Religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy. They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives.
–Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ)
It wasn’t so long ago that organizations like the Moral Majority, run by Jerry Falwell, and the Christian Coalition, headed by Pat Robertson, were seen as the new major players on the national political scene. Armed with millions of dollars and the backing of hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians, particularly in the South, the religious conservative movement, emboldened by Ronald Reagan’s ascendance to the presidency in 1980, became a force in American politics. Intentionally set on tearing down the wall between church and state, these religious forces have wrought havoc on the political landscape and have pulled the Republican Party ever-further to the right on social policy.
However, the unified front that the Christian right once put forth has been in slow decline. The Moral Majority disbanded at the end of the 1980s, and the Christian Coalition, while it is still around, is losing state chapters, one by one. Both are largely considered irrelevant in the face of newer groups such as James Dobson’s Family Research Council. Today, we hear that another state chapter – this time, the Christian Coalition of Alabama – has decided to abandon the national group, becoming the third state chapter to do so this year.
“It’s a very sad day for our people, but a liberating day,” said John Giles, president of the coalition’s Alabama chapter, which announced Wednesday that it was renaming itself and splitting from the national organization. The Iowa and Ohio chapters took similar steps this year.
Giles said he and his Alabama colleagues have “a dozen hard reasons” for the action but would elaborate on only one — a perception that the coalition’s leadership was diverting itself from traditional concerns such as abortion and same-sex marriage to address other issues ranging from the environment to Internet access.
Giles predicted further defections and said the coalition was now left with only a half-dozen strong state chapters and a weak presence in Washington.
The funny thing is that the Giles is correct when he says that the Christian Coalition isn’t focusing solely on its traditional issues as much. I ventured a visit to their issues site, and while most of the issues deal with social policy or are related to religion, they’re hardly any of the true ‘red meat’ issues that conservatives talk about these days. In addition, they note work to make the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts permanent, a bill from right-wing hack Henry Hyde on reforming the United Nations, and a bill that would repeal the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. As far as I know, those are hardly issues that would merit a religious organization’s focus.
One can get a further idea of the devolution of the Christian Coalition from being any sort of seriously-taken religious group to a pure GOP front when one looks at their list of press releases. Here’s a sampling of some of the latest releases:
Thursday, 8/17/2006 – Christian Coalition Commends Congress for Passing and President Bush for Signing New Pension Reform Law
Thursday, 5/25/2006 – Christian Coalition Helps House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Gain Bipartisan Victory on ‘Net Neutrality’ in Today’s Committee Hearing
Wednesday, 5/17/2006 – Christian Coalition Announces Support for ‘Net Neutrality’ to Prevent Giant Phone and Cable Companies From Discriminating Against Web Sites
Thursday, 4/6/2006 – Christian Coalition Commends President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Frist in Decision to Not Seek Membership in the Newly Created U.N. Human Rights Council
It’s nice to know that the Christian Coalition actually supported the Democratic position on net neutrality (which didn’t please the defecting state chapter heads), but that issue – along with the U.N. Human Rights Coalition and pension reform – are hardly the kind of issues that are going to keep the base fired up. Indeed, if the topics covered and the regularity with which press releases are being put out (about once a month in the past six months), then it’s no wonder state chapters are leaving. Those that have left are clearly not happy with Robert Combs, the head of the Coalition since Robertson left in 2000:
Steve Scheffler, who led the breakaway of the coalition’s Iowa chapter in March, blamed Combs herself for much of the friction, saying she didn’t treat the heads of the state affiliates with respect.
“The relationship has been very poor — an F minus to say the least,” he said. “Her abilities in leading a national organization are not good.”
“The sooner the organization goes completely away, the better,” he added. “They’re a total disgrace.”
Last July, the Ohio chapter of the Christian Coalition left the organization as well. From the AP article, the chapter head was also not pleased with the lack of focus:
The head of the breakaway Ohio chapter, Chris Long, said a particular source of concern was the coalition’s recent collaboration with various grass-roots groups — some of them liberal — in lobbying for so-called “net neutrality” to safeguard equal access to the Internet.
“We were surprised that the national office took such a lead role on such an obscure issue, at time when marriage protection and stem cell research were being debated,” Long said.
But one of the main reasons that was cited when it left in July was the financial troubles that the national organization had.
“From this time forward, we will be known as Ohio Christian Alliance (OCA),” said Chris Long, executive director of the new group.
