Republicans Split Over Religion's Growing Role in Their Party By Heidi Przybyla March 28 (Bloomberg) -- Republicans, who have profited politically from emphasizing faith and family values, are now finding those same issues dividing the party. Economic conservatives and secular Republicans complain their message is being drowned out by Christian conservatives preoccupied with banning abortion and gay marriage and limiting stem-cell research. On the other side, ``values'' advocates say they have provided the party with crucial support, particularly in 2004, when they mobilized religious conservatives to go to the polls to help re-elect President George W. Bush. Such concerns are turning long-simmering Republican tensions over the role of religious conservatives into an election-year split in a party already strained by differences on the Iraq war, immigration and government spending. ``There is a great deal of concern about this seeming attempt to couch everything in religious terms,'' said Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey. ``We're not a narrow-minded nation, and at least some of the people trying to define the Republican Party are coming off that way.'' If anything, religious conservatives deserve a greater Republican commitment to their agenda, said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council. ``We had reason for people all across the country to be engaged at unprecedented levels,'' said Perkins, whose group is organizing a ``values voter'' summit in September. ``It made a difference in states that were very closely divided.'' Book Tour Whitman, who was Bush's Environmental Protection Agency administrator from 2001 to 2003, has been traveling the country promoting her book, ``It's My Party Too,'' and has started a political action committee to give Republicans like herself a greater voice and elevate issues such as government spending and health care. Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said too much focus on abortion and gay marriage may weaken Republican support in the Northeast and other regions where economic matters and other issues count more. ``When you rely on those kind of social issues it helps you some places, but there's a cost to that,'' Davis said. Some of this year's most hotly contested congressional races will be held in states such as Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where some Republicans say a conservative religious agenda may not play well with voters. Losing Ground ``If you take a look at where the president's numbers are weakest and where the party has lost the most ground, it's in some of those areas where these issues have been played up,'' Davis said. Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress in 1994 because the party united behind the economic ideas in its ``Contract With America,'' he said. Davis's concerns echo those of former Missouri Senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest who wrote in the New York Times last March that his party had allowed a ``shared agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives.'' Those frustrations may reflect a shift in the party's balance of power away from economic conservatives and advocates of limited government, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio who studies the impact of religion on politics. Shifting Numbers ``It may be that the Jack Danforths were more tolerant of the religious point of view when the libertarian view was dominant,'' Green said. Ten years ago, small-government Republicans outnumbered religious-values voters by as much as 20 to 25 percentage points, said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. Now their numbers are almost equal, he said. ``The real schism of the party is not abortion or gay rights,'' Fabrizio said. ``It's religiosity. It's whether or not you believe God's Law should be used to set public policy.'' Conflict between religious and self-described moderate Republicans will intensify ahead of the 2008 presidential election, Fabrizio said. The debate is already playing out in Ohio, where an amendment banning gay marriage united religious conservatives behind Bush in the 2004 presidential race. Two Ohio pastors who campaigned for the amendment have been accused by a group of clergy of violating tax laws by promoting Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, one of two Republican gubernatorial candidates in the May primary election. Political Advocacy In a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service in January, the accusers said Russell Johnson of the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster and Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church in Columbus violated a provision of the tax code barring political advocacy by churches and other nonprofits. The complaint cited several alleged instances in which the churches promoted Blackwell at religious events, in voter-registration drives and in educational materials. Johnson called the complaint ``a form of harassment, and frivolous'' in an interview. ``Christians do not have to give up their citizenship just because they go to church,'' he said. Parsley, who declined to be interviewed, called the charges ``baseless and without merit'' in a statement issued in January, and said his church had always complied with federal tax laws. The IRS, in a report issued last month, said it was stepping up enforcement of the ban on political advocacy by tax-exempt groups amid what it called a ``dramatic' increase in the amount of money such organizations are spending on political campaigns. For 2003-2004 it was more than $10 billion, more than double the $4 billion spent in the previous presidential election cycle, according to the IRS. Of the more than 100 groups being investigated, 47 percent are churches, the IRS said. `Ground Zero' Ohio is ``ground zero'' in a battle that will help determine how successful religious conservatives will be in organizing political campaigns through churches, said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. If the Ohio attempt succeeds, ``there are going to be efforts to clone it in other states,'' he said. Similar networks are already being assembled in Texas and Pennsylvania, he said. Amo Houghton, a former New York Republican congressman, says Republicans concerned about the influence of evangelicals should be more aggressive about speaking out, particularly with Bush's approval ratings at record lows. Houghton, who retired last year, opposed legislation in Congress that would have helped legalize partisan activity by churches. ``Political campaigns are trying to identify and enlist friendly congregations to reach out to others and establish beachheads in the religious community,'' Houghton said. ``I don't think that's right.''