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Christian right activist critiques tactics used by the movement

A conservative evangelical active in the Virginia Republican Party has offered a friendly critique of many of the techniques and tactics used by leaders of the Christian Right that he says have diluted its effectiveness in national politics. Thomas C. Atwood, former controller of Pat Robertson's presidential campaign exploratory committee and a district chairman of the Fairfax County, Va., Republican Party, offers his perspective in the fall issue of Policy Review, of which he is managing editor.

The periodical is published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that influenced many of the domestic and foreign policy positions of the Reagan administration.

According to Atwood, "evangelicals have failed to win either influence or offices commensurate with the number of enthusiastic activists they have brought into the (Republican) party." Although he says this isolation "is explained partly by widespread bigotry against conservative evangelicals," he adds that "the isolation is also of the evangelical right's own making. Conservative evangelicals have made a number of major political errors that have hampered their effectiveness."

One such error, Atwood says, is the overestimation of the strength of the movement. He maintains that "this overconfidence discouraged conservative evangelicals from following basic rules of politics, such as respect for opposing views, an emphasis on coalition-building and compromise and careful rhetoric. Thus they often came across as authoritarian, intolerant and boastful. And high expectations made the evangelical right look worse for its failure to live up to them."

Another failing, the activist writes, is that "the evangelical right never built strong relationships with the mainstream evangelical establishment as represented by Billy Graham, Christianity Today magazine and the National Association of Evangelicals. Another missed opportunity has been the failure of white conservative evangelicals to build effective political relationships with black evangelicals."

Atwood declares that "conservative evangelical activists are now notorious for displaying an overconfidence in their ability to discern the Divine Will at any time, in any situation."

He says that "well-intentioned though they are, one has to question whether some of these uses of Scripture aren't violations of the commandment against taking the name of the Lord in vain. From a strategic view, such arguments can be counterproductive, because so many hearers are offended by the presumption of speaking for God."

The Policy Review editor also faults other aspects of the rhetoric often used by the Christian right. "Too often," he writes, "the implicit rallying cry of the evangelical right has been "Christians, take over,' instead of "Christians, serve.' Too often the rhetoric has seemed to express anger and condemnation. To become cultural leaders, though, conservative evangelicals must minister healing, compassion and justice to the culture, not simply condemn its fallen nature."

After making his criticisms, Atwood expresses optimism that the movement can and will change its tactics. "One of the virtues of the evangelical right has been its sincere effort to learn from its mistakes," he writes. "The theological and political lessons mentioned in this article are frequently discussed within the movement."

Atwood offers several suggestions for how the Christian right can improve its effectiveness by changing its tactics, including the following:

"Use Scriptural references more judiciously and stop using messianic rhetoric to describe and motivate the movement."

"Don't exaggerate anti-Christian bias; given the freedom of religion, the proliferation of religious broadcasters and the rapid growth of evangelical churches in America, indiscriminate charges of persecution against Christians can jeopardize credibility."

"Make tactical compromises in order to achieve longer-term objectives. For example, pro-lifers' plans to target maximum achievable pro-life legislation, state by state, will save some lives right away; they will also turn the legislative and public relations momentum in the movement's favor and perhaps eventually lead the public to support a comprehensive ban (on abortion)."

Atwood concludes that "conservative evangelicals can yet be the cultural leaders, the salt, light and fruitful grain they are called to be, but only by persistently applying the lessons of the '80s. "Servant leadership' may not have the dramatic ring that a "moral crusade' for political power does, but it is the true call of Christian citizenship."