Evangelical leaders hope threat of 'radical Islam' will awaken a weary voting bloc

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Following last month's Values Voter Summit in Washington, conservative Christian power-broker Gary Bauer sent an e-mail to supporters.

He ticked off the issues dear to activists in attendance. Opposition to "abortion-on-demand" and preservation of traditional marriage led the way.

Then the one-time presidential hopeful turned his attention to a different threat, one social conservative leaders hope will shake their constituents from their apathy about the 2008 presidential race.

"The war against Islamofascism is in many respects a 'values issue,'" Bauer wrote. "That may seem like an odd statement at first glance, but, as I have often said, losing Western Civilization to this vicious enemy would be immoral."

From one perspective, branding "radical Islam" as a family-values issue is yet another example of the broadening of the evangelical agenda. But next November, it also could energize one of the Republican Party's key voting blocs, much like anti-gay marriage measures did in 2004.

"It's the ultimate life issue," said Rick Scarborough, president of the Texas-based conservative Christian group Vision America. "If radical Islam succeeds in its ultimate goals, Christianity ceases to exist."

That might sound alarmist, but Scarborough's words illustrate how many conservative Christian leaders view matters of national security as a battle between good and evil -- nothing short of a clash of civilizations.

With America at war in Iraq and continued aftershocks from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, national security is an issue for all the campaigns. But disagreement exists about how to frame the threat, with Republicans more likely to blame radical Islam and Democrats speaking more generally about terrorism.

The use of "Islamofascism" is another flashpoint. Proponents of the term argue that Islamic radicals who embrace totalitarian methods evoke European fascist movements of the early 20th century. Critics call it manufactured propaganda, a 21st-century scare tactic that fails to capture the complex causes of terrorism.

Several voices in evangelical political circles have sounded alarms about militant Islam recently:

* Televangelist Pat Robertson, explaining his endorsement this week of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, said "the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists."

* Perhaps the nation's most influential evangelical leader, James Dobson, has spotlighted the issue a dozen times over the past year on his Focus on the Family radio show. Dobson has warned that both Republicans and Democrats need to "wake up" to the dangers of militant Islam.

* At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in June, evangelical thinker Charles Colson spoke of a "long war" against Islamofascists.

Concern over foreign policy isn't a new thing for Christian conservatives. When Ronald Reagan first applied the words "evil empire" to the Soviet Union in 1983, his audience was a receptive one -- a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Fla.

"It was not by accident," said Bauer, who worked in the Reagan administration. "Reagan knew conservative Christians do tend to look at these big clashes between the West and our opponents in terms of morality and right and wrong."

Tensions between evangelical Christianity and Islam are long-standing, too. Aside from major theological differences, the two traditions work tirelessly to win new believers and often compete. Evangelical missionary groups have long protested restrictions on access to predominantly Muslim nations in Africa and the Middle East.

The Sept. 11 attacks, carried out by Muslims who cited their religion as a motivating factor, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have further inflamed evangelical anxiety.

"These Christian right activists are very concerned with order," said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "And radical Islam, in the same way that radical Communism was, is a threat that would interfere with families, with good government, and also the church and the spreading of the Gospel."

Not surprisingly, U.S. Muslim leaders are critical of the pitched rhetoric and warn of the consequences if evangelical leaders fail to separate militants from the vast majority of Muslims.

"If you look at the global picture, what these groups are doing is reinforcing the idea that America is in a crusade against Islam, and that this not a war against a group of extremists, but a war between religions," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. "In the long run, it's to the detriment of America's interests and it's pandering to a bloc of voters in a very shortsighted way."

So what kind of solutions do Christian conservative leaders propose for battling what they see as a real threat?

One is staying in Iraq. More than 40 conservative leaders, most of them social conservatives, signed a declaration in September warning against the "catastrophic" consequences of withdrawing from Iraq. The statement said the war "must be seen in the broader context of Islamo-fascism's war on America and Western Civilization."

If voter turnout is a goal, linking radical Islam and Iraq might prove risky. While white evangelicals remain among the strongest supporters of the Iraq War, that support is waning: 56 percent said in October the U.S. was right to use military force against Iraq, down from 67 percent in December 2004, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, in meetings with Republican presidential candidates, Christian conservatives are most interested in hearing an acknowledgment of the Islamic threat. The GOP hopefuls are obliging.

Giuliani -- whose preferred term is "Islamic terrorists" -- has denounced Democrats for failing to use the phrase. Christian conservative leaders acknowledge their elevation of the issue has contributed to an ironic twist at the top of the polls: Giuliani, the candidate most associated with the war on terrorism, not only won Robertson's endorsement but is polling well among evangelicals despite his two divorces and support for abortion rights and gay rights.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is aggressively courting evangelicals, produced a TV ad in Iowa titled "Jihad," in which he says, "It's this century's nightmare, jihadism -- violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism."

Those who fall short get singled out. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council accused former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a favorite of many Christian conservatives, for failing to grasp the threat of radical Islam.

Huckabee has since tried to make amends. In a Republican debate in Orlando, the former Southern Baptist minister labeled Islamofascism "the greatest threat this country's ever faced."

Green, of the Pew Forum, said if radical Islam does become a major campaign issue, it will help the GOP nominee because voters tend to view Republicans as stronger on national security. But he isn't sure it will motivate conservative Christian activists.

"If you get off into issues of taxes or foreign policy, their eyes glaze over," Green said. "If politics is going to be about those things, they'd rather be back at their churches saving souls."

Another influential conservative activist, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, said it's unclear whether conservative Christian voters understand the threat of radical Islam well enough for it to become a factor in the election.

"We've got a year to make sure they know what's going on," said Weyrich, a Romney supporter. "If they do, probably this will be the motivating issue. If they don't, you can forget it. I think the election goes to Hillary (Clinton)."

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