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The Christian Coalition: Building One Chapter at a Time

January 16, 1995

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) _ Dick Weinhold stands like Patton beside a huge American flag made of construction paper as he dispatches Texas’ newest Christian Coalition foot soldiers.

Switching on the overhead projector that illuminates the classroom’s chalkboard, the coalition’s Texas chairman outlines his strategy to take the town of Arlington:

Identify. Recruit. Train.

``Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,″ Weinhold tells his newest enlistees. ``We’re not going to take up arms. Most of what we have to do starts on our knees.″

Nine conservative Christians sipping coffee and nibbling on cookies have been summoned to the Cathedral of Praise church in Arlington to help form the newest chapter of the Christian Coalition.

A chapter has been formed almost every week in Texas, on average, since 1991, when Weinhold opened the first state office. Texas has the largest membership of any state at 63,000, with California a close second.

Nationally, the organization led by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson has surged over the past four years from 57,000 to 450,000.

The group takes partial credit for the Republican landslide in Congress. According to a Christian Coalition analysis, religious conservatives, most opposing abortion and favoring school prayer, accounted for 33 percent of the national vote in November and voted about 69 percent for Republicans.

In Texas over the past several years, the coalition and other religious right groups have scored numerous victories, including electing a Republican majority to the State Board of Education. The three GOP winners oppose teaching about homosexuality and state-approved health books they say are too graphic in discussing sex, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.

Voters in Austin repealed a city ordinance that allowed health care benefits for homosexual partners, and several Texas school districts have passed ``traditional values resolutions.″

Texas is fertile ground for the coalition’s message.

Not only does the state have a long history of conservative theology, but new migrations of conservatives to its big-city suburbs feed the philosophy, said Howard Miller, an associate history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

In an attempt to counter the influence of the Texas coalition, People for the American Way _ a civil liberties group that monitors the religious right _ is reopening its state office, which relocated to California in 1989.

``In 1989, the Texas Christian Coalition was not even on the map,″ said Michael Hudson, the group’s vice president. ``We sort of follow the movement.″

Hudson said that while the coalition’s message can come across as wholesome and all-American, it has a more extreme side he considers dangerous, such as banning both textbooks and discussion of birth control in schools.

As with every coalition meeting, the formation of the Arlington chapter opens with a prayer.

Bowing their heads together, the nine Christians are a diverse group _ a marketing executive in a tailored business suit, a single mother, an aging ``biker for Christ″ in a black leather jacket, an off-duty police officer and his wife, a real estate agent and her retired husband, an airline crew scheduler and a retired defense company worker.

As they thank the Lord for the bounty of America and pray for guidance, the flag that covered half the classroom wall crunches to the floor. They ignore it.

They are focused on their mission: to curb what they consider the moral decay of society. And according to a sign-up sheet at the meeting, that means opposition to abortion, pornography, homosexual rights and communism.

``Christians have been frustrated for a very long time with the direction society is going and have been waiting for a vehicle to express their political views,″ said Al McCann, a retired real estate agent who wants to form a chapter in nearby Colleyville with his wife, Glenda. They have come for pointers.

``We had a better society before,″ Mrs. McCann said, shaking her head. ``I don’t know how we have gone so far from family values.″

A short video called ``America at the Crossroads″ playing on the classroom TV echoes her sentiments.

``America is a troubled nation,″ the strong male voice intones.

Political corruption, government waste, unwed mothers, teens with sexually transmitted diseases, Sen. Ted Kennedy sponsoring the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Act of 1993.

``Has America lost its moral compass?″ the narrator asks. ``For the sake of America, people of faith must be silent no longer.″

``That’s right,″ Mr. McCann interjects.

Each of the nine fill out sign-up sheets, checking off areas of interest and talent _ staffing a phone bank, recruiting candidates, writing articles for newsletters and organizing events.

From here, precinct coordinators will be appointed, conservative Christian voters will be identified and put on mailing lists, and activists will be recruited for school boards, city councils and even Congress.

James Mathews, who ministers to bikers at ``secular rallies″ from the back of his Harley Davidson, says he’ll help staff phone banks for the cause.

``Of course, the abortion issue is on the forefront of it,″ he said. ``I’m also concerned about the teaching of humanism in the education system.″

Police officer Mark Stephens said he and his wife, Gina, want to ``try to get America back to where it used to be.″

``I hope to God, I pray that the government is going to get out of the peoples’ lives,″ said Stephens, who has attended Christian Coalition conventions in Washington, D.C. ``We really feel we’re committed to a cause, and that’s to uplift Christ and government as well.″

Just as it began, the Arlington meeting ends in a prayer.

Weinhold urges the group to come back to the next meeting in January and bring a friend.

``Get involved and stay with it,″ said Weinhold, himself a volunteer.

After the meeting, Doris Redd, a retired productivity manager for a defense company, said it’s about time churchgoing folks get involved in the political process.

``It’s almost too late,″ she said.

___

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Julia Prodis is the AP’s Southwest regional reporter, based in Dallas.