Ten years have taken Pat Robertson from the farther edge of televangelism to be the subject of a tribute film of a sort usually reserved for the retired or the dead.
The film was presented at a national Christian Coalition forum on Feb. 6 at the Center of New Hampshire Holiday Inn in Manchester.
Billed as the "First In the Nation Presidential Primary Gala," the forum featured three GOP presidential primary contenders a full year before the pivotal presidential primary: fiery radio talk show host Alan Keyes, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer, on leave as head of the Family Research Council to aim for the White House. Former Vice President Dan Quayle sent a video greeting.
A light snow fell as over 1,000 activists converged from all over New England, joined by dozens of local and national reporters, to see if the Coalition could demonstrate that it is a powerful, if not pivotal, force in the Republican Party. As much as the gala showcased presidential contenders, the event revealed much about the current state of the Christian Coalition--and the twisting shadow of its aging founder.
As a demonstration of the Coalition's political strength, the gala was a mixed success. The Coalition's ability to consistently attract top Republicans to its functions over the years has been a bellwether of its clout. But by that standard, the no-shows in New Hampshire were evidence of a power slippage. Notably absent were Gov. George Bush of Texas, Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander.
While the turnout of Coalition activists and major media was impressive, fewer than 100 of the activists actually came from New Hampshire. But as events of the following days would demonstrate, there was another drama unfolding behind the glitz of the gala: Pat Robertson, the wealthy televangelist, was preparing to return as president of the organization he founded.
Before the doors to the gala opened, there was plenty of colorful electioneering around the literature tables in the lobby. Steve Forbes, bespeckled, bemused and beaming, was swarmed by media and autograph seekers, as he signed copies of a campaign booklet. The well funded Forbes campaign handed out Forbes mugs with a Statue of Liberty on them, little lapel pins adorned with the same Liberty head and Forbes shopping bags in which to put Forbes paraphernalia.
Red, white and blue "Bauer Power" signs were ubiquitous. And the underfunded Alan Keyes campaign showed off its strongest asset by playing videos of Keyes' passionate speeches on a TV monitor.
The Robertson tribute film presented the TV preacher's evolution from faith healer to power broker, and featured kudos from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and some of Robertson's colleagues.
"When the history books are written," gushed Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate of his boss, "[and] they list the great towering figures of the 20th century, the name Pat Robertson will certainly be there."
Gingrich described Pat and Dede Robertson as "role models" for all Americans and outlined a slick PR version of Robertson's resume as strains of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in the background segued into the chorus of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Lott called Robertson "a leader, a counselor and a friend," and declared that "standing up for America, means standing up for God, and the man who blessed us all, Jesus Christ."
Coalition board member Billy McCormack, a Louisiana pastor, declared that Robertson has been, "outside of Jesus, my commander in chief...and my only living hero."
The film appears to have been calculated to help refurbish Robertson's image for his planned return. Coalition President Don Hodel had quietly submitted his resignation on Jan. 29. A few days after the gala, the Coalition announced that Robertson would reassume the presidency.
Hodel, a former Reagan cabinet secretary, along with Tate, had taken over from the telegenic Ralph Reed and the controversial Robertson amid myriad financial and legal problems in 1997.
While Robertson moved up to chairman and Reed joined the Coalition board, the new management team sought to stabilize the Coalition's financial and organizational disarray, which included dropping revenues and membership, as well as the resignation or firing of a series of top financial officers.
The Coalition also faced an ongoing IRS investigation of its provisional non-profit tax status and a lawsuit by the Federal Election Commission alleging illegal campaign contributions to Republicans George Bush, Jesse Helms, Oliver North and Newt Gingrich, among others.
With the FEC lawsuit and the results of the IRS investigation still pending, Steve Forbes graciously sought to put a noble face on a bad situation, remarking that Robertson's successful career is also notable for the "enemies he has made: the FEC, the NEA [referring to the National Education Association] and the IRS."
But the evening passed with only the occasional mention of "the Democrat party," and Robertson seemed unconcerned about appearances of partisanship or electoral intentions beyond what is allowed by the Coalition's tax status.
"The Christian Coalition intends," Robertson declared, "to do everything it can, across America, to see that men and women of conscience are elected to the highest offices of this land and will carry forth the duty to bring this America back to the greatness that it once knew."
Robertson and the Coalition have had other problems to overcome as well. Tagged as extremists and partly blamed for George Bush's 1992 defeat, the Coalition needed a makeover. Robertson stepped into the background, allowing then-executive director Reed to present a more temperate image.
Among the indelible images, however, remains Robertson's 1989 book The New World Order, which made The New York Times best-seller list but was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for, among other things, anti-Jewish "kookery." The ADL noted that because Robertson leads a "major movement," his philosophy "is not merely troubling, it's a national issue."
Coalition board member McCormack became notorious for backing the Louisiana GOP political career of ex-Nazi, ex-Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.
However, Reed's 1997 departure marked the beginning of a period of decline for the organization's visibility and influence, which the gala was clearly intended to reverse.
"Social conservatives are the largest, most important swing vote in American politics today," Tate crowed.
"And today, on Ronald Reagan's birthday," he continued, "the Christian Coalition is firing the starting gun in the race to win the most important constituency in America." Pausing for dramatic effect, he concluded, "religious conservatives."
Since the withdrawal of Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), religious conservatives have been without a consensus candidate. Thus the Coalition's gala came in the context of a wider coalition of Religious Right leaders attempting to assess the purity of the credentials of GOP presidential candidates.
