Robertson Resigns!

A Decade After Creating A Religious Right Political Machine, TV Preacher Pat Robertson Walks Away From The Christian Coalition

TV preacher Pat Robertson, who created a Religious Right political machine with the Christian Coalition throughout the 1990s, walked away from the group on Dec. 5.

Robertson issued a written statement resigning as president and saying he would focus his post-Coalition attention on ministerial work.

"We are seeing an outpouring of revival power in the United States that exceeds anything that I have known in my lifetime," Robertson said. "With the few years left to me of active service, I must focus on those things that will bring forth the greatest spiritual benefit."

Robertson's interest in American spirituality may have been a factor in his decision to leave the Coalition, but it certainly was not the only reason. The steady decline in the Christian Coalition's budget, membership and influence in recent years no doubt contributed to Robertson's motivation to leave the group he created in 1989 from lists of supporters of his failed run for the Republican nomination for president.

In fact, critics of the Christian Coalition said Robertson's announcement represents the likely demise of the group.

"The Christian Coalition has been a sinking ship for several years, and now the captain's jumped overboard," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Without Robertson's money and political clout, it's only a matter of time before the organization collapses outright."

As recently as six years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Robertson fleeing a floundering Christian Coalition. In the mid-1990s, when the group's financial and political strength was at its height, the Coalition enjoyed a budget of $25 million and boasted of nearly 2 million members and supporters. At the time, conservative political candidates looking to generate grassroots support had little choice but to woo Coalition members and cozy up to Robertson. Looking back over the last two presidential elections, major GOP hopefuls for the 1996 and 2000 GOP presidential nominations including George W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Ashcroft, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes made at least one appearance at the Coalition's "Road to Victory" conferences.

While the Coalition was still in its early years, Robertson personally spelled out a 10-year vision for the group. Robertson said he wanted to build a political machine that would help "pro-family" candidates a Religious Right euphemism for Republicans control Congress and the White House, which, by and large, happened.

Even in his statement announcing his resignation, Robertson boasted of the Coalition's political successes helping Republicans, despite years of rhetoric insisting his group was non-partisan.

"Without us, I do not believe that George Bush would be sitting in the White House or that Republicans would be in control of the United States House of Representatives," Robertson said.

Robertson's sudden and unexpected departure, however, comes at a difficult time for the Coalition. Nearly all observers agree that over the last several years, the Coalition has become a shadow of its former self.

Its $25 million budget has fallen to about $3 million, according to a report in The Washington Times. Politically powerful staffers, such as Ralph Reed, have fled the group, while other high-profile employees, like Don Hodel and Randy Tate, have been forced out. Interest in the Coalition's national conferences shrank dramatically, to the point that the 2001 event was cancelled, the first such cancellation in the group's history. Even at the local level, Coalition officials were embarrassed by a 1999 New York Times report that highlighted the fact that the number of active state chapters had fallen from 48 to seven.

Complicating its financial difficulties, the organization entered the 2000 election cycle $2 million in debt, according to a report in The Washington Times. Apparently, the debts had been pending for some time. Ken Hill, former Christian Coalition chief operating officer, told the Times that the group, even in its heyday, spent far more than it took in.

"We had a $25 million annual budget but were pulling in only $19 million," Hill said.

Legal problems also piled up over the years. The Coalition was forced to deal with a costly lawsuit filed against it by the Federal Election Commission, as well as a lengthy legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service over the appropriate tax exemption for the political outfit.

More recently, 10 African American employees hired to work at the group's Washington, D.C., office, filed a federal lawsuit against the Coalition, arguing racial discrimination. In the suit filed last year, black employees alleged they were excluded from staff prayer meetings, denied health care benefits given to white employees and, perhaps most outrageous of all, told not to use the same dining area or front door as the group's white employees. (The lawsuit now appears to be headed to an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount.)

A change in political climate has also hurt the Christian Coalition, making it in some ways a victim of its own success. In the early 1990s, Democrats controlled the White House, both chambers of Congress and a majority of state capitals nationwide. Robertson needed little help in rallying his fundamentalist Christian troops against those they perceived as enemies.

As the political winds shifted, so too did Robertson's ability to demonize the government establishment. Indeed, when George W. Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, Republicans enjoyed the exact same political control Democrats had eight years earlier. Many of Robertson's rank-and-file felt they had achieved political success and were less compelled to get involved and remain active with the Coalition.

Even before the recent victories of Robertson allies at the national level, the Coalition had seen some of its ability to influence campaign outcomes wane.

The group developed a strategy in the early 1990s to create slanted campaign materials, which the Coalition called "voter guides," to help direct fundamentalist Christians to vote for conservative Republican candidates. In order to give the guides religious and moral authority and a friendly audience they were distributed in evangelical churches wherever possible.

Americans United, a leading critic of the Coalition since its inception, noted that churches are prohibited under federal tax law from distributing partisan campaign literature, and launched a massive effort to educate religious leaders about the dangers of participating in Robertson's political scheme.

AU's efforts were largely successful, and churches increasingly ignored Coalition requests to circulate the campaign materials. Though Coalition officials complained bitterly in private sessions about AU's work, they insisted publicly that churches were actively helping distribute tens of millions of guides. Staffers later admitted the numbers were exaggerated.

"We never distributed 40 million guides," Dave Welch, the coalition's former national field director, told The New York Times in 1999. "State affiliates took stacks of them to recycling centers after the election. A lot of churches just put a pile of them on the back table. I never considered effective distribution anything short of inserting them into church bulletins, but in very few churches did that actually happen."

AU's project to counter voter guide distribution was just one of many steps the church-state group took to undermine the Christian Coalition's efforts during Robertson's tenure.

