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Seeking Diversity Interfaith Alliance Gains Strength In Bid To Counter The Conservative Christian Coalition

Cara Tanamachi Dallas Morning News

As a child of the ‘50s, the Rev. Herbert Valentine said, he learned about intolerance watching the McCarthy hearings unfold on his living room television.

With the emergence of the Christian Coalition as a political force among religious conservatives, Valentine said he experienced an eerie feeling of deja vu.

“Similar kinds of actions, activities and absolutes during the McCarthy era were coming forth again, but this time in religious garb,” said Valentine, executive presbyter for the Baltimore Presbytery. “The moderate Christian voices were not being heard in the press.”

In response, Valentine formed a religious coalition, the Interfaith Alliance, last year. The group, made up of Protestants, Catholics and several Jewish organizations, is one of several organizations created recently to provide a forum for voices other than those of the Christian Coalition.

Interfaith Alliance is growing throughout the country, representing more than 14,000 members and increasing its membership by 2,000 per month, Valentine said. The group, which reports it has netted more than $1 million in donations, boasts chapters in 11 states.

The group’s mission, Valentine said, is to counter what he calls the “divisive and intimidating” political agenda of the Christian Coalition.

For example, his group opposes a constitutional amendment regarding school prayer and other aspects of the coalition’s 10-point congressional agenda, called the “Contract With the American Family.”

Christian Coalition members are quick to defend their group, saying the organization is neither divisive nor intolerant.

“We’re a body of religious, conservative voters involved in a political process, sponsoring legislation that would be more friendly to the family,” said Christian Coalition spokesman Mike Russell.

“The Interfaith Alliance is trying to impose a cruel double standard: that it’s OK for Christian liberals to be involved in politics but not Christian conservatives. They are basically saying religious conservatives are a threat to democracy, and I think that’s a ludicrous argument.”

Members of the Interfaith Alliance, which have been dubbed by some as the “religious left,” say they want to express more diverse opinions.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, former president of the American Jewish Congress, said he joined the alliance to rebut the growing belief that most people of religious faith are political conservatives.

“I thought that religion was becoming identified in the public mind of America with the Christian Coalition, people who were trying to enact into law a religious position for the whole country that only some people believed,” Hertzberg said. “It seemed to me we needed to pull together those religious leaders who represent the mainstream of American religious tradition.”

The alliance claims a wide range of religious, political and racial diversity among members, and one of its strengths is not endorsing a particular political party, said Albert Pennybacker, an alliance board member.

“Its life grows out of shared religious convictions of people,” said Pennybacker, a professor of ecumenical studies at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “Its common good grows out of a fairness to all people.

“We do not try to force on others a specific political agenda.”

From the group’s national headquarters, a sparse five-room office in Washington, D.C., members work to educate voters on political issues and help people organize local chapters.

Jill Hanauer, executive director of the alliance, said the group also spends much of its time helping people respond to religious conservatives.

“Whenever we see religion used as a weapon, we’ll speak out against it,” Hanauer said. “We see ourselves as being the mainstream voice of America.”

The alliance says it hopes to double its $2 million budget by 1996. The group is using a specialty fund-raising corporation to help collect donations - a tactic the Christian Coalition found so profitable, Hanauer said.

“We’re going to shine the light on the Christian Coalition to make sure the American public knows who they’re voting for,” she said. “The biggest thing we have to worry about is that the Christian Coalition have mainstreamed themselves. We have to remind the public how extremist they are.”

Other religious leaders, although alarmed by the influence of the Christian Coalition, disagree with the means the Interfaith Alliance is using to counter it. Some call the group too liberal and, at times, too political, despite the group’s bipartisan claims.

For example, disturbed by what they saw as a polarized debate between the religious right and religious left, Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourner magazine, and the Rev. Tony Compolo formed the Progressive Evangelical Network in June. Made up of more than 80 Christian leaders, the organization seeks to reconcile the two political parties, using religion as a bridge.

“The old divisions between left and right, Democrat and Republican - those politics are bankrupt,” said Compolo, an evangelist based at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa. “We want to help communities find pragmatic solutions to problems, not political ones.”

Compolo said the group plans to form a Progressive Evangelical Caucus, which will ensure that evangelical conferences and gatherings are not entirely dominated by speakers representing the religious right.

“When all that is being presented at evangelical gatherings are perspectives of the religious right, we have a situation that is in dire need of correction,” he said.

Compolo added, however, that his organization is not a foil to the Christian Coalition but rather seeks only to ensure a diverse representation of opinion.

The Center for Christian Ethics, based in Dallas, is another group formed to reflect other voices. While it does not see itself as an opponent of the religious right, it sometimes disagrees with the group’s legislative goals.

The center, which advocates the strict separation of church and state, was formed in 1989 by Foy Valentine, former director of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission and an Interfaith Alliance trustee.

Foy Valentine, who is not related to the Interfaith Alliance leader, says the center “stands in opposition to any group that would propose to speak for God or one political party.”

While the Center for Christian Ethics and other religious groups may disagree on how best to represent mainstream religion in politics, all of them share the same goal: to ensure a diversity of opinion.

“We are willing to listen to everyone’s ideas,” said Herbert Valentine of the Interfaith Alliance, “and we want to make sure that all voices are heard.”

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