Pat's Partisan Ploy

TV Preacher Robertson Has Given His Blessing To GOP Presidential Front Runner George W. Bush. But Will His Increasingly Troubled Christian Coalition Flock Say Amen?

A s far as TV preacher Pat Robertson is concerned, pastors who reject political activity in their churches aren't just wrong, they're following the advice of a Nazi.

"The idea that churches should stay out of politics comes from Hitler," Robertson told members and supporters of his Christian Coalition Oct. 1 in Washington, D.C. "Hitler said the same thing: 'You must prepare people for Heaven. Leave the government to me.' I want to send word to the politicians. We're not going to leave the government to them."

Asserting that the Christian Coalition is "expanding" and that chapter growth is "exploding," Robertson rejected recent claims that his group is on the ropes. "The Christian Coalition is going to be bigger and more powerful than ever," he vowed. "The Christian Coalition at the beginning of the new millennium has come to the kingdom for a time such as this."

Elsewhere in his kickoff address to the organization's 1999 "Road to Victory" Conference, Robertson said defiantly, "We are back! If we aren't in the field in this coming election, the Republicans are going to lose. I don't think there's any question about it. We will be the margin of victory in the key races."

Robertson, top Coalition leaders and thousands of group members met in the nation's capital Oct. 1-2 for the organization's 10th annual conference. On the surface, Robertson and his lieutenants worked hard to project the image of a powerful, well oiled political machine with a far-reaching grassroots presence.

By some measures, they were successful. Clearly, top Republicans still view the Coalition as a powerhouse and dare not slight the organization. Over the two-day event, attendees heard speeches by every serious GOP presidential contender except U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who claimed to have had a scheduling conflict, and Pat Buchanan, who is mulling a third-party bid.

But reality kept poking through Robertson's Potemkin Village, and a look below the carefully constructed fa\xe7ade revealed an organization in considerable turmoil. The turnout this year was down sharply. The past few "Road to Victory" events have attracted 4,000 or more attendees and booked the Washington Hilton Hotel solid. This year, the hotel had enough spare rooms to host two other major events at the same time, and the Coalition's official estimate of 3,500 attendees seemed exaggerated. It looked more like 2,000 to 2,500 at its peak (including a considerable number of teenagers who were bused in from local Christian schools and an international delegation of several dozen people.)

During the main sessions, entire wings of the ballroom sat empty. Some speakers drew sparse crowds at best. By the time Randy Tate, the former CC executive director turned chief Washington lobbyist, spoke at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, the ballroom crowd had dwindled to fewer than 400.

In state caucus and "breakout" sessions that took place on Saturday afternoon, Coalition leaders and activists grumbled about limited resources, low pay and laid-off staff. At one session on political organizing, a man demanded to know when New York was going to get a Coalition director.

During the Pennsylvania caucus, a CC staffer said bluntly, "We're trying to get new life and vitality in the organization" and added that the state affiliate had laid off its entire five-person staff in Harrisburg, leaving it with one part-time employee who had just scraped up enough money to buy a computer. The speaker said the Pennsylvania chapter had tried to work with chapters in Maryland and West Virginia but that both had collapsed.

At the Michigan caucus, several attendees complained that nothing was happening since the state chapter fell apart due to internal divisions. Similar complaints were heard in the Louisiana meeting.

Key presidential primary states also appear poorly organized. During the Iowa gathering, CC chapter head Ione Dilley spent about half of the time leading attendees in prayer for a successful reorganization and complaining that ousted Iowa CC leader Bobbie Gobel had commandeered the chapter's resources. A joint caucus was held for New Hampshire and Vermont, but literally no one showed up.

Even South Carolina, once considered a Coalition powerhouse, appears to be in trouble. Lyons Williams, a Mount Pleasant Coalition supporter, told the St. Petersburg Times, "There's not really a Christian Coalition going on now, to speak of."

