Christian Coalition, Priests For Life Plan Church-based Voter Drive

The Christian Coalition has joined forces with two anti-abortion groups in an effort to build a new church-based political machine and possibly boost the sagging fortunes of the Pat Robertson-founded political unit, Americans United charged last month.

At a June 2 news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, the Christian Coalition, Priests for Life and the National Pro-Life Religious Council announced plans for a church-based voter registration drive on four Sundays between now and the 2004 elections.

While the groups tried to cast the "National Christian Voter Registration Sundays" project as mere participation in the democratic process, critics said the move is part of a larger game plan.

"All Americans ought to register to vote and participate in the democratic process," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "But clergy and church-goers should be aware of the devious and divisive agenda at work here. "This voter registration drive is part of a larger scheme to forge a church-based political machine. It's no secret that Religious Right leaders want to repeal church-state separation and write their religious beliefs into laws that everyone must obey."

Lynn said the voter registration project is only the first step in the process. If the past is any guide, he said, it will be followed by distribution of biased "voter guides" and other materials that steer voters toward favored Republican candidates. The Christian Coalition has a long history as serving as an arm of the GOP and working to elect conservative Republicans to public office.

In 1997, Americans United made public a secret Pat Robertson speech to top Christian Coalition lieutenants that called for the group to emulate Tammany Hall, a corrupt 19th-century New York political machine. (Robert­son, a wealthy Virginia-based TV preach­er, is the founder of the Coalition, although he stepped down as its president in 2001.)

During that speech, Robertson talked about how his organization intended to intervene in state GOP presidential primaries to make sure a candidate acceptable to the Religious Right was nominated.

Although the organization helped elect President George W. Bush in 2000, the Christian Coalition has floundered in recent years. Beset by troubles with the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission and hostility from most Americans, the group's membership has plummeted and its donations are a small fraction of what they once were.

Republican strategists were dismayed that turnout among self-identified "born-again" voters dropped between 1996 and 2000. Roberta Combs, president of the Coalition, said the organization will focus on getting voters to the polls in 2004.

The Christian Coalition claims to have distributed 70 million voter guides in 2000. Critics say that total is clearly inflated, and that the group, which now has a budget of under $3 million, distributed a fraction of that number. The organization has also repeatedly lied about its membership. Although the Coalition claims 2 million members, postal records showed that at its peak the group had fewer than half a million. Membership today is believed to be much lower.

Priests for Life, however, has a large budget. Its most recent IRS filing showed annual expenditures of over $6.8 million. (The National Pro-Life Religious Council is an umbrella group representing the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and an array of small Protestant organizations.)

Said AU's Lynn, "The good news is that these groups are unlikely to succeed in their agenda. Most clergy don't want to politicize their churches, and most church-goers reject the Religious Right's extreme viewpoint."

In other news about the Religious Right:

 Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia traveled to Philadelphia in May to help a Religious Right group raise money. Scalia spoke at a $150-a-plate dinner held by the Urban Family Council to honor Philadelphia's Roman Catholic Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua.

Federal judges are barred from raising money for political or civic organizations.

Scalia apparently got around the ban because the Council, which opposes abortion and gay rights, denied that the event was a fund-raiser.

Said Council founder William Devlin. "It's nice to be able to say you have a friend like Justice Scalia."

The event was closed to the press.

 Prison Fellowship Chairman Charles Colson advised Capitol Hill staffers in Washington last month to understand that "our faith is not just a private salvation experience." Colson told the staffers, "This is a struggle for the heart and soul of this country being fought out daily," reported Focus on the Family's Citizenlink.

Colson added, "You are in a position to influence policy in the best way possible by taking your core beliefs and thinking through the issues that come before you and then helping your members."

Also speaking at the event was Bill Wichterman, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's senior policy adviser.

Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, a business partner with TV preacher Pat Robertson, has been indicted for war crimes. A United Nations court handed down the indictment in early June, saying Taylor bears the "greatest responsibility" for a brutal, atrocity-filled, 10-year civil war that has left thousands dead.

Robertson has a mining company in Liberia called Freedom Gold. Under an arrangement with Taylor, if gold is found, the Liberian strongman will receive royalty payments. Robertson, who seems indifferent to Taylor's brutal reputation, has lobbied the State Department to lift its ban on Taylor so he can visit the United States.

Last year, Taylor declared that Jesus Christ rules Liberia. A three-day "Liberia for Jesus" rally, partly planned and coordinated by Robertson associates, received laudatory coverage on Rober­t­son's Christian Broadcasting Network.

Asked about the indictment, Taylor replied, "To call the president of Liberia a war criminal? God himself will not permit it."