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`Stealth' Candidates In American Politics

AS the smoke has cleared away after the United States election campaign, the victors turn out to include hundreds of politically conservative religious fundamentalists who sought state and local elective offices across the country.

The religious right has thus emerged strongly as a force in Republican Party politics. But it is troubling that many of the new officials ran "stealth" campaigns, hiding their affiliations with groups like the Christian Coalition and often, when addressing general audiences, concealing their real agendas: public prayer and creationism in the schools, restrictions of abortion rights, and opposition to laws guaranteeing women's rights.

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The liberal lobbying group People for the American Way monitored 500 races across the country in which candidates of the religious right were running, and it estimates that about 40 percent of these won their races.

The Christian Coalition, television evangelist Pat Robertson's political organization, has said it has no statistics of its own but concurs broadly with this estimate. Many of the "stealth" candidacies were hard for opponents to track; presumably some jurisdictions won't realize just whom they have elected until new policies and decisions start to be implemented.

San Diego County, Calif., was the scene of some notable victories by conservative Christians in 1990. As candidates, they campaigned largely through church channels - mailings to people listed in church directories, fliers distributed in church parking lots - and avoided public appearances and questionnaires on issues. One woman was elected to a suburban school board reportedly without ever being seen in public until the day she was sworn in.

This surge of the religious right clearly indicates the importance of local jurisdictions in American politics.

"We focused on where the real power is: in the states and in the precincts and in the neighborhoods where people live and work," the Christian Coalition's director, Ralph Reed, has been quoted as saying. Mr. Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign fared badly, and since then his organization has concentrated on building a grass-roots political machine. "We tried to change Washington when we should have been focusing on the states," Mr. Reed said of the 1988 campaign. "The real battles of concern to Christ ians are in the neighborhoods, school boards, city councils, and state legislatures."

The fundamentalist surge also illustrates, as political scientist Samuel Popkin has put it, "how porous everything is, and how little it took to take over" offices in local party organizations. Sometimes it has been as simple as merely being in the back of the hall at a meeting, ready to raise one's hand to volunteer for this committee or that project.

Today's Christian conservatives are hardly the first example of a political movement rooted in a religious view. The progressive tradition of the upper Midwest - all those civic-minded Minneapolitans - is connected to the Lutheran social-service ethic. Roman Catholic thinkers and writers have brought their religious values to bear in making valuable contributions in the labor movement and in efforts to give capitalism a more humane face. And in the civil rights movement, the Biblical story of the Childre n of Israel and their journey out of bondage and into the promised land was one of the fundamental metaphors.

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The current wave of Christian conservatives, however, seems to call for another thinking-through of the connection between private conviction and public policy. Perhaps this is because the agenda of these conservatives moves so deeply into areas that many of us are used to thinking of as matters of individual choice, and not political issues at all. After all, many spiritually-minded individuals feel that government supports them best in their practice of their religion by leaving them alone.

In any case, if the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy, then the solution to "stealth" candidates is more active participation in races even for minor local offices, and closer, tougher scrutiny of candidates. If the successes of the religious right lead to a reenergizing of the local political process, that is not a bad thing.

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