Conservative ‘newcomers’ match their rhetorical bark with numerical bite.

“What do most Christians in America and people behind the Iron Curtain have in common?” asks a full-page ad in the Twin Cities Christian, a well-respected, independent Minnesota tabloid. The answer: “Neither will attend a precinct caucus this year.”

Yet, ironically, in the Twin Cities’ home state, not only have Christians attended precinct caucuses in increasing numbers, but they have selected convention delegates, quizzed candidates, and worked hard to shape party platforms. What’s more, the unexpected vibrancy of this “born-again” involvement in the heart of Walter Mondale country has had a pronounced effect on the state’s Republican party.

Local news media have called it a “fundamentalist revolution” and given the so-called newcomers extensive coverage. A Minneapolis Star and Tribune poll found 41 percent of the delegates to the mid-June Republican state convention claimed to be “born-again Christians,” compared with 13 percent of the Democratic delegates. (Twenty-six percent of Minnesotans statewide say they are born again.)

Most Republican party organizers have warmly welcomed the added troops. State party chairman Leon Oistad believes the party benefits whenever anyone joins in from the sidelines. “They’re bringing new enthusiasm and new life into the party,” he says. But many of these same Republicans regard the new conservatives with the sort of cautious politesse one might exercise around the owner of an unleashed Doberman. Several seasoned party regulars were angered when conservatives mustered the numerical bite to match their rhetorical bark. When the selection of delegates got under way, Oistad says, “they [the conservatives] defeated people who’ve been active in the party, who’ve been carrying water for the elephant for a long, long time.”

In both parties, opposition to abortion is the premiere rallying point. Patrick Trueman, a Republican challenger for a U.S. House of Representatives seat, is the former head of Americans United for Life, a key national right-to-life group. He has won business-community endorsement, built an impressive 1,000-strong volunteer organization, and raised $115,000 from 1,200 donors.

Among the Democrats, known in Minnesota as the Democratic-Farm-Labor (DFL) party, abortion opponents have made their presence felt through defensive tactics. Prolife supporters, led by Christians, stalled the endorsement of a prochoice candidate for the U.S. Senate at the DFL state convention with a wearying 19-ballot fight before admitting defeat.

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While the influx of Christians into the party process surprised some observers, it has been growing steadily for several years. Glen Sherwood, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist from a picturesque north central Minnesota district, switched his affiliation from DFL to Republican in 1978.

“The Democratic party was drifting farther and farther toward the liberal persuasion, so that had a lot to do with it,” he says. Sherwood served three state legislative terms as a Democrat and two as a Republican, then ran for governor in 1982. Before his defeat in the primaries, he attracted the attention of many Christians because of his outspoken support for moral issues and his evangelical faith.

Sherwood has helped sustain a renewed interest in politics among church congregations statewide, telling them to set aside outmoded ideas about politics being “a dirty business.” He believes “it is important to get people to really focus on what’s wrong with America. The whole thrust of this movement is to make America great again in terms of the moral foundations we had. It isn’t wild-eyed as some of the liberal press wants to make it, nor is it so narrow as they like to portray it.”

Wayne Olhoft shares Sherwood’s diagnosis of national troubles, but has remained a Democrat. For ten years he was a DFL state senator, and he now administers a two-year-old coalition of Christians doing research and advocacy on current issues. It is known as the Berean League.

Swimming against liberal currents among Democrats is not easy, but Olhoft has decided not to switch parties. “The main deterrent is the personal friendships you build up,” he says. “It’s tough, just like it’s tough to switch churches.” He has seen the difference a conservative voice can make, and believes there is ample reason to persevere. “The Democrats are in control here in Minnesota, so being a part of the majority party in the Senate gave me vastly more power than if I’d been in the minority.”

At the DFL state convention, after prolifers waged their losing, all-night battle over endorsing a U.S. Senate candidate, Olhoft was encouraged nonetheless. “When you get to a state DFL convention, you find that anywhere from a quarter to a third of the convention is made up of prolife people. If we were to move our numbers up to 40 or 41 percent, we could block nominations, block resolutions in the platform, that sort of thing.”

Olhoft hopes Christians can be persuaded to stick with two-party involvement. “When we go to the polling booth, we want to have two good candidates to choose from. If, as Christians, we withdraw our salt and light from one political party, at most we can have one good option, if that. Christians are not known for withdrawing from a difficult situation. We’re to be known for longsuffering and endurance.”

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Sharply defined issues—like abortion—brought Christians out of their “holy huddles,” one observer said, and bipartisan training workshops equipped them to be effective participants. Sharon Mueller, with the Social Concerns Committee of the Greater Minneapolis Association of Evangelicals, directed 41 such workshops at the invitation of individual churches.

