The Christian Coalition: Political powerhouse
or paper tiger?

Bush and other GOP presidential hopefuls to court Religious Right at Christian Coalition conference
An Americans United Special Report


WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 -- When Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition holds its "Road To Victory" Conference here this week it will find a bevy of Republican presidential candidates eager to address the crowd.

Confirmed speakers include Texas governor and GOP front-runner George W. Bush, as well as former Reagan administration official Elizabeth Dole, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, Sen. Orrin Hatch, pundit Pat Buchanan, conservative commentator Alan Keyes and Religious Right activist Gary Bauer.

The coalition seems to revel in its reputation as a GOP political powerhouse. But is that reputation well founded? Recent developments suggest that a strong case can be made that behind the P.R. claims and self-congratulatory rhetoric of the group's leaders lies an organization in, at the very least, transition, and at the very worst, serious trouble.

The Christian Coalition remains the largest and most powerful Religious Right group in the nation. However, the organization has been hampered recently by internal divisions, loss of staff, declining revenues and revelations that it has inflated its claims about its membership and activities. In addition, the organization is still reeling from the Internal Revenue Service's decision earlier this year to deny the coalition a much-sought tax-exempt status.

The only "victory" the organization can claim this year is a federal judge's ruling dismissing the bulk of the FEC's lawsuit against the group. The FEC had charged the organization with improper partisan politicking, but the judge dismissed most of the charges. This ruling came as no surprise to most observers, given the weak state of federal election law.

Despite that minor victory, the Christian Coalition remains in a state of rebuilding. While it is much too early to say the organization's power has peaked, the coalition is struggling to regain lost credibility and influence. The outcome of these efforts will determine what role the organization will play in federal and state elections in the year 2000 and beyond.

This background paper examines some of the recent developments that have affected the Christian Coalition and assesses the organization's power as we approach the year 2000.

The IRS Ruling

Undoubtedly the most important development for the Christian Coalition this year was the decision by the Internal Revenue Service to deny the group's application for tax-exempt status.

It is unclear exactly when the IRS took this step. On June 10, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the IRS had denied the Christian Coalition permanent tax-exempt status. Apparently, the organization's leaders had been notified some time before that this action would occur. The news was a political bombshell that dominated the headlines for several days afterwards; it was also a significant blow for the coalition.

In the wake of the IRS's action, coalition officials struggled to put a good face on the development and acted as if the denial was not a big deal. Indeed, the coalition quickly issued a press release claiming that it had voluntarily withdrawn its application for 501 (c)(4) tax-exempt status.

But the fact remains that the coalition desperately wanted to remain tax exempt and had tried repeatedly to negotiate with the IRS to find a way to keep the provisional tax exemption it operated under for 10 years. Only when the negotiations failed, and it became clear that the IRS was going to deny the group final tax exemption, did coalition leaders withdraw their request.

Why was tax exemption so important to the coalition? In a nutshell, the group spends most of its time these days working to find ways to distribute millions of "voter guides" in conservative churches. These guides, while couched as "non-partisan," are in fact heavily stacked to favor the coalition's favored candidates in given races (almost always ultra-conservative Republicans). Most church leaders are well aware that houses of worship, as tax-exempt entities, cannot legally distribute partisan material. In the past, the coalition tried to allay these concerns by claiming that its guides were permissible for in-church distribution, since they were prepared by a tax-exempt organization. The IRS action thus dealt a severe blow to the group's credibility. In short, loss of tax exemption quickly exposed the coalition's claims to be "non-partisan" as specious.

The Christian Coalition Reborn

Despite the IRS ruling, the Christian Coalition has refused to give up its quest for tax exemption. In the wake of the IRS action, the coalition split into two separate entities. The first, Christian Coalition International, is a for-profit organization that will supposedly be organized and run like a business corporation. The second, Christian Coalition of America, will be tax-exempt, using the already secured tax exemption-under IRS section 501(c )(4) -- of the coalition's Texas affiliate.

