While many political observers say the Religious Right has lost the prominence it gained after Ronald Reagan’s landslide elections, one conservative group continues to wield considerable political clout.

Concerned Women for America (CWA) is emerging as one of the most influential and outspoken activist groups on the American political scene. Emphasizing traditional values and family concerns, the group has made an impact on public policy debates nationwide and garnered the praise of many leading conservatives, including President Reagan.

Range Of Concerns

CWA was founded in 1979 by Beverly LaHaye, a Christian author and lecturer on marriage and family life. Beginning with nine members, the organization now claims the allegiance of more than half a million women, with 1,800 local affiliates called Prayer/Action Chapters. Each chapter is active in its own community and can also be mobilized for prayer and lobbying efforts at the national level. LaHaye says her organization’s membership is diverse, but the majority can be characterized as politically and theologically conservative women with families.

CWA’S list of concerns is broad. The organization backs the rights of the unborn; human rights; religious freedom; quality public education; and a strong national defense. It opposes the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); the spread of AIDS; sexual promiscuity, especially among the young; pornography; violent and sexually explicit entertainment; drug abuse; violence among families; and Communist expansion in the Western hemisphere. On the local level, CWA chapters have been involved in opposing school-based health clinics that provide contraceptives to teenagers. They have also called for sex-education courses that promote abstinence until marriage. CWA is given much of the credit, along with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, for defeating a proposed state ERA last year in Vermont.

CWA employs 28 staff members in its Capitol Hill office, including two lobbyists and six attorneys. While the organization has participated in a variety of legislative battles, its impact has also been felt in the judiciary.

In 1986, CWA attorneys successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court the case of Larry Witters v. State of Washington Department of Services for the Blind. There, the high court ruled that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit blind ministerial students from receiving state educational benefits for religious studies.

In a separate court battle, CWA is providing legal defense for a group of Tennessee families asking that their children be exempted from public school classes that use materials offensive to their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Late this summer, a three-judge federal appeals court panel overturned a lower court ruling in favor of the Christian parents. The case is being appealed to a full panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (CT, Oct. 2, 1987, p. 50).

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Internationally, the organization has developed a department of humanitarian affairs to provide food, clothing, and medical supplies to Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica. The program includes the establishment of farms, schools, and medical clinics as part of a long-term relief effort. CWA supports Reagan’s plan to aid the Nicaraguan contras. In addition, the group has spoken out on behalf of Christians behind the Iron Curtain.

Due to its nonprofit status, CWA cannot endorse a particular candidate for public office. However, during the coming presidential election, the group plans to get involved by distributing candidates’ voting records and urging people to vote.

Political Clout

Evidence of CWA’S growing political stature came with Reagan’s recent appearance at the group’s fourth annual convention held in Arlington, Virginia. The room resembled a political party convention, as Reagan entered to a sustained standing ovation, the fanfare of the marine band, and the waving of placards. The President said he felt as if “the reinforcements have just arrived.”

Most of his address centered on rallying support for the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, sending aid to the Nicaraguan contras, and stopping Communist aggression. But Reagan took time to praise CWA.

“In just a few short years, you’ve become the largest politically active women’s group in the nation,” he said. He also credited LaHaye with being “one of the powerhouses on the political scene today and one of the reasons that the grassroots are more and more a conservative province.”

Reagan’s appearance came as word was circulating around Washington that the Bork nomination was headed for difficult waters. In a three-week period, CWA collected 76,000 petitions from members in all 50 states urging Bork’s confirmation. At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, LaHaye was allowed to testify in favor of Bork on a panel by herself, while most other religious groups were excluded from the process.

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Other conservative leaders echo Reagan’s words of praise. “I think [CWA] is the most effective group that we have today on the Religious Right,” said Paul Weyrich, president of Coalitions for America, a conservative umbrella lobby group. “It is comprised of high-quality, success-oriented people who are inclined to take political activism seriously and who have the best follow-through of any group that I work with.” Weyrich said he believes CWA’S influence has been greatly underestimated by much of the Washington establishment.

Even opponents, including People for the American Way (PAW), the group working against CWA in the Tennessee textbook case, mix praise with their criticism. John Buchanan, a Southern Baptist clergyman and PAW chairman, said he “congratulates” LaHaye for “a very effective job in organizing what has become a very large and active conservative group.” But Buchanan said Christians who hold a different point of view should also become politically active. “I do not believe their [CWA’S] perspective represents the Christian perspective. It is representative of one group of folk who tend to come down on the far right of the political spectrum.”

Several mainstream evangelical groups have worked closely with CWA on a variety of issues, yet many are hesitant to fully embrace the group. Some raise concerns about the extent to which CWA blends religion and conservative politics. Others are uncomfortable with CWA’S frequent use of strong rhetoric within the political debate.

There is uneasiness about CWA’S largely one-woman leadership. And some have raised questions about who determines CWA issue positions and whether those positions are “spoonfed” to members rather than allowing individuals to think issues through themselves. Yet most political observers—even if they say the Religious Right is in decline—agree that CWA is mobilizing grassroots activists and achieving results.

By Kim A. Lawton.

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