Once-Formidable Christian Coalition Now In Retreat

Once the nation’s most powerful Religious Right group, the Christian Coalition has fallen on hard times, dogged by a dwindling budget, reduced staff and aggressive creditors seeking payment of unpaid bills.

Founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson in 1989, the Coalition was a force to be reckoned with in conservative politics throughout much of that decade. From the Coalition’s headquarters in Chesapeake, Va., GOP strategist Ralph Reed forged the organization into a powerhouse with a budget that reached $25 million and had chapters around the country. The group used slanted “voter guides” to attack political candidates it did not like and worked closely with far-right Republicans in the House and Senate. Its annual “Road to Victory” political conference drew thousands.

Today, the Coalition’s budget has shrunk to $1.1 million, its chapters are mostly shuttered and Reed is long gone. The group, now based in Charleston, S.C., spent $1 million more than it took in last year and is so strapped for cash it can’t even pay its bills. A recent headline in the Columbia, S.C., State newspaper summed it up: “Christian Coalition fading fast.”

What happened? Political observers agree the organization never recovered from Reed’s departure in 1997. Reed left to become a lobbyist and political consultant based in Atlanta, and after his departure, Robertson replaced him with two men Randy Tate, a former Republican member of Congress, and Donald Hodel, a cabinet official from the Ronald Reagan years.

But both men lacked Reed’s star power and organizational skills. Neither lasted long, and when they departed, Robertson turned the group over to Roberta Combs, a longtime political ally of his from South Carolina.

For a while, Combs ran the organization from an office on Capitol Hill, but in November of 2002 she fled to South Carolina, harassed by various creditors who complained of unpaid bills. Even the company that moved the group to Charleston is suing, seeking nearly $2,000 from a bill that was never paid.

By that time, Robertson had abandoned the group. In December 2001, Robertson, who had been shoring up the Coalition with money from his personal fortune, cut the organization loose, severing all ties and turning it over completely to Combs. Combs hired family members to help run the group but could not turn it around. Today, it employs one lobbyist in Washington, D.C., who works from his home.

The Coalition has been beset with lawsuits. In one especially embarrassing incident, a group of 10 African-American employees filed suit against the Coalition, asserting they were forced to enter the office through a back door and eat in a segregated lunchroom. The suit was eventually settled out of court.

In an October story on the Coalition’s woes, the Virginian-Pilot reported that an ex-employee charged that Combs routinely refused to pay bills.

“I witnessed a very consistent and chronic pattern of Roberta Combs intentionally refusing to pay valid debts, salaries and accounts for no discernible reason,” former Coalition bookkeeper Tammy Farmer said.

Farmer asserted that as bills piled up, Combs told her, “Don’t pay…. They’ll never sue.”

With the Coalition plagued by problems, local activists began deserting the organization. Political reporter Lee Bandy of The State reported that the Coalition remains influential in just five states Iowa, Alabama, Texas, Michigan and Florida.

“Their future is really bleak,” Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, told the Virginian-Pilot. “The Christian Coalition is a shell of its former self.”

Even some activists admit the game is up.

“The Coalition as we knew it doesn’t exist,” Lois Eargle, former chair of the Horry County, S.C., Coalition Chapter, told The State.

Combs insists the organization is far from finished. Remarkably, she continues to claim that the organization has 2 million members. (An analysis by Americans United in the mid ’90s found that even at its height the Coalition never had more than half a million members.)

“All organizations have their ups and downs, and there are seasons,” Combs told The State. “The Christian Coalition will always be out there. Don’t count us out.”

In an effort to infuse new life into the Coalition, Combs recently announced the hiring of a new executive director Jason T. Christy, a 34-year-old publisher of a Christian business magazine called The Church Report.

Political analysts say the collapse of the Coalition does not mean the Religious Right is weakened as a political force. In fact, Religious Right activists have simply shifted their allegiance to more powerful organizations, such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

In other news about the Christian Coalition:

The chairman of the Coalition’s Oregon chapter has stepped down to fight allegations of sex abuse lodged against him by three family members.

Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk told The Oregonian newspaper in Portland that his office is investigating allegations against Louis Beres, 70. The three relatives, who are now adults, allege Beres molested them when they were pre-teens. One case might still fall under Oregon’s statute of limitations law for sex abuse, which expires after six years.

A Republican Party official said he believes the case will not affect state politics, asserting that the Coalition has little influence there.

Former Coalition executive director Ralph Reed is the subject of a new round of media reports about his ties to organized gambling.

Reed, who attacked legalized gambling when he was with the Coalition, later worked as a lobbyist on behalf of an internet-based gambling firm to help defeat a proposed ban on internet-based wagering, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month.

Reed’s involvement in killing the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 2000 came to light because investigators in Washington are looking into the activities of Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist and longtime Reed associate.

The newspaper reported, “As a subcontractor to two law firms that employed Abramoff, Reed’s anti-gambling efforts were funded by gambling interests trying to protect their business…. By working against the Internet measure, Reed played a part in defeating legislation that sought to control a segment of the gambling industry that went on to experience prodigious growth.”

Reed is currently running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, and some Republicans in the state are starting to wonder if he is becoming a liability. A recent poll found that 19 percent of state residents hold an unfavorable impression of Reed, versus 16 percent who said favorable. (The rest were undecided.)

Reed’s Republican opponent in the primary, state Sen. Casey Cagle, has been using the scandal to lure support away from Reed. Georgia Democrats are also attacking him.

“Ralph Reed, if he’s going to survive, needs to successfully establish himself as a moderate, issue-oriented candidate,” pollster Matt Towery told the Journal-Constitution. “He’s got to address the hypocrisy issue before the other side does. How he does that, I’m not sure.”

Coalition founder Pat Robertson continues his verbal sparring with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In August, Robertson caused an uproar by suggesting on his “700 Club” program that U.S. officials assassinate Chavez. (See “God’s Hit Man?” October 2005 Church & State). In October, the volatile televangelist struck again, appearing on CNN and accusing Chavez of funneling cash to terrorist Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

Robertson claimed that Chavez sent “either $1 million or $1.2 million” in cash to bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Asked to name a source for this incendiary claim, Robertson replied that it came from “sources that came to me. That’s what I was told.”

Jose Vincente Rangel, Venezuela’s vice president, called on Robertson to be examined by “a team of psychologists” adding, “He’s crazy, at the very least.”

Robertson’s accusations against Chavez are somewhat ironic, in light of his past record of befriending dictators. Robertson was close to former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, who was accused of aiding al Qaeda operatives in West Africa in exchange for diamonds and weapons.