“The whole idea was to make it easy and accessible and to take away the fear of politics,” Mueller says. “I appealed to them as Christian people, that they should participate in the process and know who best represents their values. We never handed out resolutions or talked about specific issues.”

Mueller advised her trainees to hold neighborhood coffees to identify people who would be willing to serve as delegates. She distributed slips of paper to gather names, addresses, and party affiliations. Individuals who lived near one another and wanted to volunteer for the same party received lists of names and phone numbers. After introductory remarks about how precinct caucuses work, Mueller divided the group into Democrats and Republicans. She and a coteacher provided more specific information about each party.

As interest and participation among Christians heightened, so did fears about an emerging monolithic, fundamentalist power bloc. In a Minneapolis Star and Tribune opinion column, University of Minnesota political scientist John E. Turner wrote, “Their answers to perplexing questions, anchored in religious purity, are beyond challenge.… A mindset attuned to absolutism makes compromise impossible and is anathema to the American tradition of an open society.”

On this score, Mueller has a ready answer. In her suburban Minneapolis district, a group of newcomers to the Republican party met regularly to plot strategies. After the newspaper hammered home the term “fundamentalist,” Mueller said the group polled itself one evening to determine what church backgrounds were represented. Out of a dozen people, half were from mainline denominations and the rest from Baptist, Evangelical Free, or independent churches.

Mueller’s district is represented in the U.S. Congress by Republican Bill Frenzel, a moderate who supports the Equal Rights Amendment and has a liberal voting record on abortion. Whether or not to endorse him for reelection presented the newcomers with a clear choice between principle and pragmatism. Mike Cavanaugh, a conservative organizer within the Republican party, said Frenzel was endorsed unanimously despite qualms about his positions. “The idea was we could talk to him later,” Cavanaugh said.

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Frenzel, recognizing the shift in the party back home, has scheduled frequent meetings with new party conservatives. He has been the object of many letters as well. Frenzel’s press secretary, Pat Eveland, said prolife people have “laid it on pretty heavily about what they expect,” although all but a handful of letters have been reasonable in tone. “Most people say ‘Please reconsider’ when he sees them at political meetings. A few people drag him off and demand a change of mind or call him ‘ungodly’ or ‘unchristian,’ ” Eveland said.

“That is very disappointing to him. He is a religious man and a family man,” she said of Frenzel, who attends a weekly prayer meeting for congressmen. Frenzel has received about five letters that appeared threatening. However, Eveland said, “we think we can work with the new people.”

Two party stalwarts who had more difficulty working with conservative activists were David Jennings, Republican platform committee chairman, and state cochairman Marj Gruenes. Jennings resigned following a struggle between moderates and conservatives over just how specific the platform planks should be. Jennings and his committee recommended a statement of ten broad principles about the need to restrict the size and scope of government.

Conservatives objected to this and pushed through resolutions supporting a Human Life Amendment, a 21-year drinking age, prayer in schools, and dozens of other specific planks. The publisher of the Twin Cities Christian, Leonard Jankowski, noted in an editorial, “The rule is, winner take all. This year Christian delegates played hardball and came away with … [a] party platform that reads like a conservative Christian’s shopping list.”

Owing to an organized conservative effort to portray her as a traitor to the Reagan cause in 1980, Gruenes lost her bid to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Dallas. After the vote at the state convention, some party newcomers sent apologetic notes. One said, “Like many of the other delegates, I was acting on misinformation on your prolife position.”

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Party chairman Oistad believes these power struggles were masterminded by disaffected party members who influenced Christians in order to regain a position of power for themselves. In the interests of pre-election unity, he refused to name them.

Perhaps the most serious criticism leveled at the new Christians in politics concerned their use of a religious test for public office. “Some people were calling delegates and asking them if they had Jesus in their hearts,” Oistad said. “That’s bad, that’s horrible, and it’s given this entire movement a bad name.” He acknowledged this had happened infrequently and appeared not to have been organized extensively.

To heal a growing party rift, Oistad held six meetings between moderates and conservatives. “They traded war stories,” he said. “The prolifers pointed out that they haven’t been able to be elected as delegates for ten years, and the moderates started seeing their point of view.” That is prudent, because the newcomers plan to persist in their efforts. “This is not just a lark for 1984,” Mueller said. “It is not something people did instead of joining a bowling league.”

If so, they could make a substantial difference in a state that has supplied the nation with such liberal champions as Hubert H. Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale.

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