Robertson and other coalition leaders have stated that they plan to continue many of the same activities, including distribution of voter guides, under the banner of the tax-exempt Christian Coalition of America. However, it remains to be seen if this audacious gambit will be successful. The reasons for the IRS's denial of tax exemption to the Christian Coalition have not been made public; however, it seems reasonable to assume that too much emphasis on partisan politics was a determining factor. If that is the case, it seems unlikely that the coalition could simply operate in the same manner under an already constituted tax-exempt affiliate without also jeopardizing that group's tax-exempt status as well. (Americans United and other watchdog groups are monitoring the activities of the Christian Coalition of America very closely and will report any instances of partisan politicking to the IRS.)

The FEC Case And What It Means

Less than two months after the IRS denied the Christian Coalition tax-exempt status, a federal judge in Washington, DC, dismissed the bulk of a lawsuit against the coalition that had been filed by the Federal Election Commission. The FEC had accused the coalition of improperly working in coordination with several Republican campaigns since 1990. U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green noted the clear ties between the group and the campaigns, but ruled that the organization's activities did not go so far as to violate federal election law.

Coalition leaders immediately proclaimed vindication and said the ruling had cleared its voter guides for distribution in churches. While it may serve the coalition's interests to create confusion in the public mind, the facts simply do not warrant the group's conclusion. In her ruling, Judge Green noted that many of the coalition voter guides favored certain candidates over others, which would make them partisan literature advocating for the election of candidates -- in other words, verboten material for churches and other non-profit entities. Judge Green read federal election law, which is already weak, exceedingly narrowly, and this enabled the coalition to slip through some legal loopholes. Nevertheless, the judge's ruling is replete with examples of how the Christian Coalition worked to help GOP candidates. Judge Green simply said those actions did not run afoul of the current federal election laws, which she acknowledged are largely toothless.

Federal tax law, unlike federal election law, is very strict. Federal tax law prohibits all tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes houses of worship, from engaging in partisan politics. Thus, the distribution of voter guides that a federal judge concedes are biased toward certain candidates would seem to raise serious tax issues for churches.

(It should also be noted that the case was not a total loss for the FEC. Judge Green did find that the coalition had acted illegally in two instances and agreed that the organization should pay a "civil penalty" in these cases.)

As far as the Christian Coalition's legal liability is concerned, the issue appears to be settled, as the FEC has said it will not appeal the case. But the issue is not so cut and dried for houses of worship. The bottom line for churches remains the same: Houses of worship may not distribute partisan campaign material or material that advocates for the election or defeat of specific candidates. Churches that do so are putting their own tax-exempt status at risk. In that respect, the FEC's unsuccessful lawsuit against the Christian Coalition is a mere footnote to what the IRS did two months previously. The issue for the 1999 and 2000 election seasons will be determined by how bold the "new" Christian Coalition chooses to be. If the group continues to distribute large quantities of voter guides through churches, work in close conjunction with Republican campaigns and engage in other highly partisan activities, in other words, conducts "business as usual," it will do little more than invite further IRS scrutiny of its activities.

Coalition Internal Divisions and Financial Difficulties

The Christian Coalition's tax problems could evaporate tomorrow, and the organization would still be facing some significant problems.

The coalition has a reputation as a powerful force in Republican politics. Recently, however, evidence has come to light indicating that the group may not be as large, wealthy or as widespread as many have assumed.

When the St. Petersburg Times broke the story about the IRS's decision to deny tax exemption to the coalition, it also reported that the group's number of active state affiliates had dwindled from 25 to about six. The organization's income was down, too --from $26 million in 1996 to $17 million in 1997. Newsweek reported that Robertson had to shore up the group with $1 million from his personal fortune in 1998 because revenues had fallen short. One ex-coalition official told Religion New Service in June that the coalition currently has a deficit of $2.5 million.

Coalition membership is nowhere near what the group claims. The coalition claims to have nearly two million members and supporters. This figure was routinely reported in the media. Yet, simple arithmetic shows it cannot be true. Coalition membership dues are $25 annually. If the organization had 1.9 million dues-paying members, its annual budget would be $47.5 million. The organization has never had a budget anywhere close to this.