In September of 1997, for example, Americans United obtained a tape of Robertson outlining a partisan agenda for the Christian Coalition during a closed-door meeting of top Coalition lieutenants in Atlanta. Robertson's speech showed the TV preacher at his most partisan, demonstrating clearly that he was more of a hardball political operator than a religious leader.

In his remarks, Robertson boasted that his goal was to have the Coalition emulate the infamous political machines of American history, such as Tammany Hall. AU turned the tape over to the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service as definitive proof that the Christian Coalition, despite Robertson's rhetoric to the contrary, was a partisan political operation that existed to help elect candidates who would advance a Religious Right agenda.

Americans United also played a key role in bringing public attention to Robertson's outrageous comments. In fact, some of Robertson's biggest setbacks in recent years were self-inflicted political wounds.

As a television evangelist with a daily program, Robertson has had a propensity for offering offensive, and sometimes bizarre, comments. With AU monitoring those broadcasts and informing the media of Robertson's frequently impolitic remarks, the credibility of the Christian Coalition suffered.

Robertson's eyebrow-raising remarks have generated controversy since before the Coalition even existed. The consistent nature of these comments, however, kept the controversial TV preacher in hot water and prevented a broader audience from being receptive to Robertson's religious and political message.

Just two days after terrorists killed thousands of Americans in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, Robertson invited TV preacher Jerry Falwell on his show to discuss the tragedies. On the program, Robertson blamed federal courts, pornography, abortion rights and church-state separation for angering God, which led to the terrorism of Sept. 11.

"We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government," Robertson said. "And then we say, 'Why does this happen?' Well, why it's happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."

These remarks, compounded by similar comments from Falwell, led to national disgust and eventual backpedaling from the TV preachers.

The political and financial problems for the Coalition proved to be too much for Robertson, according to AU's Lynn.

"Robertson is a businessman," Lynn said. "Like all businessmen, he decided to bail out when his investment was no longer performing."

Though he may no longer head the Christian Coalition, Robertson, age 71, is not disappearing from public life or politics. To be sure, Robertson will continue to be visible and make frequent efforts to shape public policy, with or without the Coalition.

Robertson will continue to lead his Christian graduate school in Virginia, Regent University, as well as overseeing several business ventures, including a controversial gold-mining operation in Liberia. (See "Monsters, Inc.," page 9.)

Perhaps more importantly, Robertson will continue to head the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and its flagship program, the "700 Club." In many ways, the network and the TV show offer Robertson far greater opportunities to advance his agenda than the Christian Coalition.

While the Coalition has shrinking budgets and growing debts, the opposite can be said about CBN. According to filings with the IRS, CBN took in over $90 million in direct support in 2000, and had net assets of over $187 million.

Moreover, Robertson will continue to host the "700 Club." The show gives Robertson the chance to lobby high-profile figures from the political arena when they appear as guests, as well as speak directly to a viewing audience of hundreds of thousands of like-minded Americans. The fact that Robertson can direct grassroots allies on a daily basis to contact lawmakers about issues that concern him offers Robertson unparalleled influence to aggressively advance a political agenda.

Other Religious Right allies may not have daily nationally broadcast television programs, but many recognize that the Coalition is in decline and are vying for position as the movement's leading organization.

The Religious Right continues to have several organizations with hefty budgets and a sizable membership. Groups such as the Family Research Council, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Traditional Values Coalition, American Family Association, D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, Concerned Women for America and Jerry Falwell Ministries each plan to push a shared social and political agenda, and would certainly pick up the slack should the Christian Coalition fall in the wake of Robertson's departure.

For that matter, the legal group that Robertson himself helped create, the American Center of Law and Justice, continues to take in nearly $10 million a year in contributions and file a multitude of lawsuits that undermine the healthy distance that should exist between religion and government.

In fact, what advocates of church-state separation should remember is that while the Christian Coalition may be in decline, the political movement the group helped lead is not. The millions of followers that helped Robertson create an empire remain committed to the same agenda and will continue to fight for the issues they care about, whether the Coalition survives or not.

As for the Christian Coalition's leadership after Robertson, the group's board has selected Roberta Combs to serve as the new president. Combs, a close Robertson ally who served as the South Carolina campaign chairman for Robertson's 1988 Republican presidential campaign, has been serving the group as executive vice president.

Whether Combs will be able to turn the Coalition around is very much in doubt. The most significant project Combs has managed since becoming the group's vice president was the Coalition's women's conference, hosted in the D.C. suburbs in March 2000. By all standards, the event was a complete flop, and attendance never exceeded 200.

Mark Hartley, who has worked closely with Combs as a GOP county chairman in South Carolina, told the Columbia State that she is overrated.

"She doesn't appear to have the leadership ability to have much impact," Hartley said. "She's certainly not a national player. I don't think she can bring the Coalition back to prominence."

Charles Cunningham, former director of national operations for the Christian Coalition, said Combs is a poor choice for replacing Robertson.

"She's primarily been responsible for driving off the national office staff and state leaders," Cunningham told The Washington Times. "There's been a 100 percent turnover in the national office staff over the past three years. She has a problem with her people skills."

Whether Combs is a people person or not, the Coalition's future appears tenuous. In the past, the group could rely on Robertson's personal fortune to bail it out in times of need, as he has done in the past with generous personal financial contributions as high as $1 million. With Robertson's attention and resources spent elsewhere, coupled with the group's existing financial shortfalls and debt, the Coalition may have trouble keeping its head above water.

"The sooner the Christian Coalition collapses the better, as far as I'm concerned," concluded AU's Lynn. "Its activities have taken politics closer to the gutter than to Heaven. The country will be better off without it."