Will US politics be forced to its knees?: The right's Christian soldiers are on the march - bent on a conquest that could wreck the Republican Party

IT IS not your ordinary Friday night out with the boys. There are 52,000 of us, for one thing, and not a woman to be seen. We are not trying to cram into the Fox downtown - where 'Leftover Salmon' is the top-billed band - or into any of Boulder's trendy coffee houses. Our meeting tonight is with Jesus, on the open terraces of Colorado University football stadium.

This is the start of a weekend retreat for the Promise Keepers (PKs), a men-only Christian association with more than a million followers. The main purpose of the evening: to invite new recruits to give themselves to Christ. Several thousand snake down the aisles to an area in front of the stage, where they repeat a prayer of induction and commitment. Then the freshers weep and hug. The whole arena explodes into whooping amens.

The faces are almost all white, clean-cut, thirty something types with baseball caps and sports shirts. Dave Moore, 31, an accountant from Seattle, has come to take the pledge because he wants guidance on how to be a 'better husband and better Dad'. Tom Danda, 34, seeks relief from an environment where 'Christian values have been flushed down the toilet'. The group they are joining stridently opposes homosexuality and abortion. It preaches that the man should be reinstated as the senior partner in the household.

Positions like these have drawn the ire of civil rights activists, who accuse the PKs of being a hate group. (A march by homosexuals was planned for downtown Boulder yesterday afternoon.) The PKs are also at the centre of a rapidly growing culture of Christian activism that is not so much pastoral as political.

The future was on view at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, when speeches by the arch-conservative Pat Buchanan and the television evangelist Pat Robertson, among others, were judged by the party establishment some time after the event to have set too shrill and biblical a tone. But while dismayed strategists ordered a toning down of the 'family values' rhetoric, religious activists were apparently galvanised by the event.

Since the '92 campaign, the religious right, organised under the banner of the Christian Coalition, a movement founded by Mr Robertson after his failed 1988 presidential campaign, has embarked on a single-minded mission to infuse political discourse with fundamentalist Christian values. They have done so by championing candidates that most obviously share those values - opposition to abortion and gay rights being the most common litmus tests - and, in some instances, simply by seizing control of Republican Party structures.

Their success has been stunning. Last month alone, the religious right ensured - over the bewildered protests of the party establishment - the nomination of Oliver North as candidate for the US Senate in Virginia, the selection of a radical Christian farmer, Allen Quist, as nominee for Republican governor in Minnesota (ousting the sitting Republican governor, Arnie Carlsson, who is pro-choice on abortion) and the takeover by Christian radicals of the state party command in Texas. Other states where they have effective control of the party include Iowa, Washington State and Oregon.

As the influence of the religious right becomes more manifest, the party as a whole is being dragged sharply rightward. It is evident in the response so far from those most likely to challenge Bill Clinton in 1996. Dick Cheney, former defense secretary and early rider for 1996, has recently appeared with Mr Robertson. Bob Dole, the minority leader in the Senate, raised eyebrows by at first decrying Oliver North's progress in Virginia and within days offering him avid support and sending him dollars 5,000 ( pounds 3,300) as a campaign donation.

With many moderates appalled by what they see as an 'aggressive takeover' by Christian radicals, the risks of serious division in the party are obvious. The most likely flashpoint is abortion. While some centrists, including the California governor, Pete Wilson, are calling for the removal of the anti- abortion plank from the party platform before 1996, any such step would invoke the wrath of the religious right. Some in the party fear it could lead to a split and even the formation of a third political force.

'I think this is the opening of a major rift within the Republican Party that I think will be the major story in Republican Party politics in 1996,' said Mark Rozell, a political scientist who is writing a book about the rise of the religious right. The danger, Mr Rozell claims, is that the Republicans will become associated with a narrow Christian agenda, 'and that spells disaster for any party in this country'.

Even Barry Goldwater, whose nomination as presidential candidate in 1964 marked the last time the party took a disastrously sharp turn to the right, is sounding the alarm. 'When you say 'radical right', I think of these money-making ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party and make a religious organisation out of it,' he told the Washington Post last week. 'If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.'

The Democrats, whose fortunes under President Clinton otherwise seem gloomy, think they smell blood. In statements to the press, party leaders have attempted to cast the religous right as bigoted - for instance on the issue of gay rights - and have directed attention to the most extreme utterances of some church leaders.

Earlier this month on radio in St Louis, Mr Clinton lashed back at people who 'come into the political system and they say that anybody that doesn't agree with them is godless . . . and anyone who doesn't agree with them is fair game for any kind of wild charge, no matter how false.'

Richard Billmire, a senior researcher for the Republicans, is confident, however, that demonising the Christian right will only backfire on the Democrats, if only because mainstream Christians will be insulted by it. According to Mr Billmire, the Christians, because of their proximity to the grassroots, are recognising what the main parties have failed to see: a shift by the electorate itself to the right and a new yearning for traditional values.

That is the view also of Tom Danda at the PK conference, who belongs to the Christian coalition. He commented: 'We are watching our families disintegrate and we're watching society disintegrate. And Americans are afraid.'

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