In fact, USA Today reported that, according to an internal fund-raising document, the coalition mailed only 428,000 membership cards in 1998. This figure jibes with coalition membership figures put forth by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU analyzed coalition postal statements in the mid 1990s, when the group mailed a bimonthly membership magazine to supporters. Based on those figures, Americans United estimated coalition membership at between 400,000 and 450,000. (The New York Times reported in August that the coalition's membership rolls were swelled with "thousands of names of dead people and wrong addresses" as well as "many one-time contributors and people who once signed a petition or called an 800 number.")

Reports have also surfaced that the coalition wildly inflated the figures for the number of voter guides it has distributed. coalition officials routinely claim that the group distributes 40 or 50 million voter guides in an election year. (Some group leaders have claimed that the coalition will distribute as many as 70 million in 2000.) But Dave Welch, the group's former field director, told The New York Times in August that those figures are not reliable.

"We never distributed 40 million guides," Welch said. "State affiliates took stacks of them to recycling centers after the election. A lot of churches just put a pile of them on the back table. I never considered effective distribution anything short of inserting them into church bulletins, but in very few churches did that actually happen."

The coalition worked hard to keep up appearances, however. On a few occasions, it hired temporary workers to staff its national office in Chesapeake, VA, during media interviews, creating the appearance of a busy work environment. On other occasions, staff members were told to leapfrog from office to office, making empty rooms look like centers of activity.

Personnel Problems

The coalition has also been roiled by internal divisions and staff turnover. When Ralph Reed departed the group as executive director in 1997, he was replaced by two men -- former Reagan administration official Don Hodel and Randy Tate, a former one-term congressman from Washington state. Hodel lasted less than a year, reportedly forced out after a dispute with Robertson. Tate has been demoted from executive director to head of the coalition's Washington lobbying office, leaving Robertson to oversee the group's day-to-day operations in Virginia.

Several members of the coalition's executive staff have left the organization. These include National Operations Director Chuck Cunningham, National Field Director Dave Welch and Communications Director Arne Owens.

Robertson subsequently hired Roberta Combs, a member of the coalition board of directors and former head of its South Carolina affiliate, as executive vice president for field operations. The Hill, a weekly newspaper published on Capitol Hill, reported in June that Combs quickly created an atmosphere of distrust and even paranoia in the Chesapeake offices. Dissenters on the staff nicknamed Combs "Hurricane Roberta" and told stories of finding that their desks had been rifled through or of catching staff members eavesdropping on one another.

Coalition state activists complained as well. Following a February conference of coalition state leaders, one activist charged the group with "Gestapo tactics..It was the topic of conversation throughout the conference and among state leaders. The state leaders never felt so intimidated and violated.

Robertson Says, "I'm Back in Charge."

Robertson insists that the coalition will overcome its problems. Earlier this year he announced the creation of a project called "21 Victory," which plans to raise $21 million for "voter education and registration" leading up to the 2000 elections. Robertson also promised to hire new state directors in key states, including Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Michigan and Indiana.

Robertson also seems determined to take a more hands-on approach to the coalition. Following the FEC ruling, he told The New York Times, "I'm back in charge. We have a new sheriff in Dodge, and it's a brand-new game. The coalition, based on this ruling, becomes extremely significant in the year 2000 race."

But Robertson's critics say that having him run the coalition on a day-to-day basis is, at best, a mixed blessing for the group. Robertson is prone to shoot from the hip verbally, and his reckless comments have gotten him into trouble or proved embarrassing on several occasions.

Reckless comments from Robertson, in fact, led to Hodel's departure. Hodel objected when, during the height of the Senate impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, Robertson told his national audience on the "700 Club" that the matter should be dropped because the Senate did not have the votes for conviction. This was a sharp reversal from Robertson's previous comments, in which he demanded that Clinton be removed from office, and led to a spate of stories in the media. According to The Washington Times, Hodel felt that Robertson's comments were counterproductive and sent him a memo, proposing that Robertson step down as coalition chairman of the board and assume a less active, "emeritus" position. Robertson responded by writing Hodel back to accept a resignation Hodel had not offered.

