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Religious Right Makes Headway in Bush Policy

Liberal activists and Democratic lawmakers are steamed about what they think is undue influence of conservative Christians on the Bush administration, complaining the pro-Christian movement has shifted its sights in recent months on foreign policy issues like family planning, and support of Israel.

But leaders of the so-called "religious right" say they are just making headway on issues that have always been near and dear to them, including successfully lobbying the Bush administration this week to rescind $34 million earmarked for a U.N. family planning programs that included reproductive health and contraceptives.

"Among Christian conservatives, there has always been an interest in foreign affairs, whether it be on the issue of religious persecution or other areas — and any time evangelicals or Catholics have perceived that American national security is at stake," said Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and head of American Values.

In July, religious conservatives were successful in pressing the Senate to pass $5 billion to combat HIV/AIDS overseas. They have also been key in keeping the spotlight on religious persecution in places like the Sudan, China and North Korea and have been strongly in support of Israel in its battle with Palestinian terrorists.

"It's hard for us to remain silent. We take our issues very seriously and we try to persuade as much as we can," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family, a conservative non-profit group.

Critics say conservative groups have undue influence because they have a sympathetic president and appeal to some of the most powerful lawmakers in the country. 

They complain that religious conservatives are responsible for the Bush administration's decision to renege on the $34 million package for U.N. family planning and don't buy the Bush administration's line that the money might have ended up paying for forced abortions in communist China.

"This decision isolates the United States from some of its closest allies," said Ralph Neas, president of the People for the American Way. "Scoring points with the religious right at the expense of poor women around the globe is an act of rank political expediency."

"I think the religious right is simply pushing its international agenda as much as it has pushed its agenda domestically," said C. Welton Gaddy, executive of the Interfaith Alliance, whose own agenda is diametrically opposed to that of the conservative right on the political spectrum. "It looks like they have a significant amount of influence."

But some say that liberals who are used to having their way on the international planning front, as well being unhappy with some of the decisions President Bush has been making domestically, are conjuring the all-powerful "Christian right" to make up for their own ineptitude.

"It’s a good fundraising tactic — demonizing the opposition," said Pat Fagan, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. "Why? Because their own policies don’t work, they’re not delivering."

Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who worked for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich during the "Republican revolution" of the mid-1990s, said times have changed since groups like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority could throw their weight around Capitol Hill.

Today, the far right and far left, exemplified by the declining membership of groups like the NAACP — "are just too far from where people are these days," he said.

"Come on, get real," said Galen. "Notwithstanding what anyone’s beliefs are, from a purely crass political perspective, the [Christian right] can’t deliver the votes anymore."

Gaddy is not so sure.

"It’s hard to say because we know so little about what goes on in the White House, but if you just look at public statements and postures ... I think the religious right may be just as powerful but less visible," he said. 

Conservatives acknowledge that their influence may not have as much to do with the administration’s decision as they think.

"The president ran as a conservative on a whole host of issues — abstinence, pro-marriage, pro-life — he is a social conservative," pointed out Fagan. "He’s not bowing to religious right pressure, he’s being George Bush."

Bush "is very worried about alienating his people on the right," acknowledged Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "But they're entitled to use as much influence as they can muster."