Republican candidates in those states."

Some say such efforts go too far. Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent 117,000 letters to pastors of churches in 11 states targeted for action by conservative Christian leaders. The letter reminded pastors that IRS regulations prohibit churches from endorsing or opposing specific candidates and from intervening directly in partisan campaigns. Doing so could jeopardize a church's tax-exempt status and lead to fines, the group warned. Even seemingly benign voter guides can be a thinly veiled partisan effort, the letter said.

Earlier this year, the IRS reported that in the 2004 cycle, it investigated 47 allegations of improper church politicking; 37 were given warnings or fined, and a few cases remain outstanding.

"Houses of worship must not become cogs in someone's political machine," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the group's executive director, accusing Dobson and others of trying "to build a kind of religious Tammany Hall."

"I don't set the Senate races and I don't set the referenda," Scarborough responded. "If that has an impact on Senate races, so be it. I hope and pray that pro-life senators get elected. That's no secret. But I don't think I'd even recognize Jim Talent," the Republican incumbent in the Missouri U.S. Senate race.

Allen Hertzke, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies evangelical Christians, said the IRS focus could suppress voter turnout.

Given the array of obstacles, it wouldn't be surprising if Christian conservatives show less clout in 2006, Green said.

"But we shouldn't underestimate their ability to reach their constituencies," Green added. "A lot of this happens through church networks. Unless you happen to be in the network, you wouldn't notice it."