Robertson has stated publicly that he wants to rejuvenate the Coalition in five key states that President George Bush failed to carry in 1992CNew Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Robertson hopes to use the Coalition to bring these states back into the Republican column in 2000, but in most of them the Coalition appears to be in disarray with chapters that are next to non-existent or in a rebuilding phase.

The number of active state Christian Coalition affiliates nationwide remains in dispute, but it may be as low as the single digits. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Oct. 1 that the group has strong chapters in fewer than 10 states. Coalition officials refused to confirm the figure, nor would they comment on the Inquirer's report that the organization is "at least $2.5 million in the red" and that IRS filings show that Coalition revenues "fell 34 percent between 1996 and 1997."

Adding to the Coalition's woes is an exodus of top personnel. According to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, more than 20 national and state Coalition leaders have left the group since February. Some are publicly grumbling that Robertson's management style and unpredictable behavior drove them away.

Earlier this year, Robertson hired Roberta Combs, former head of the organization's South Carolina chapter, to rejuvenate grassroots activism. Combs, however, may be doing more harm than good. The St. Petersburg Times reported Oct. 3 that Combs had forced out some key staffers and in one case replaced veterans with elderly people who had been working for minimum wage as telemarketers.

Jeff Peyton, the Coalition's former director of grassroots communication who resigned in June after clashing with Combs, told the newspaper the new staffers "knew nothing about" grassroots organizing. "They had no political experience other than reading a script [over the telephone], saying, 'Don't forget to call congressman so-and-so.'"

Part of the Coalition's problems may stem from Robertson's decision to assume more direct control of the organization. Earlier this year the TV preacher demoted Tate, who succeeded Reed as executive director, and banished him to Washington to oversee lobbying efforts. Robertson said he would run the Coalition himself.

Even Ralph Reed, the Coalition's former executive director, who remains on good terms with the group, acknowledges problems in Robertson's leadership style. Reed, now a Republican political consultant, told the St. Petersburg Times that no one in the Coalition has the type of frank relationship he enjoyed with Robertson. As a result, when Robertson pops off with one of his periodic bizarre statements, no one dares to try to rein him in.

 "There is no one who has the trust level I had with Pat who can go to him privately and say, 'I got to tell you, this is hurting us and you've got to stop,'" Reed said.

 Peyton claims that many Coalition staffers are wary of approaching Robertson. He said that when he left, the group's much-vaunted "21 Victory" Project, an effort to raise and spend $21 million on grassroots politicking in advance of the 2000 elections, was not taking off.

"So they had to redefine success," Peyton said. "I think that was largely because nobody would look Pat in the eye and tell him the truth."

Discontent appears to be filtering down to the grassroots. Interviewed by the Virginian-Pilot, Phil Burress, an Ohio Coalition activist, said bluntly, "The number one structural problem with the Christian Coalition is Pat saying things that don't need to be said. We're trying to build the Coalition, but some of Pat's statements are just driving people away. I feel he's trying to tell people what to think, and I deeply resent that."

Another disaffected member, Lynn Proudfoot of Iowa, opined that the group had become too close to the GOP. "I've always thought the Christian Coalition should influence the Republican Party, not the other way around," Proudfoot told the paper. "The Christian Coalition has become an arm of the Republican Party."

(Some unhappy former Coalition employees have learned the hard way not to bad-mouth the organization too much in the media. Chuck Cunningham, formerly the Coalition's national operations director, declined to talk to the St. Petersburg Times about his experiences with the group, saying the Coalition had sent him a letter threatening legal action if he didn't clam up.)

But if the Coalition is in trouble, Robertson seemed loath to admit it. He conceded nothing during his kickoff speech Friday morning. Alternating between a toothy grin and a dark scowl, the religious broadcaster laid out a grim scenario for the new millennium. Too much of the world, he said, lives in poverty and hopelessness, surrounded by squalor, filth and disease. Three times he mentioned his concern over people in the Third World being menaced by "intestinal parasites." At the same time, Robertson added, the world is threatened by unstable dictators and biological weapons of mass destruction.

