At a secret meeting of state Christian Coalition activists in September 1997, TV preacher Pat Robertson announced that he had recently told Coalition President Don Hodel, "My dear friend, I want to hold out to you the possibility of selecting the next president of the United States."
Now it appears Coalition Chairman Robertson may have to make that selection on his own.
Hodel, chosen as president of the Christian Coalition after Ralph Reed's departure in the summer of 1997, has resigned.
Coalition Spokeswoman Molly Clatworthy told the Associated Press on Feb. 9, "Don has decided to retire, effective immediately." While Reed departed with significant fanfare and a congratulatory press conference, the Coalition was largely silent on Hodel's Jan. 29 resignation, choosing not even to make a press release available. With his exit, Robertson will once again serve as president of the group he founded, as well as its chairman.
Reasons for the departure are still unclear. In recent months, Hodel's visibility on behalf of the Christian Coalition has waned, leaving virtually all of the group's media appearances to Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate. Hodel also maintained a very low profile during the Coalition's recent "Road to Victory" Conference.
The ultra-conservative Washington Times reported on Feb. 10 that Hodel's departure was precipitated by comments Robertson had made calling for an abrupt end to the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton and a general belief that the Christian Coalition "was not consistently putting principle over politics."
According to the Times, Hodel sent a memo to Robertson proposing that Robertson step aside to become the Christian Coalition's chairman emeritus. In reply, the Times reported, Robertson "sent a tersely worded letter accepting a resignation that Mr. Hodel had not offered."
One Republican source was quoted in the Times story as saying, "Don Hodel could not get along with Pat Robertson."
Regardless of his motivations, it appears that Hodel may be leaving just in time.
Materials obtained by Americans United for Separation of Church and State indicate that Robertson's Christian Coalition may be about to lose its long-standing dispute with the Internal Revenue Service about the group's tax-exempt status.
A January fund-raising letter from Robertson's legal arm, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), seems to suggest that the IRS's nine-year investigation of the Christian Coalition may be ending with a denial for the Religious Right political group's tax-exempt status.
The ACLJ's letter, signed by its chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, explains that a "large Christian organization applied for tax-exempt status when it was formed in 1989. After nine years, the IRS is now prepared to deny the group's request.... That is why the ACLJ has filed suit in federal court against the IRS."
A week later, Sekulow sent out another letter clarifying his comments. According to the second, undated letter, "At this point, the lawsuit has not been filed. We are currently working on preparing a lawsuit against the IRS on behalf of that client if the denial is issued."
Observers note that Sekulow's description could only apply to the Christian Coalition, a group founded by Robertson in 1989 whose final tax-exempt status has been pending for an unprecedented nine years.
Gene Kapp, a spokesperson for the ACLJ, would not elaborate on the status of this case. However, he did tell Church & State that a lawsuit has not yet been filed in the case Sekulow alluded to in the letter and that the ACLJ must protect the "privacy and confidentiality" of its clients.
When asked about Sekulow's comments in the ACLJ letter, however, representatives of the Christian Coalition told reporters that the group had not been denied its exempt status and any reports to the contrary were inaccurate.
The conflicting answers left many wondering why Robertson's legal arm would issue a letter to its donors suggesting one thing while Robertson's political arm would tell reporters the exact opposite.
It is also unclear if Hodel's resignation from the Christian Coalition had anything to do with potential difficulties with the IRS. Representatives of the Coalition would not return phone calls from Church & State requesting an interview.