Bob Herr, president of the Lancaster County, Pa., chapter of the Christian Coalition, is discouraged.
At a Sept. 30 caucus during the Coalition's "Road to Victory" Conference in Washington, D.C., Herr told fellow activists how hard he worked to get CC voter guides into churches prior to the 1998 elections.
But shortly before the election, the local newspaper ran comments from Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warning pastors that Coalition guides are partisan and that distribution of them could put a church's tax exemption in jeopardy. Many pastors then refused the guides.
"In my county, they're scared," Herr said. "It takes a while to win them back over. It was too late in '98."
Any doubts about the effectiveness of Americans United's effort to disrupt TV preacher Pat Robertson's church-based voter guide distribution project should evaporate after this year's "Road to Victory" Conference. AU's work clearly has the Coalition on the defensive, so much so that Coalition officials and local activists complain that they are having a hard time getting the guides into Protestant churches these days.
The Coalition's efforts to place its guides in Catholic churches also appears to be going nowhere. During one state caucus, a dispirited Connecticut activist told how he had tried to get the guides in local Catholic churches but failed. The man said he doesn't even plan to try this year, remarking, "I felt so bad last year. I had so many left over."
Americans United intends to keep the pressure up. The day before the Coalition meeting, AU held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to announce a new project to mail letters to more than 285,000 Protestant churches nearly 90 percent of the nation's total advising them that Coalition voter guides are partisan campaign materials and that distributing them could put a church's tax exemption in jeopardy.
The letter refers church leaders to Americans United's website, where more detailed informational materials about churches and politics have been posted. The materials were prepared by attorneys with the Washington firm of Caplin and Drysdale, who are experts in this area.
Lynn told reporters at the Press Club that Christian Coalition voter guides are bogus. "These documents are not voter guides at all," he said, "Instead, they are partisan campaign fliers that advocate the election of certain candidates and the defeat of others."
Continued Lynn, "The Coalition's 75 million voter guides don't belong in church bulletins or in the lobbies of our houses of worship. They belong at the local recycling center or landfill. Our new project is designed to ensure that they end up there."
Coalition officials often make AU's job easier by saying publicly that their guides are designed to help certain candidates get elected. Roberta Combs, executive vice president of the Coalition, admitted as much in a recent mailing to members, writing, "We are asking all of our friends to help sponsor the printing and distribution of our Voter Guides because we know this is the most effective tool to educate voters about candidates who deserve Christian support."
Robertson has conceded as much too. During the primary season he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the Coalition would not distribute guides if U.S. Sen. John McCain got the GOP nomination because, "[W]e're not under the obligation to put out any literature for anybody."
Coalition activists often slip up as well. During the New York caucus at the "Road to Victory" Conference, one man in the audience asked, "What are we doing to help Rick?," a reference to Republican congressman Rick Lazio, who is running against First Lady Hillary Clinton for a Senate seat from New York. Bill Banuchi, chair of the New York Coalition chapter, replied that voter guides will be distributed. He said the guides are "non-partisan" but added, "Those people who are with us are helped by them."
The AU counteroffensive has irked many Coalition officials and members. During the Pennsylvania meeting, several attendees spoke of Americans United and Lynn with contempt, calling the group "ultra-liberal" and "anti-Christian."
Coalition officials also scrambled to counteract Americans United with a disinformation campaign. During the "Road to Victory" Conference, both Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and James Bopp, a Christian Coalition attorney, told attendees that a federal court has approved the Coalition's guides for distribution in churches.
This claim, however, is simply not true. The Coalition was sued by the Federal Election Commission, which last year lost the bulk of its case. However, the issue of voter guides was tangential to that ruling. And, in fact, the judge noted in her opinion that the group's guides clearly favor some candidates over others. In any case, the ruling centered on federal election law, not the much stricter federal tax law.
In California, Coalition activists even recruited former pop star Pat Boone to push its electoral activities. Boone, who serves on the board of the California Christian Coalition affiliate, sent a letter to pastors throughout the state calling for voter registration drives in churches and endorsing an enclosed Coalition mailing about voter guides.
The Coalition letter, signed by Paul Sansevieri, state chairman, and John Fugatt, state executive director, asserts, "Our state as well as our nation, has somehow got on board the runaway train of sin and compromise. If every voting member of your body as well as the churches that surround you unify in casting their vote this election, we can change the tide."
(Americans United issued a somewhat tongue-in-cheek press release advising California religious leaders not to take tax advice from pop singers. Observed AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "This is the strangest thing Pat Boone has done since he put out that heavy metal CD three years ago. I realize Boone needs a job after all, he hasn't had a Top 40 hit since 1962 but I can't think of anyone less qualified to advise churches on tax issues.")
How does the Coalition get its partisan guides into churches? During a breakout session titled "Recruiting Church Liaisons," Chuck Anderson, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Texas, explained the process step by step.
Anderson said a small group of church members no more than four should approach the pastor to discuss the issue. He advised CC activists that the goal ultimately should be to have the guides placed in church bulletins, since "voter guides don't do any good if they end up sitting on a table."
Coalition volunteers, Anderson said, should assuage pastors' fears about their tax exemption by referring them to literature prepared by Robertson's ACLJ; he also advised reminding pastors that the ACLJ will defend them if the Internal Revenue Service launches an investigation. (Not surprisingly, Anderson did not mention that the ACLJ recently defended the only church in America that has ever lost its tax exemption for partisan politicking and lost the case.)
Anderson also talked a little about why voter guides are to be distributed only the Sunday before the election. If they are handed out too early, he said, they will be misplaced and forgotten. He also said the guides deliberately highlight six or seven issues because not everyone has the time or interest to ponder a candidate's stands on dozens of issues.
"Keep it simple, stupid," Anderson said. "Most people out there are not as politically astute as we are."
Critics of the Coalition say the voter guides scheme is nefarious. Americans United contends, for example, that the voter guides are distributed the Sunday before the election so that candidates whose views have been distorted or falsified have no time to try to set the record straight.
AU also asserts that the guides list only six or seven issues even though would-be office-holders are queried on dozens of issues so that the most inflammatory ones can be highlighted in an effort to make Republican candidates look good and Democratic candidates look bad. (For more on how the Coalition manipulates its guides, see "Stacked Deck," July-August 1996 Church & State.)
Lynn said he is pleased to hear that Americans United's efforts to stop the Coalition's voter guides are having an effect.
"Earlier this year I vowed that Americans United would throw a monkey wrench into Pat Robertson's political machine," said Lynn. "I'm happy to hear -- from the Coalition itself -- that our efforts are working. We'll keep it up as long as it takes."