Christian Coalition influence in doubt

Conservative group has financial troubles, leadership problems


The Christian Coalition, which for 10 years has led the charge of the religious right in national and local politics, is now weathering serious financial and leadership turmoil that could affect its ability to exert widespread influence in the 2000 election, current and former staff members say.

The coalition is hobbled by a $2.5 million debt, the departure of most of its experienced leaders, and so much turnover in local leadership that it currently has strong affiliates in no more than seven states, down from the 48 it claimed last year, the staff members say.

And now even its prior assertions to such widespread strength are in doubt. Former national leaders who have recently left the group said in interviews that the coalition, as critics have long suspected, never commanded the numbers it claimed, and the former leaders revealed some of the techniques that they said were used to inflate the coalition's power and reach.

The coalition, these former leaders say, distorted the size of its base by keeping thousands of dead people, wrong addresses and duplicates on its list of supporters; printed millions of voter guides that the coalition leaders expected would never be distributed, and hired temporary workers to look busy in the mail room and phone banks to impress reporters and camera crews.

During some news media tours of coalition headquarters in Chesapeake, Va., former staff members say, a roving group of employees leapfrogged ahead of the reporters to fill empty offices and telephones.

Despite the coalition's setbacks, Roberta Combs, its new executive vice president of field operations, and a spokesman, Mike Russell, sounded optimistic in an interview on Friday, saying that they have started a campaign to hire directors for all 50 states by the election in 2000. They would not discuss the group's finances.

"I would say we've lost some momentum," Russell said. "But the grass roots of the organization are still there. It's just a question now of getting back out and re-energizing the existing network."

The coalition now claims 1.8 million to 2 million supporters, but its list includes many one-time donors, bad addresses and people who once signed a petition or called an 800 number, former and current staff members say. They could identify only seven states where the coalition still has an organization strong enough to affect coming elections: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Washington.

"If they can reorganize, it certainly won't be in time at a national level for the 2000 election," said Charles H. Cunningham, who resigned in March as the coalition's director of national operations and is now Capitol Hill lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

The Christian Coalition was ranked the seventh most powerful lobbying group by Fortune magazine last year. But even if it stumbles -- and its leaders insist they are turning things around -- the religious right as a force in politics is not likely to disappear.

The coalition is only one group, although the most politically adept, in a larger movement. And many of the organizers who honed their skills working with the coalition and recently left have now moved on to work for other like-minded groups, or for the presidential campaigns of such Republican candidates as Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan.

"I certainly don't think the religious right is going to disappear," said William Martin, the Chavanne Professor of Religion and Public Policy at Rice University. "Neither is it going to become a majority. It's a significant substantial minority, but it's not likely that it's going to become more than that."

The coalition has always cast itself as a nonpartisan voter education organization. But in June The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times disclosed that the Internal Revenue Service, after a 10-year review, had decided to deny the coalition's application for federal tax-exempt status because its voter guides and the remarks of its leaders showed a partisan tilt toward Republicans.

The coalition responded by announcing that it was splitting into two: a taxable entity called Christian Coalition International that may eventually endorse candidates, form a political action committee and donate to campaigns; and a tax-exempt group, Christian Coalition of America, which will conduct voter education under the tax exemption already granted the Christian Coalition of Texas.

The Christian Coalition was founded in 1989 by Pat Robertson, a businessman and television evangelist, drawing on the support that emerged for his run for president in 1988. Under the direction of Ralph Reed, whose boyish visage soon became the public face of the Christian right, the coalition took a disaffected voting bloc of conservative evangelicals, applied campaign-style tactics and built a force that strong-armed the Republican Party to move to the right.

At its height in 1996, the coalition claimed a grass-roots network of 2.8 million people in 48 states and a budget of $26.5 million. In the 1998 elections, the coalition boasted of distributing more than 40 million voter guides through cooperating churches.

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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