In today's world, Robertson said, 25 percent of the people hold 85 percent of the wealth. The Christian Coalition in the next millennium, he asserted, "must respond to the agonizing cry of suffering that is reaching our ears." He called for programs to help the world's poor become self sufficient.

The poverty spiel was apparently designed to moderate his hard-line image and please international visitors brought to the conference by the Coalition to serve as political contacts in other countries. But the majority of the crowd seemed unsure how to react.  Although Robertson denied he was advocating any new programs, his rhetoric at times had an oddly left-wing, internationalist feel to it. For example, the TV preacher noted that the United States, as the world's wealthiest country, could afford to establish new international programs. Crowd reaction to this proposal was muffled at best, and it garnered only polite applause.

Perhaps sensing the mood of the attendees, Robertson soon shifted gears into standard Religious Right themes of Clinton bashing, attacks on the judiciary, anti-public school rants and broadsides against church-state separation.

Declaring, "I don't know about you, but I am filled with Clinton fatigue," Robertson said, "As we prepare for the new millennium, I want to start with cleansing the highest office of the land from the sleaze and the equivocation and the moral rot that has embarrassed us all."

He then turned his attention to the Republican Congress, demanding action on the Religious Right's agenda and saying, "I speak now to our Republican friends in Congress: We helped you to be elected. Now we ask for principled leadership. We ask for courage. We ask you to remember it is better to lose fighting a noble cause then to live in peace as a coward."

Robertson then moved down the standard litany of Religious Right themes: demands that the government subsidize private religious schools through vouchers (he dismissed the church-state argument as "absurd"), harsh criticism of the public school system, attacks on legal abortion and charges that the federal judiciary is "tyrannical, and it's got to be changed."

As usual, an overwhelming air of partisanship hung over the "Road to Victory" Conference. Speakers reverentially cited the name Ronald Reagan far more often than they did Jesus Christ. In the past, Coalition leaders have at least gone through the motions of putting one or two conservative Democrats on the program. This year they didn't even bother. The gathering had the feel of a two-day GOP rally. Aside from the Republican presidential contenders, attendees heard from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and a host of Republican House members, among them J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama and Bob Barr of Georgia.

Also on the agenda was Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Perhaps aware that Coalition members are being wooed by potential third-party candidates Buchanan and Sen. Robert C. Smith (I-N.H.), who claim that the Republicans and the Democrats are the same these days, Nicholson spent the brunt of his remarks urging the flock to vote Republican, telling the crowd, "There are major differences between the two parties. Anyone who says differently is wrong."  (Buchanan, who had been scheduled to address the conference, cancelled at the last minute; no reason was given.)

Continued Nicholson, "We have a real choice to fully implement our agenda. We have been stymied by the Democrats...but that can change. In one year we can control the White House and Congress. Then we can go on the offensive...and we can enact our agenda into law."

According to Nicholson, that agenda includes a ban on late-term abortions, parental consent for minors to receive abortions, sweeping tax cuts and the nomination of conservative justices to the Supreme Court. This last item, a frequent theme at the conference, won Nicholson a big round of applause.

The partisan atmosphere was even more evident at state caucuses. At a joint meeting of Coalition members from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Jane Marshman, former chair of the CC's Wisconsin chapter, talked about races for U.S. House and Senate. Marshman told attendees, "For 2000 we all just need to be doing what we can to get those people elected no matter who the Republican nominees are....They're going to agree with us and be far superior to the other side....None of these people are perfect, but, man, they are so far superior to the Democrats."

During the South Carolina meeting, attendees heard Robert C. Cahaly, an ex-aide to former Republican Gov. David Beasley, outline a plot to oust the head of the state GOP. When Cahaly finished, session leader Drew McKissick quipped to much laughter, "Just for the record, in case there are any tape recorders in here, we are a non-partisan organization. We will be having a meeting about Democratic Party involvement in the bathroom down the hallway."

