Religious conservatives struggle in quest to dominate Republican Party



    Sen. Orrin Hatch expressed frustration regarding the struggling religious conservative movement in America when he visited BYU April 1.

    Yet while the movement struggles to mend its image of Clinton-bashing, inflammatory abortion rhetoric and harsh criticism of homosexuals, one BYU professor said the unappealing image was rightly earned by a group unrepresentative of the Republican Party.

    Byron Daynes, a political science professor, said religious conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, although effective in its grassroots, should not be left to dominate the party. The Republican Party, he said, needs to provide space for diversity and wide-ranging moderates and conservatives.

    Many religious conservative leaders like Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, have a dream for America — a Bible in every classroom, a ban on abortion, an end to gay rights and a hand-picked presidential candidate winning in the White House. Daynes said the average voter and moderate Republican is turned off by such agendas.

    “Religious conservatives can try all they can; nothing is going to stop them. But the [Republican] Party answers to concerns those groups don’t address,” he said. “I think it’s very healthy for the Republican Party to reorient themselves to the needs and concerns of the American people.”

    Many Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, in an effort to erase their low popularity ratings, are seeking to shift the agenda from moral issues to practical ones like education and tax cuts.

    “What they’ve been stressing isn’t working,” Daynes said. “The American public is concerned about things like their national security.” And although many religious conservatives might wish for a dogmatic and ruthless moral advocate to run for office, Daynes said such a candidate would never be elected in such a diverse and growing moderate party.

    Kelly Patterson, associate professor and chair of political science, said candidates who emphasize practical, pocketbook issues appeal to a broader segment of the electorate.

    “Moral issues tend to be divisive. It is difficult to assemble broad coalitions when the prominent issues actually separate voters,” he said.

    Patterson also said valence issues, on which there is widespread agreement, bring a variety of voters together behind one candidate or issue. Simply appealing to voters with divisive issues does not work, he said.

    Daynes said the 2000 election is the most important election in decades, particularly in the state legislatures where districts will be redrawn.

    “If students want to have an input at all, this is an important chance for that input,” he said. “I haven’t noticed a lack of involvement at BYU — there’s a lot of opportunity for students to get involved with politics.”

    Daynes said public opinion shows that Gov. George Bush and Elizabeth Dole are the ranking two Republican candidates running for office.

    “They can appeal to a broad range of people — that’s their strength,” he said.

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