Last May, Robertson sank a multi-million dollar business deal with the Bank of Scotland when, in a pique, he insulted the entire nation by airing a  story on the "700 Club" calling Scotland a "dark land" under the sway of homosexual groups. Three months later, Robertson appeared on the "700 Club" and said he believes U.S. foreign policy should be changed to allow for assassination of world leaders. Acknowledging that the policy may sound "somewhat Machiavellian and evil," Robertson insisted that government-sponsored assassination could sometimes be in the country's best interests.

An organization can be only as stable as its leaders. If Robertson is any model, one is forced to conclude that there will many rocky days ahead for the Christian Coalition.

Robertson as GOP Team Player

Despite his loose cannon style, Robertson is unlikely to ever be disowned by the Republican Party. GOP officials consider Robertson to be the leader of a bloc of voters large enough to influence the outcome in close national races, including the presidential race. Therefore, they are careful not to antagonize him too much.

Robertson enjoys easy access to top GOP elected leaders in Congress. In June Robertson traveled to Washington, where he met with the Republican Senate leadership and discussed ways to "re-energize" grassroots support in favor of party candidates. (The coalition issued a press release boasting about the meeting.)

In return for this insider status, Robertson performs an important function for Republican presidential candidates: He gives them a pass when they are accused of being insufficiently conservative on social issues. Recently, he vouched for the anti-abortion credentials of GOP front-runner and Texas Gov. George W. Bush when Bush came under fire from some ultra-conservatives for allegedly being soft on the issue.

Robertson is a GOP team player. He has stated repeatedly that any of the GOP candidates would be preferable to Democratic front-runner Al Gore, whom he once dismissed as "Ozone Al." Robertson's bottom line is the Supreme Court. He has stated several times that the next president may name as many as three new high court justices. Robertson wants to make certain that a Republican  names those justices, in the hopes that the court will reverse decisions Robertson and his coalition do not like, such as the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion and various church-state decisions.

Robertson is also working hard to keep the conservative evangelical vote in the Republican Party column. On Sept. 13 he appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" and criticized Pat Buchanan for threatening to leave the GOP and seek the presidency as the Reform Party candidate. Robertson said Buchanan's candidacy would help elect a Democrat.

"I admire Pat," Robertson told King. "We've been friends for a long time, but I think this would be a very bad decision because it will put him in the role of the spoiler. That's what [Ross] Perot did. If you go back, Perot got 19 percent of the vote in '92 and he drew about 8 percent in '96 in that Reform Party, and all they did was just throw the election to the Democrats. So he[Buchanan] is not going to win it. He hasn't got a chance as a Reform Party candidate."

To better understand Robertson's value to the GOP, contrast his behavior to that of Religious Right leaders like James Dobson and Gary Bauer, both of whom have in past threatened to leave the Republican Party (or go fishing on Election Day) if it does not give enough emphasis to contentious social issues. Dobson has fired several broadsides at the Republicans in the past year, and attempts by the party leadership to mollify him have been only partially successful. Robertson, while he occasionally criticizes party leaders over certain decisions or actions, has never threatened to leave the GOP and remains a dependable team player.

Conclusion: Whither the Christian Coalition?

The Christian Coalition is now 10 years old. It is to be expected that any organization that has survived a decade will show signs of fatigue and erosion. This does not mean that the organization is on the ropes, however. It should be noted that the coalition has already outlived earlier Religious Right groups, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and that the group has eclipsed older Religious Right organizations, that, although they have been around longer than the coalition, have failed to win a nationwide reputation or have gone into decline.

Robertson is a millionaire many times over. He can, if he chooses, use his personal fortune to prop up the coalition and help it survive temporary economic downturns. And, even if the coalition does not have two million members, it retains an ability to attract attention from powerful political figures in the House of Representatives and Senate. The group also has powerful appeal to Republicans seeking the presidency, as evidenced by the long line of party hopefuls who plan to trek to the "Road to Victory" conference this year, including front-runner George W. Bush. Despite its problems, the coalition is still seen as representing an important constituency that few top Republicans believe they can ignore.

Is the coalition -- and by extension, the Religious Right -- finished? It's too early to write that obituary. Too much information remains unknown. The year 2000 elections may help fill in the gaps. Until then, Americans should stay tuned.

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