Session leader Steve Brown at the Pennsylvania meeting applauded the fact that the state has been leaning Republican recently and said, "We are not a Republican outfit, but, to be frank, if you look at the scorecard, Republicans tend to vote better on the issues." Brown noted that the state chapter in 1996 put out a voter guide for delegates to the Republican National Convention and said, "Pennsylvania is a Republican state. We just gotta make sure it's the right kind of Republicans."

At the Virginia caucus, Republican candidates for state offices stood up and introduced themselves. (Virginia has statewide assembly elections this year.) Republican Senate candidate Ken Wayman was introduced at the Maryland caucus and a "Wayman for U.S. Senate" sign festooned the wall.

If Robertson and other Coalition leaders have their way, not only will the group remain in the Republican camp, but it will line up early behind GOP front-runner George W. Bush. During the event, Robertson made no secret of his support for the Texas governor and disparaged other contenders.

Robertson spoke favorably of Bush during a press conference held after the conference morning session on Friday, telling reporters, "So far, George Bush has said things that have led me to believe he would be worthy of the support of the Coalition were he the nominee of the party."

 Later, in a one-on-one interview with The Washington Post, Robertson elaborated, remarking, "I think [Bush] would be a very acceptable candidate. We had lunch together and talked about issues. I think he's a solid guy. I think he'd make a good president."       

At the same time, Robertson dismissed the chances of several of Bush's GOP rivals, notably Elizabeth Dole, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and McCain. (Robertson said he would not support McCain because his campaign finance reform plan would "absolutely gut organizations like the Christian Coalition.")

Robertson's bias toward Bush was evident throughout the event. The Texas governor received a prime speaking slot - Friday afternoon right after lunch. He was introduced by Jay Sekulow, a crowd favorite who runs Robertson's right-wing legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice. Sekulow, according to The New York Times, was personally tapped by Bush advisers to do the introduction, and he spent several minutes praising Bush effusively, saying "we are proud to be his friends" and calling him "a man of great gifts, profound optimism and deep personal faith."

As if to belay fears that Bush is not solidly anti-abortion, Sekulow told the crowd how Bush had pushed a parental consent law through the Texas legislature and insisted that "Gov. Bush is obviously standing up for the life of the unborn child."

(By contrast, other candidates received brief, pro forma introductions, usually from obscure Coalition chapter leaders. The only other exception was Bauer, who was introduced by his wife Carol. She talked about her pain as the campaign fended off rumors, allegedly planted by Forbes operatives, that her husband had been engaging in an extra-marital affair with a 27-year-old aide. These "lies" and "disgusting allegations," Carol Bauer said, had made her family's life "a living hell.")

Perhaps by virtue of his front-runner status, Bush received a warm response from the crowd, even though his remarks were little more than his standard stump speech with a few minor references to social issues thrown in. He called for tax cuts, fewer government regulations of business, tort reform and "school choice." (He never used the word "voucher.") Bush also pushed his "charitable choice" scheme - which he calls "compassionate conservatism" - a plan to use tax money to fund church-run social services.

Bush, who has been criticized by some in the Religious Right for failing to speak out forcefully against abortion, dealt only briefly with the issue. He told the crowd, "When a child is in crisis, a parent should know....We should have this goal: Every child, born and unborn, must be protected by law and welcomed to life."

The Bush strategy of soft-pedaling social issues in his public speeches while currying favor with Religious Right leaders in private (see "Surviving The Inquisition," page 12) may ultimately backfire among the Coalition's rank-and-file membership, but it's okay with Robertson. In an interview with USA Today before the conference, Robertson said he understands why Bush doesn't talk more about his opposition to abortion.

"I personally am not interested in pushing him so far to the right that he will not be electable," Robertson said.  

The crowd's reaction to the other presidential contenders varied. Dole, Bauer and Forbes were applauded when they emphasized their opposition to abortion and their support for more religion in public schools.

