Washington, D.C. — Awash in legal and public relations woes, TV preacher Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition today attempted to turn the tide against them by announcing a "get out the vote" strategy for religious conservatives in advance of the 2000 elections.
"Robertson is desperately trying to regain some momentum after a year of disasters, blunders and defeats," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Unless he can control his radical rhetoric and get his political machine running smoothly again, Robertson risks losing his ringside seat in the Republicans' 'big tent.'
"Robertson is a rogue elephant in the GOP china shop," added Lynn, a leading critic of the Religious Right. "Whatever happens, he's likely to break a lot of dishes."
As evidence of the Religious Right group's troubles, Lynn noted that the Christian Coalition has been beset by one crisis after another in the last year. Over the last twelve months:
Christian Coalition President Don Hodel resigned, apparently due to a complete inability to function under Robertson's reign. The Washington Times quoted one source as saying that Hodel grew frustrated by the fact that the Christian Coalition "was not consistently putting principle over politics."
Former Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed has resigned from the Coalition Board. In addition, CC National Operations Director Chuck Cunningham has quit, taking two other key staffers with him.
The Internal Revenue Service continued to give Robertson fits. The Christian Coalition is under investigation by the IRS, which has refused to grant the organization's request for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. Also, Robertson was forced to pay a penalty to the IRS for illegal campaigning done by his Christian Broadcasting Network, including a retroactive tax-exempt revocation for CBN for 1986 and 1987.
The Federal Election Commission's lawsuit against the Coalition for illegal partisan electioneering progressed. Documents released as a result of the trial have been embarrassing for the Coalition as they detail close ties between the Christian Coalition and the campaign operatives of incumbent candidate George Bush in the 1992 presidential election.
The Virginia Attorney General's office has also continued its investigation of Robertson for alleged unethical business practices stemming from accusations of misuse of Operation Blessing charity airplanes to benefit Robertson's for-profit diamond mining operation in the Congo.
Oklahoma State Senator Dave Herbert (D) has filed a defamation lawsuit against the Oklahoma Christian Coalition. This suit, filed in District Court of Oklahoma County, charges that the Coalition voter guide falsely reported that Herbert supports "abortion on demand," "minors' access to pornography in libraries," "increased federal control of education" and "socialized health care" and wants to "decriminalize sodomy and beastiality [sic]."
Robertson made Religious Right activists and Republican allies in Congress angry by abruptly calling for an end to the impeachment trial, after months of demanding Clinton's removal. In September, Robertson said getting Clinton out of office was a top goal of the Coalition, dismissing resignation as too easy and demanding that he be impeached. Then, in February, he reversed course and concluded that Clinton had won.
The Christian Coalition has continued to lose visibility and movement leadership to other Religious Right figures including presidential candidate Gary Bauer and his Family Research Council, as well as James Dobson of Focus on the Family.
Robertson has no clear candidate for the 2000 presidential election. While Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft was Robertson's early favorite, his departure from the race leaves no apparent choice. Some candidates who are courting the Religious Right appear unpalatable to Robertson, including Bauer, who is associated with a rival organization.
The Coalition suffered multiple failures in the 1998 elections, despite spending millions of dollars. Some of the group's favorite and most sympathetic candidates went down in defeat, including high-profile incumbents such as Govs. Fob James in Alabama and David Beasley in South Carolina.
Churches began to turn away from the group. After an election year campaign by Americans United to educate churches on the dangers of getting caught up in the Coalition's political machine, many church leaders rejected the group's materials out of fears that the "voter guides" are too partisan and may jeopardize the church's tax exemption. Accordingly, the Christian Coalition's chosen method of distribution for their campaign materials was severely hampered. University of Akron Prof. John C. Green and other political science scholars said that the Religious Right's electoral misfortunes were due in part to "more determined opposition" from groups such as Americans United (The Christian Century, Dec. 23, 1998).
Robertson himself was made the subject of national public ridicule. In June, Americans United alerted the media to Robertson's announcement that Orlando may be struck by a hurricane and "possibly a meteor" after flying rainbow colored flags from city lightposts during the annual "Gay Days" festivities. That was followed by AU's discovery in July that Robertson's Regent University received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts while Robertson was calling on Congress to shut down the agency.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.