Christian coalition wants its reward

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The Independent Online

in Washington

The Christian Coalition, one of the most powerful forces on the American right, is demanding political payment from the Republican Party after helping them win last year's congressional elections and pushing hard to pass the legislation contained in Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America".

The Coalition released a document yesterday, called the "Contract with the American Family", proposing that Congress introduce new laws imposing restrictions on abortion, allowing prayer in schools and obliging federal prisoners to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes.

The contract's 10-point agenda ranges beyond strictly moral matters to include calls for the abolition of the department of education and the elimination of government funding for the arts and public broadcasting.

"These are the 10 suggestions, they are not the Ten Commandments," Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's executive director, said at a press conference attended by a dozen Republican congressmen, including House Speaker Gingrich.

But Mr Reed, 33, said he did not think candidates of either party would be able to ignore the issues the coalition was raising. "The contract is a legislative agenda designed to pass this year if at all possible," he told CBS television yesterday.

Responding to Democratic claims the Coalition would split the Republican Party, where there is more consensus on fiscal than on social issues, Mr Reed said: "We are not going to do to the Republican congress what the feminists and gays did to the Clinton administration when they pushed for an extremist agenda that got Bill Clinton off to a poor start from which he never recovered."

Mr Reed, seeking to reconcile the limitations of secular politics with the religious absolutism of his constituents, has diluted the Christian Coalition's traditional position on abortion, the single most emotive issue in American politics.

The Contract with the American Family calls for an end to government funding for the Planned Parenthood organisation but stops short of demanding that abortion be declared illegal.

Strict adherence to God's teachings, as understood by the Christian Coalition's constituents, would require a crusade to ban abortion.

But, as Mr Reed has learned, such an "extremist" course of action would undermine the Republicans' broad church, driving away ordinary voters and causing divisions among the party leadership.