“It was a sad day when our board found it impossible to continue a name that was associated with the national organization,” he said Wednesday, adding, “But the board felt it would rather function as an independent organization than an organization shrouded with perceptions contrary to Christian commitments, and it voted unanimously” to spin off.
Mr. Long said recent published reports indicating the CCA was $2 million in debt, was being hounded by creditors and was being sued for late bill payments also “reflected badly” on the national body.
A few months ago, the Washington Post ran a front page story on the hard times that the Coalition has faced. The conclusion? After Robertson and his youthful sidekick, Ralph Reed, left the organization, the Coalition was revealed to be a paper tiger whose organization was two people deep.
The once-mighty Christian Coalition, founded 17 years ago by the Rev. Pat Robertson as the political fundraising and lobbying engine of the Christian right, is more than $2 million in debt, beset by creditors’ lawsuits and struggling to hold on to some of its state chapters.
Although some of those groups have begun moving into the coalition’s specialty — grass-roots voter education and get-out-the-vote drives — none is poised to distribute 70 million voter guides through churches, as the Christian Coalition did in 2000.
From its inception, the coalition was built around two individuals, Robertson and Ralph Reed. Both were big personalities with big followings.
“After the founders left, the Christian Coalition never fully recovered,” said James L. Guth, an expert on politics and religion at Furman University in South Carolina. “The dependence on Robertson and Reed was really disastrous.”
Combs tried to claim that things have gotten better under her watch, but the Post article makes it clear that she’s holding a line that’s full of crap.
IRS records show that the Christian Coalition’s red ink has remounted. Its debts exceeded its assets by $983,000 in 2001, $1.3 million in 2002, $2 million in 2003 and $2.28 million at the end of 2004, the most recent year for which it has filed a nonprofit tax return.
Lawsuits for unpaid bills have multiplied. The Christian Coalition’s longtime law firm — Huff, Poole & Mahoney PC of Virginia Beach — says it is owed $69,729. Global Direct, a fundraising firm in Oklahoma, is suing for $87,000 in expenses. Reese & Sons Inc., a moving company in District Heights, is trying to recover $1,890 for packing up furniture when the Christian Coalition closed its Washington office in 2002. The list goes on.
The reason the Christian Coalition was so effective was because of its grassroots political power, as the WaPo article notes. 70 million voter guides is roughly equal to 25% of America’s population, and it is a higher number than the votes either Bush or Kerry received in the 2004 presidential election. However, Robertson’s public perception has greatly fallen after his controversial statements have increased in frequency since 2000. Reed, who was once a Time Magazine cover boy, was greatly damaged by his connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and his double-digit loss in the primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia to an unknown effectively ended his political career.
Although you have had Dobson and the next wave of religious leaders hold huge events such as Justice Sunday to pressure Washington to push forth ultraconservative legislation, they have largely failed (I didn’t even know there was a third Justice Sunday until I visited the website – shows how noticeable they’ve been). In effect, the new groups are going to fail in the long run because they don’t do what the Christian Coalition was able to do so effectively back in its heyday – deliver votes. Instead, there have been televised spectacles on cable that few people watch, and they’ve still been able to raise large amounts of money – but any real political clout that the religious right wields may be a mile wide but an inch deep. And with the Coalition coming apart over their finances and direction, the last truly national force in evangelical politics is nearing its end.
Don’t expect the Christian Coalition to be making a comeback anytime soon. It seems like some politicians, even in solidly Republican states such as Alabama, don’t take the group seriously anymore:
The Christian Coalition of Alabama wants to know where candidates for the state Legislature stand on a wide variety of issues, ranging from prayer in school to abortion to whether people who are homosexual should be allowed to serve in the Alabama National Guard.
The survey did not sit well with some Democratic legislators, who said they believe the purpose is to use their answers against them.
“They do it purposely to campaign for the candidates they want and to hurt the candidates they don’t want,” said Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, an outspoken critic of state Christian Coalition President John Giles.
After receiving the survey, Holmes sent a letter to Giles saying he would answer all the questions if Giles would answer questions revealing the source of the Christian Coalition’s money. Holmes has supported a bill opposed by Giles that would force the Christian Coalition and other nonprofit groups to disclose the source of money used to run ads to influence a legislative issue or a referendum.
“Until you answer those three questions, GO STRAIGHT TO HELL,” Holmes said in the letter to Giles.
My sentiments exactly.