Impatience with the Republican Party also came up frequently. Although Bauer has insisted that he will remain in the GOP, he did not hesitate to accuse the party of selling out the Religious Right. Noting that seven of the nine Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican presidents, he told the crowd, "School prayer ought to be back, abortion ought to be illegal already, gay rights should be going nowhere."

Forbes promised to appoint only "pro-life judges" and criticized Bush for refusing to make the same explicit promise. He also called for private school vouchers and slammed public education, claiming "it's easier to bring Hitler's Mein Kampf into public schools than the Ten Commandments."

Independent candidate Smith, who left the GOP earlier this year in part because he disagreed with its handling of the social issues, also lambasted Bush and establishment Republicans for not doing enough to advance the Religious Right's agenda.

Later Smith promised to pull the United States out of the United Nations, saying, "The globalists of the New World Order must not be allowed to sell out America for profit and greed....I think we ought to move [the UN] from New York to Havana, and when Mr. Clinton gets out of office he can be the secretary general." The crowd erupted in wild applause.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) emphasized his presidential credentials, then veered into an apocalyptic tangent, warning the crowd that the end of the world may soon be at hand. Although the nation appears prosperous and is at peace, Hatch, a Mormon, said problems lurk just below the surface. He cited Hal Lindsey's book, The Late Great Planet Earth, a best seller in 1974 but now largely discredited, that warned of a coming apocalypse. Lindsey, Hatch said, wrote that signs of the end include strange weather, rapid technological advances, rampant homosexuality, gluttony and a preoccupation with sex.

"Sound familiar?" Hatch asked.

It was left to presidential candidate Alan Keyes to really lambaste Bush and establishment Republicans. Keyes, a fiery radio talk show host, began by asking the members of the crowd to stand up if they had given a "rousing ovation" to Bush earlier in the day. Keyes then told those people not to give him a rousing ovation because "I don't believe it's sincere."

Continued Keyes, "If there is somebody who professes to care about this country who can stand in any speech whatsoever and never once say one clear syllable about abortion I gotta tell you, it is gutless, unprincipled and it will not do."

Referring to "G.W. Bush," Keyes said, "I have nothing against him. I think he's a fine man, probably....But I just have to have my doubts about folks who spend all their time trying to figure out how they're gonna get away with something. The pro-life position isn't something that we need to get away with or get away from. It's something that we need to stand boldly before the American people and articulate with courage."  Many in the crowd applauded.

Other top Republican speakers at "Road to Victory" included House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Senate Majority Leader Lott and House Speaker Hastert.

Armey called for school vouchers, an end to late-term abortions and defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and touted a constitutional amendment to guarantee our right to practice our faith." 

Lott spent most of his time pleading for precinct work on behalf of Republicans. The Mississippi Republican brought four empty chairs to the stage with him, symbolizing the four votes the Republicans need to override Clinton's veto of the late-term abortion ban.

"We need four more votes to stop this horrible procedure," he said. "There's the four seats. Will you help us fill those four seats? We can't do it. You can do it....I gotta have some help, ladies and gentlemen. It's in your hands. Next year is the big enchilada."

Hastert's speech, however, was low key and failed to energize the crowd. The speaker talked mostly about tax cuts and health care reform. Unlike his predecessor, Newt Gingrich, who made sure to hit every social issue hot button when he spoke to the Coalition last year, Hastert made no mention of such subjects. (Gingrich had been listed as a speaker on early conference promotional materials, but he mysteriously disappeared after the media reported that the Georgia politician had dumped his second wife to take up with a much younger woman.)

Later that afternoon, former Christian Coalition Executive Director Reed, now an advisor to the Bush campaign, took to the podium. After spending five minutes ridiculing Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Reed surveyed the crowd and remarked, "I keep reading in the dominant media that this organization is gone and that we're in eclipse. It doesn't look like we're in eclipse to me....Not only are we not going to go away, but you ain't seen nuthin' yet. You wait until the year 2000."

