Christian Coalition Is Down, But Far From Out, Experts Say At 'Religion And Politics Roundtable'

TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and the larger Religious Right movement have suffered some setbacks but will continue to affect American politics well into the next century, a panel of experts said today at the National Press Club.

The "Religion and Politics Roundtable" convened in Washington, D.C., Sept. 29 to assess the future of the Religious Right and offer thoughts on its influence in advance of the year 2000 elections. The event occurred just two days before the Christian Coalition gathered in the nation's capital for its annual "Road to Victory" Conference, which was expected to feature appearances by all of the major Republican presidential candidates.

Sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the roundtable explored whether the Religious Right's power is waning, and, if so, how this might affect American politics. Panelists were William Martin, professor of sociology at Rice University and author of With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, a companion volume to the PBS series by the same name; syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, author of Blinded By Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?; and Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Martin kicked off the discussion by giving some statistical data about the Religious Right. The movement, he said, accounts for about 17 percent of the American electorate. Religious Right groups have power, Martin said, not because most Americans agree with them, but because voter turnout in the country for presidential and congressional elections hovers at around 50 percent and is even lower in state and local races.

"It's not a juggernaut, but it's not a fringe of American life," said Martin. "It is a formidable movement with a powerful set of resources. In addition, they tend to have a missionary zeal that is seldom matched by those on the left or in the middle." Martin added that the Religious Right holds sway over GOP affiliates in at least 18-20 states and exercises considerable power in many more.

Martin acknowledged that the Religious Right fared poorly in the 1998 elections and said the movement continues to face skepticism from many Americans, who are wary of moral zealotry. He said it is possible "that the movement has plateaued" but warned, "For nearly 20 years, various observers have weighed in saying the Religious Right has failed, the crusade is over.... But it is important to remember that this is a movement that arises from a revivalist tradition. Revivals have a way of surging, then peaking and declining."

Concluded Martin, "It [the Religious Right] remains probably the largest identifiable sector of the electorate, and it has gained a lot of practical experience and maturity. It's a real grassroots movement with legions of well trained leaders and foot soldiers working at all levels.... We would be sadly mistaken, I think, to imagine that religious conservatives are soon going to give up the fight to reshape the political-cultural ethos to fit more closely their own vision of what a godly nation should stand for." Americans United's Lynn offered his own assessment of the strength of the Christian Coalition, pointing out that the organization has been damaged by the Internal Revenue Service's decision to deny the group tax-exempt status and by revelations that it has lied about its membership figures and grassroots strength. But Lynn asserted that it is too early to dismiss the Religious Right, noting that the movement's obituary has been prematurely written on previous occasions, such as when Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority folded and after Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign failed.

Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, said the pulpit is no place for partisan politics. He pointed out that some types of political activities in churches are permissible, such as advocacy on issues like abortion, gay rights and others. But, he said, churches must scrupulously avoid partisan politics, not only because it runs afoul of IRS regulations but because it is morally wrong as well.

"Partisanship, and even the appearance of partisanship, is a disservice to the integrity of the church and its mission," said Lynn. "For churches, I certainly believe that the fear of God should at least be as powerful a motivator as the fear of the Internal Revenue Service."

His examination of the Coalition, Lynn said, has led him to believe that the group's grassroots strength is dissipating. Nevertheless, Lynn cautioned against completely writing off the power of the organization. The decisive test of the group's strength, he said, will occur during the next election cycle.

"The Christian Coalition may have survived longer than any of its predecessors, including Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority," Lynn said. "Even more of the personal wealth of Pat Robertson could be pumped into a system seen in temporary distress. But perhaps the best analogy I can give to the status of the Christian Coalition and the Religious Right in general is that of a long-distance runner who hits the wall and reaches a point where he either collapses or goes on to get a second wind and finishes the race, maybe even as the winner. This weekend [at the Coalition meeting] I'll be looking for sources of new energy to reinflate those tired lungs, but I certainly cannot say I have seen any clear clue in that direction in recent months."

Panelist Thomas, who once worked for the Moral Majority, began by telling the audience that he still holds conservative views on political issues but has come to believe that partisan politics has no place in the pulpit.

Many politicians, Thomas charged, merely manipulate religion and religious language to win support from religious conservatives. Once elected, they do little or nothing to advance a conservative Christian agenda. He argued that when church and state get too cozy, it's always the church that eventually comes up on the short end.

"The danger is that the church will be compromised...," Thomas said. "When you get that access, when you get that picture with the president, when you get the presumption that you're really making a difference...then you tend to water down the truth of what you carry in you, in your head, your heart and your soul in order to maintain that access and in order to give your supporters, through direct mail, the false view that this president is really listening to your counsel."

Religious believers, Thomas said, would do better to use the power of religion to win converts and change lives. "Politics cannot reach the soul," he said. "The church can, but when the church comes into the political arena, it compromises its primary message. Then neither side is functional. Politics becomes dysfunctional because it starts to placate and pander to the church and use religious language when most of the time it doesn't know what it's talking about. The church comes into the political arena and starts using political language and doesn't know what it's talking about. When each side fulfills its proper role, then the system works best."

All Americans should vote and be involved in politics, Thomas said, but he added, "Ordained clergy ought to get out of politics totally. They should preach on moral issues where the Bible speaks to them, but they should ignore defense policy and taxes and all of these other things that are not their form of expertise. Laypeople can and should be involved, but the preachers, who are ordained for a higher king and for a different kingdom that does not pass away, ought to get back on their side of the line."

A lively question-and-answer session followed. The panel, moderated by Washington journalist Louise Schiavone, was also taped by the C-SPAN cable network for later broadcast.

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.