A group that included Paul Weyrich, Mike Farris and Phyllis Schlafly, as well as the Coalition's Tate, interviewed most prospective GOP candidates (except George Bush and Liddy Dole) in Washington, D.C., the week before the New Hampshire cattle-call.
In its quest for preeminence, the Coalition also faces the rival Religious Right empire of radio psychologist James Dobson and presidential aspirant Bauer. Bauer's Family Research Council was the lobbying arm of Dobson's Colorado-based Focus on the Family.
The two organizations have remained closely linked since legally separating in 1992. Dobson is on Bauer's board, and Bauer is a frequent commentator on Dobson's radio program, which reaches millions of listeners every day.
They have also developed some 35 affiliated state-level public policy groups, whose significance is growing. The Michigan Family Forum, for example, "is the major Religious Right organization" in the state, according to The Religious Right in Michigan Politics, a 1996 book by scholar Russ Bellant.
Robertson seemed to go out of his way to distinguish his organization from his rivals. With Bauer on the dais, Robertson recalled "wrestling" over the name of the Coalition at the time of its founding.
"People wanted to make some sort of milk toasty name, you know, like Greater Family Foundation -- whatever it was," recalled Robertson. "But I said, 'No, I'm not ashamed to be a Christian. We're going to call this organization the Christian Coalition!'"
Although pundits give Bauer little hope of winning the GOP nomination, Keyes sought to address the mutual problem he and Bauer face as perceived losers. Keyes denounced those candidates who will spend millions, but for whom the "moral agenda" is only "part" of their program.
Keyes, whose 1996 campaign never registered more than a blip in the polls, now seems to be running mainly against the pollsters. He cast the 2000 race as a contest between himself and Bauer as to who would best represent the views of Christian conservatives.
He insisted that their "moral agenda" must come first in order for other right-wing concerns, from guns to taxes, to ever be realized. He urged the audience to be "willing to stand -- no matter what it looks like, no matter how bleak the predictions -- behind those who look not to polls, and look not to money, who look not to power, but look ONLY to the Lord our God to guide their steps."
Keyes' conflation of political and religious triumphalism was a constant theme from the beginning of the Christian Coalition gala through the benediction. Robertson's nasty aside about the origin of the name of the Coalition was not his only appeal to the religious supremism that has marked his career.
"I believe very firmly that the time has come," he announced to wild applause, "when little children should be allowed to pray in the public schools of America."
If Robertson's back-to-the-root rhetoric seems intended to regain an edgy, uncompromising image for the Coalition, it certainly worked with the crowd.
Indeed, Robertson's rhetoric seems to signal a return to open displays of religious supremism at the group's public, political functions. The event was in many ways structured like a church service, complete with an offering -- for the Christian Coalition.
In fact, the minister chosen to close the proceedings opened his benediction by shouting, "Give all praise to Jesus Christ!" Pastor David Berman of the Christian Life Fellowship, in Swanzy, N.H., entreated God to "have your will, and your way be done in Jesus name." He also asked God that "your candidate be president."
Whoever God's candidate may be, the candidates at the gala, all sought to be unequivocal about abortion, a litmus-test issue for the Religious Right. For example, Forbes, pro-choice in his last campaign, insisted that "the right to life is not a state-endowed right, it is a God-given right."
Forbes and all of the speakers emphasized "school choice," which is shaping up as an issue on which many in the business and Christian Right wings of the party can agree.
Republicans, however, are far less unified in relation to other of the Coalition's initiatives, such as the main project of the tiny New Hampshire Christian Coalition -- a gay-baiting effort to derail legislation that would allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt children or provide foster care, as is the case in nearby New York.
The campaign slogan punctuating its literature and in New Hampshire Coalition Chairman Shelly Uscinski's speech at the gala, raises the spectral stereotype of the sexual predator: "Protect our children."
Uscinski cut her political teeth on similar politics. Elected to the Merrimack, N.H., school board in 1994 on a stealth slate of Christian Rightists, Uscinski and her faction made national news in their efforts to implement anti-gay policies. Particularly odious was a vague ban on presenting "homosexuality as a positive lifestyle" that threatened disciplinary action against teachers. Fearful teachers dropped classic works of literature from their classes, including a film about the life of Walt Whitman, which mentioned his homosexuality.
Uscinski's activities did not go unnoticed by theocratic factions who liked her style. She became a workshop leader at Christian Coalition functions, and in 1996 received a "National Service Award" from The Washington Times Foundation, presented by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon himself.
Uscinski went on to serve as a Pat Buchanan delegate to the GOP presidential nominating convention in San Diego. When her candidate didn't win, she defected to the overtly theocratic U.S. Taxpayers Party where she endorsed Howard Philips for president. Now it appears she's back with the Republicans, at least for the time being.
But it was Alan Keyes who drew the most raucous round of applause at the Christian Coalition gala -- and most deeply tapped the tensions that at once drive and divide the GOP. Keyes declared that if the Republican Party makes the "error" of putting social moderates New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman or former California Gov. Pete Wilson "ANYWHERE on the national ticket, I have a short list of things to do, that will begin with leaving the Republican Party behind!"
People may or may not take Keyes' threat seriously, but Robertson's divisive and intemperate rhetoric, and planned political ascendancy, will alarm many inside and outside the GOP, even while it animates his base constituency.
Robertson closed his gala speech by offering up a pastoral description of a sunrise in the mountains of Virginia. During the soothing metaphor, Robertson envisioned a "fresh beginning in America...where we don't have Bill Clinton, where we don't have his chosen successor, [and] we're not plagued by liberals who want to destroy this nation."