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Renewed fervor among religious social conservatives

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Maria Bremberg grew up in the kind of activist, social conservative household where family photos included Mom getting arrested for chaining herself to an abortion clinic, and all seven kids had matching “Choose Life” T-shirts for protests. On Friday, accompanied by her mother and surrounded by hundreds of ralliers on the plaza outside the Health and Human Services Building, Bremberg smiled at the possibility of a renewal.

“Maybe this will bring some energy back to the social conservative movement,” she said.

‘‘This’’ is the outcry against a mandate announced in January by the Obama administration requiring, as part of health-care reform, that most religious employers provide coverage of contraception and sterilization, services that people such as Bremberg view as sinful.

As the 32-year-old Alexandria mom stood in the sunshine on the plaza, similar scenes were playing out in 140 other U.S. cities, generated by what ralliers see as a ramping up of government disdain for their understanding of Christianity.

While the ralliers loathe the mandate, they know it has galvanized them in a way nothing else has in years. That’s no small thing for a movement that has become less cohesive since the years of Jerry Falwell and even since George W. Bush.

And with planned protests approaching as the health-care law goes next week to the Supreme Court, some see an opportunity to enliven religious influence in socially conservative causes. That goal can feel elusive under a president who was the first to acknowledge “non-believers” in his inaugural address. Obama also has said that while America has a large Christian population, it is not a Christian nation.

The sense among ralliers that Christianity is under threat was an extension of the one that permeates Bremberg’s daily routine. For weeks, her e-mail inbox has been populated with messages from Catholic schools and hospitals warning about the mandate. Her Facebook page gets 20 posts a day related to it.

That torrent cranks up a steady flow in her life of a feeling that Christianity as she understands it is no longer the dominant Western worldview. As a child, she heard her father bemoan the removal of nuns as teachers at his local public school. As an adult, she and her friends share articles about a British couple disqualified from being foster parents because of their anti-gay views or a New York law banning the use of public schools for religious worship services.

Like others on the plaza Friday, Bremberg, a home-schooling parent of four young children and a former political staffer, could not name any direct examples of a vanished freedom in her own life or those of her friends. But the mandate, they say, threatens in a new way to take away religious liberties.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” said Mary Vigil, a D.C. nurse angry that the Obama administration last year rescinded a Bush-era regulation that expanded the rights of health-care workers to refuse to provide care they oppose on moral or religious grounds.

“There are so many places I’d like to look for work where I wouldn’t be allowed to practice,” Vigil said as the crowd behind her chanted, “We won’t comply!”

A Maryland priest who made news after denying Communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral took the microphone and declared a milestone in the culture wars.

“I say this is a second Roe v. Wade moment,” said the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo.

The recent planning and passion around the anti-mandate movement reminds Bremberg of her childhood, when the merger of politics and religion seemed a great and hopeful force, a time when the religious right was just beginning its rise. She and her six siblings were regulars at antiabortion rallies in Ohio, where they had special pink (for girls) and blue (for boys) T-shirts. In those days, their father organized 10,000 phone calls for Ronald Reagan.

Yet her time is different from her parents’ in many ways. While they fought for political power, she attained it. She was part of the post-Roe era, when social conservatives who had focused on winning souls homed in on winning votes and on changing the culture from the inside. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, she worked for an Ohio state senator, and her husband worked for the Bush administration.

But seeing their candidates in power proved disheartening for Bremberg and some other social conservatives — the compromises, the growth of some programs she didn’t agree with, such as No Child Left Behind.

“A lot of us thought, ‘Hmm, that compassionate conservative thing didn’t work out so well after all,’ ” she said this week at her home. She grew up in a socially conservative atmosphere in which she and her colleagues wanted to run the government. Now, she just wants to shrink it.

“I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist like my parents were” about fomenting change through politics, she said.

The political implications of all this are unclear. Polls show the anti-mandate campaign is taking some toll on the president’s standing with Catholics, a massive swing vote Obama won in 2008.

The percentage of white Catholics who said the Obama administration is unfriendly toward religion has nearly doubled since 2009, from 17 percent to 31 percent, according to a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

But experts say the anti-mandate activism could fuel voters who either support the mandate or find the notion of a war on religion overblown.

Religious supporters of Obama see him as trying to straddle the line. He expanded the faith-based office and hasn’t followed through on a promise to ban publicly funded faith-based groups from hiring only people of their own faith.

Bremberg and her mother, Ann Cordonnier, said they’ll keep fighting the mandate.

“We are drinking five-hour power drinks!” Cordonnier said with a laugh. “You won’t catch us sleeping on this, President Obama.”

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