Group's mottto: Put principle above all else
Nobody is safe from this group's criticism.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
WASHINGTON -- Among the droves of conservative Christian lobbyists arguing their points of view in Washington, one relatively little-known group has a simple formula for setting itself apart from the crowd: Don't give an inch.
Concerned Women for America always takes the most uncompromising positions. The group, founded 26 years ago in San Diego, almost never settles for half a loaf. And, at the first hint of backsliding, it attacks its conservative comrades with the same fury it unleashes on liberals.
In a place run on the art of compromise, it is a unique and lately galvanizing strategy.
"We're not just anti-liberal. We put principle above all," says chief counsel Jan LaRue. "We hold anyone's feet to the fire if we think that they're compromising on principle."
That unflinching strategy -- plus an $11 million annual budget, more than $200,000 in political action money raised last year and 500,000 members ready to flood Washington with letters, e-mails and personal visits -- has begun to make the once-marginal group a player to reckon with.
As the group's leaders see it, President Bush's re-election means their moment has arrived.
Ready to march
"I believe God has built up an army," says Lanier Swann, director of governmental relations, who just moved to the organization from the offices of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. "Following Nov. 2," she says, "they're ready to march."
What Concerned Women for America is ready to march for may be the most zealous interpretation anywhere of what it means to be a Christian conservative.
Like other such groups, for example, it opposes abortion and marriage for gays and lesbians. But the organization also objected to this year's proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because, officials say, the language did not go far enough -- it did not ban civil unions. They hope a 2005 version will close loopholes that could have sanctified marriage by any other name.
Opposes hate-crimes legislation
The group opposes hate-crime legislation, too, because it says making attacks on gays a special crime suggests the government approves of their conduct.
In addition to drawing immutable lines in the sand, the group finds ingenious ways to advance its interests. So its anti-abortion efforts not only include pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to rescind approval of the RU486 abortion pill, but also seek enactment of the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. That act, to be introduced in the coming Congress, would require doctors to tell a woman seeking an abortion that the fetus would feel pain during the procedure and then requires doctors to offer anesthesia to both mother and fetus.
Still another proposal would give ultrasound machines to all abortion clinics -- so women "will be more informed about the life developing inside of her," explains spokeswoman Rebecca Jones.
What religious liberty means
Religious liberty, as the group defines it, includes lifting the Internal Revenue Service ban on churches participating in politics. And it includes cheering judges who display the Ten Commandments in public places and championing courts that uphold the right of schoolchildren to say under God in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Robert Knight, director of the group's Culture & amp; Family Institute, an in-house think tank, is among those who object to the use of nonspecific holiday greetings instead of Christmas ones. He says "millions of Americans are waking up to the fact that the phrase 'Happy Holidays' is less a happy greeting than a pointed assault on our civil liberties."
The organization also has been a leader in the attack on the movie about the life of sex research pioneer Alfred C. Kinsey; the "ultimate goal" of Kinsey and his followers, the group's Web site says, has been "to normalize pedophilia, or 'adult-child sex."'
In the group's view, Kinsey and the movie reflect much of what is deplorable in contemporary American life.
"The agenda of the Left is to make religion strictly private and pornography public," Knight says. "And the people behind this agenda, more often than not, are homosexual activists."
Quick to attack
How quick the group is to attack those who deviate even slightly from its principles was illustrated by a fight last year over whether Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, who supports abortion rights, should become chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee.
The group joined other conservative Christian groups in forcing Specter to make a public pledge not to oppose anti-abortion judicial candidates -- and to assure all nominations reach the Senate floor -- as the price of getting his chairmanship.
But the group went a step further. It also blasted Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., when he defended his fellow Pennsylvanian. Santorum is a staunch foe of abortion and a champion of conservative positions generally -- in a 2003 interview with Associated Press, he likened homosexuality to bestiality.
Similarly, the group did not hesitate to cross swords with James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and a powerful voice among conservative Christians, over his proposed Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution barring same-sex marriage.
The White House endorsed Dobson's proposal, but Concerned Women for America said it might permit states to sanction civil unions. The amendment was voted down in Congress and Dobson, whose organization did not respond to requests to comment, was said to be furious about the group's intransigence.
Dobson should not have been surprised. Concerned Women for America is especially vigilant when it comes to anything involving gays. When Sen. George V. Allen, R-Va., another staunch conservative, voted for hate-crime legislation this year, the group attacked him, too.
To some liberal groups, all this makes Concerned Women for America what one gay activist leader calls "the looniest of the loony." Referring to its tendency to turn on conservatives who compromise, he says "This is an organization that has no problem eating their own."
But Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, which Concerned Women for America was formed in part to combat, says that goes too far. "They are not the super wackos," Gandy says. "They're just very conservative, very traditional in their view of the woman's place."
What makes CWA increasingly hard to ignore, however, is not so much its message as the muscle behind it. The key is its ability to generate floods of mail and personal visits to politicians from activist members and a cadre of citizen lobbyists -- women who voluntarily come to Washington once a month to lobby for Concerned Women for America's causes.