As candidates and delegates to this weekend's Virginia Democratic convention started to gather in Williamsburg yesterday, at least one candidate for the party's U.S. Senate nomination seemed confident about the outcome - and not for any of the usual reasons.
"I have been given the faith to believe that I will win," said G. Conoly Philips, a Norfold city councilman who is ranked as a distant third in the race. "Whether it actually happens is the Lord's problem."
In fact, Philips - a "born again" Christian who ran for the council seat two years ago because, he said, the Lord told him to get involved in local politics - and others like him are a considerable problem for political regulars in Virginia and elsewhere across the nation.
While Philips trails in delegate strength at the convention, his block of 400 committed delegates could make a winner of front-runner Andrew P. Miller, or make a viable candidate of one of the six other contenders.
"I have certain candidates that I feel stronger about than others," Philips said yesterday, "but I'm not sure that I would necessarily get any direction from the Lord about that."
Whether the Lord does in fact know whom He wants in the U.S. Senate, it is clear that self-professed Christians, motivated either by specific candidates or issues, are playing an increasingly visible role in politics.
While they do not all share the same political philosophy, they do share a newness to politics a fervent commitment and generally conservative views. Whether Republican or Democrat, they see a need for a stronger emphasis on morality and Christian values in politics.
This brings a combination of welcome and apprehension from experienced political operatives.
One veteran Democrat says he finds the "born agains" politically unreliable, injecting a divisive element into the party. "I'd rather keep my promises to other politicians than to God," as he puts it. "God, at least, has a degree of forgiveness."
In Virginia, at least 500 "prolife" advocates launched themselves in politics as elected delegates to last weekend's state Republican convention in Richmond. They controlled about 250 votes, according to Paul Brown, director of the national Life Amendment Political Action Committee.
"We put Obenshain over the top," Brown said. "The prolife vote was was crucial to him." And he adds: "Some of these politicians better beware, because we're out there. We can generate workers who can generate the vote."
The three candidates vying for the Republican congressional nomination in the Eighth District have been campaigning heavily at churches on Sunday, said Fairfax County chairman Joe Ragan. The three, Fairfax Board of Superiors chairman John Herrity and State Dels. Robert Harris and Robert L. Thoburn, face each other in a primary next Tuesday.
Thoburn, a Presbyterian minister and owner of the Fairfax Christian School, brought in a significant number of "church people" in his two previous races, so it is not surprising that the other candidates are plying the churches themselves.
Thoburn points to the larger turnout in the 1976 8th District primary compared to the 10th district, and to last Saturday's Republican convention as evidence of th new support of church people. "The nomination would have been a different story (without their participation)," he said."Obenshain won by a very narrow margin and they made the difference."
Nor is the phenomenon peculiar to Virginia. In Illinois, a fundamentalist minister tried unsuccessfully to defeat fellow Republican Rep. John B. Anderson in a primary in March; in New Jersey the 25-year old former director of the state's Right to Life organization is challenging Democratic Rep. Frank Thompson next fall.
But the current scene in Virginia provides perhaps the most interesting cross-section of the so-called Christian campaign. Thoburn, for example, bases his political philosophy on the Old Testament, while Philips tends to emphasize his view that the Lord will emphasize his view that the Lord weitlll cinstruct him on specific issues.
"What's happening is that politicians are saying that they are 'born again' as a political asset," Thoburn said. "There's a lot of apathy out there and anything that will get people excited is attractive . . . There is a great deal of difference between Conoly Philips and me, even though we are both Presbyterians. He's a charismatic. They put more emphasis on feeling and experience than I do. I have an intellectual point of view. I get support from atheists, agnostics, you name it - because of my views, not just because I'm a Christian."
Thoburn sees, for example, economic philosophy in the Old Testament. "In Isaiah it speaks of silver becoming dross; that's exactly what's happened today . . . it is wrong to simply print more money as we do; it cheapens the purchasing power and thus is actually stealing from people. We need to get back to an honest monetary system."
Philips, while finding most of his support among the "born-agains," says that "Christianity is not an issue in this campaign" and has promoted a broader platform in the last few weeks.
The reaction to the new blood has been greeted by party regulars with a mixed reaction. "They keep telling me they don't want to get involved in politics," said Fairfax County Democratic chairman Emilie Miller recently, "And I say what do you think a convention is?"
"I welcome them," said Ragan. "There seems to be a new awareness that they have an obligation to participate in the process if they want change. They've realized that if they don't get out to the hearings and the meetings, they will have a massage parlor on every corner.
Ragan said that least 400 of the 2,000 delegates to the Republican convention from Fairfax werer church generated.