After 15 minutes of shilling for the GOP, Reed, with a straight face, wrapped up with a mini-sermon warning about the dangers of partisanship. "When people look at us," he said solemnly, "let's make sure they see Jesus Christ and not the Democratic or Republican Party....Serve Him, not any party or politician. Love your enemies...be faithful. In the end, we are not required to win because He will take care of that, but we are required to be faithful."

But one speaker at the event, Bishop Earl W. Jackson, may need Reed to give him a primer on loving his enemies. Jackson, head of the Samaritan Project, formerly a Coalition project, gave one of the most strident and extreme speeches during the conference.

According to Jackson, the attacks on Christianity emanating from the media, popular culture and the "liberal establishment" mean that Coalition members must be ready, if necessary, to die for their cause.

Shouting virtually his entire speech, Jackson called for no compromise with "them," and told the crowd not to even bother talking with those who disagree. "The fact of the matter is, that Jesus did not come to compromise with the Devil, he came to destroy the works of the Devil," Jackson said. "Now people will say, 'Well now, Bishop Jackson, that sounds awfully harsh'....Let me tell you something, if they are going to stand with the Devil, then they must fall with the Devil."

Quoting Bible verses that promise that anyone who goes against the word of God will be "crushed to powder," Jackson continued, "We are the believers who have the right to say that what we believe is what is going to prevail; we don't care what the liberals and what the media have to say about it....I will not be satisfied until every Christian in America realizes that we need to be standing together. We are at war! We are at war!"

The crowd erupted in repeated applause, with many leaping to their feet cheering.

Other speakers at the conference, such as Phyllis Schlafly, evangelist Bill Bright and  "Christian nation" advocate David Barton, repeated standard Religious Right themes. Dinner speaker Reggie White, a former football star best known for his caustic comments about gays, devoted his time at the podium to religious themes, barely mentioning the topic that brought him a Coalition invitation.

First-time "Road to Victory" speaker Adelia "Dede" Robertson (Pat's wife) gave a rambling speech Saturday morning during which she mostly bashed public education but also bemoaned the fact that "Everyone is more interested in maintaining the status quo and a full billfold. No one is interested in our children."

Mrs. Robertson, whose husband is a multi-millionaire, talked about visiting Appalachia, where she saw "children with no shoes." Her solution to poverty is twofold: more private sector involvement and "We've got to stop electing people who are for big government." She also called for an infusion of fundamentalist Christianity into government, saying, "This country was founded on the principles of the Bible, not the principles of the Koran or any other book."

What does all of this mean? Is the Christian Coalition on the ropes? The long-term picture remains unclear, and much hinges on the next election cycle. Robertson, Reed and other Coalition supporters and leaders clearly want the organization to line up behind Bush and give him a big push that will propel him to the White House. What remains to be seen is if the rank-and-file Christian Coalition membership will play along.

While plenty of RTV attendees sported Bush buttons and stickers, many more, in the hallways and during breakout sessions, were overheard expressing skepticism about the Texas governor. Some wondered openly if he's really a committed believer in Religious Right causes or expressed dismay over his low-key stance on abortion.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and several other AU staffers attended the entire "Road to Victory" event. Lynn said it is absurd for the Coalition to continue to claim it is non-partisan when it is apparent to anyone who spent even a few hours at the event that the group is little more than a right-wing appendage of the Republican Party.

Said Lynn, "This is an entirely partisan political operation that does not deserve to have a tax-exempt status." Americans United has asked the Internal Revenue Service to review the tax-exempt status of the newly formed Christian Coalition of America and revoke it if necessary.

In a Sept. 30 letter to the IRS, Lynn noted that Coalition leaders have vowed that the "new" Christian Coalition will do everything the old organization did. If this is the case, Lynn argued, then the Christian Coalition of America does not deserve tax-exempt status.