By RACHEL ZOLL
AP RELIGION WRITER
To outsiders, conservative Christians seem at the peak of their influence.
Books by evangelical pastors Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are multimillion best sellers, megachurches are building satellite congregations to meet demand, conservatives control Congress and religious activists helped put a Bible-believer in the White House.
Yet, many evangelicals still consider themselves a persecuted majority, hounded by "secular fundamentalists" intent on driving religion from public life.
Opponents find this view baffling. Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina and a critic of the religious right, says evangelicals consider themselves oppressed only because some Americans disagree with them.
"They want to be culture dominant," Leonard said.
But many evangelical leaders say conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics continue to be maligned by some of the most influential institutions in the country -- the media, public schools, universities and Hollywood -- and they argue that societal demands for tolerance are extended to every group but them.
"There is an attempt by the secularists to take Jesus Christ and to take God out of every aspect of our society," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
This worldview was on display this month at the "Justice Sunday: II" event, which enlisted Christians in the fight for more sympathetic federal judges.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the advocacy group that helped organize the gathering in a Nashville church, contended that limits the U.S. Supreme Court has placed on religion in public schools have meant "that our children don't have a right to pray."
William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told the crowd he was "tired of being told" that if faith informs your thinking "you're a second-class citizen."
In an interview, Donohue said conservative leaders are not paranoid, as critics contend, nor are they cynically attempting to mobilize their followers. He said his anti-defamation group logs dozens of cases each month in which Christians are compared with the Taliban or otherwise denigrated for their beliefs. Many of the slurs are in films and on TV, he said.
"We are basically in a reactive mode," Donohue said. "I don't create the offenses. I react to them, and the offenses just seem not to stop coming."
Spikes can come when leaders linked with the movement are in the news, such as Pat Robertson, who suggested Monday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez should be assassinated. Robertson was widely criticized.
John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, said evangelicals who feel slandered are responding partly to the added attention from their role in the presidential race.
"Their very success has brought extra criticism that feeds this sense of being persecuted," Green said. "Before, they felt a lack of respect. Now, they feel some hostility."
And despite their growing political clout, evangelicals have not achieved many of the policy changes they consider key, Green said, such as outlawing abortion. They worry that politicians who benefit from Christian support will not stand with them on these major issues.
Anger toward Frist
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently angered conservatives when he broke from the Bush administration to support expanding embryonic stem cell research. Frist was a speaker at the first "Justice Sunday" in April but was not invited to this month's rally in his home state of Tennessee because of his position on the issue.
Evangelicals perceive themselves as especially powerless in American society, which continues to tolerate behavior traditionalists consider immoral, such as homosexuality.
Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, a top evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif., said loss of influence in the broader culture is behind the frustration that persists no matter how many lawmakers Christian activists help elect.
"The idea that you are at the center of society, you're a foundational institution, there's been a move away from that," said Gibbs, who thinks evangelicals are misunderstood but not persecuted. "I think the church is struggling to regain that, which in my personal view, ain't gonna happen."
The sense of being outsiders has historical roots as well. For much of the 20th century, liberal-leaning Protestants were considered the mainstream of American Christianity, while biblical traditionalists were generally marginalized and often mocked.
Starting around the 1960s, as mainline Protestant denominations started losing members, conservative churches were growing, yet evangelicals still felt shut out. A new emphasis on personal freedoms was pushing organized religion to the sidelines of public life.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions supporting abortion-rights and prohibiting public school officials from organizing or leading prayers and devotional Bible reading were also part of this troubling shift for evangelicals.
Christian law firms such as the Alliance Defense Fund say their caseload of religious freedom violations in public schools alone remains steady to this day. Among their recent lawsuits: a New Jersey second-grader barred from singing "Awesome God" at a school talent show.
Behind the conflict about religion in public life is a debate within Christianity itself over how the Bible should be interpreted and which view should be considered the norm. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, warned recently that Christianity is experiencing a "global identity crisis."
Gibbs said conservative Christians need to accept that they live in a nation that is becoming ever more diverse, and that no single Christian group will have a "privileged voice" in society.
"You've got to find ways of being heard within that context," Gibbs said. "But we shouldn't get angry or try to reclaim the past."
XOn the Net: Family Research Council: http://www.frc.org/