Robertson redux

Splits in the religious right will make it hard to recapture the Christian Coalition's glory days.

Published February 24, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

After two years in self-imposed exile, Pat Robertson is resuming control of the Christian Coalition just in time for the 2000 presidential campaign season. But in his second coming as coalition president, Robertson will preside over an organization struggling to move beyond recent problems with the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Elections Commission and recapture its declining political influence among Christian conservatives and within the Republican Party.

As the GOP continues its soul-searching in the wake of the disappointing 1998 election, many Republicans, most notably the Republican governors, are calling for a move away from the culture war. But similar calls have also been heard from within the party's fractured right wing, exacerbating a power vacuum within the religious right created by the 1997 departure of Robertson and executive director Ralph Reed from day-to-day operations of the Christian Coalition. Now, Robertson, back at the helm, is locked in a power struggle.

Eleven years after Robertson's surprisingly strong second place finish in the 1988 Iowa Caucus led to the creation of the Christian Coalition, Christian activist Gary Bauer represents perhaps the most serious challenge to his political and evangelical preeminence. Like Robertson before him, Bauer is parlaying his popularity among Christian activists into a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He has long been the head of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobby group closely linked with radio psychologist James Dobson's "Focus on the Family." Dobson's family values rhetoric and Bauer's inside-the-Beltway savvy have always contrasted with Robertson's strident Christian nationalism.

Bauer is a regular on Dobson's syndicated radio program, which reaches millions of listeners every day. Their national network of public policy groups rivals the Christian Coalition for influence in several states. Russ Bellant, author of "The Religious Right in Michigan Politics," called the Michigan Family Forum "the major religious right organization" in the state.

Though the two share similar political goals, the rivalry between Bauer and Robertson surfaced earlier this month at a Coalition powwow for prospective presidential nominees in Manchester, N.H. As a warm-up act for candidate speeches, Robertson was addressing a crowd of more than 1,000 party activists and reporters, recalling the history of his political organization's name. "People wanted to make some sort of milquetoasty name, you know, like 'Greater Family Foundation,'" he recalled. "But I said, 'No, I'm not ashamed to be a Christian! We're going to call this organization the Christian Coalition.'" The reminiscence was a thinly veiled swipe at the Family Research Council and Bauer, whose candidacy threatens Robertson's preeminence in the Christian right.

This infighting between Bauer and Robertson stems partially from the turf and ego battles that mark most political tiffs. But there have also been differences over the impeachment issue. Robertson surprised and outraged many conservatives when, weeks before the close of the Senate impeachment trial, he declared that Clinton had won, the trial should end and conservatives should cut their losses. (He later said his comments reflected "political analysis," not his own views.) This pragmatic approach did not sit well with many of the true believers who accused Robertson of capitulating. Indeed, all of the candidates at the Christian Coalition's New Hampshire forum roused the crowd with calls for Clinton's ouster.

Playing off House manager Henry Hyde's declaration that impeachment wasn't over "until the fat lady sings," radio talk show host Alan Keyes went to work. "I mean no insult to the Christian Coalition, [but] it's time that we remember before we are even tempted to throw in the towel, that we are the fat lady, and we better start singing!"

Despite the thunderous applause, Keyes was playing to a crowd that is clearly not as powerful as it was earlier in the decade. Christian Coalition meetings used to command the appearance of George Bush, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich in the glory days of the early 1990s, and Republican political hopefuls of all stripes came to pay their respects to the coalition rank and file. At this latest forum, however, the only presidential candidates to make the trek were Bauer, Keyes and publisher Steve Forbes. Former Vice President Dan Quayle sent a video greeting, while a handful of other well-known presumptive candidates took a pass altogether.

The decline in the coalition's power stems from a series of financial and legal problems that ultimately led to the 1997 leadership change within the organization. Reed and Robertson were replaced by former Rep. Randy Tate and Don Hodel, who served as energy secretary under Ronald Reagan. The organization was faced with sagging revenues, declining membership, a pending IRS investigation and a lawsuit by the Federal Election Commission alleging illegal campaign contributions to Republican politicians.

But like the rest of the Republican Party, impeachment remains the most sensitive open wound for the right wing, and Robertson's comments seem to have only worsened the Christian Coalition's problems. As part of the impeachment fallout, there is an increasing malaise evident among top lieutenants in the right wing's culture war, the people who helped bring the Christian movement to political prominence over the last decade. Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, a once-powerful right-wing lobbying group, recently posted a dejected "Dear Friend" letter on the group's Web site. Weyrich, who coined the phrase "moral majority" and helped elevate Rev. Jerry Falwell to national prominence, suggested that "there is no moral majority" among the American people. He blamed American culture, which he dubbed "an ever-wider sewer" and bemoaned America as "a state totally dominated by an alien ideology, an ideology bitterly hostile to Western culture." Given this "cultural collapse of historic proportions," Weyrich suggested the presidential prospects for conservatives are dim. Instead, Weyrich called for a self-imposed Christian cultural "quarantine," to keep from becoming "infected" by a degenerate American society.

The challenge for power brokers within the Christian right will be to stop the exodus of conservatives like Weyrich from the political front lines, while maintaining their clout within the Republican Party at large. Whether these are simply growing pains of a movement in transition or the beginning of a departure of Christian conservatives from the political process -- heralding a much more fundamental political shift within the GOP -- remains to be seen. If nothing else, the current rift threatens the effective strategy employed by the Christian right throughout the 1990s -- to work as a small, untied voting bloc to help conservatives in Republican primaries. The current tensions and disarray among them suggests a lively presidential primary season in which the struggle for leadership of the conservative movement, as well as the Republican Party, will be at stake.

By Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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