Once the most powerful Religious Right organization in America, the Christian Coalition is continuing its rapid downward spiral into irrelevance.
The organization, founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson in the wake of his failed 1988 presidential campaign, faces a mountain of debt and a leadership crisis. In the most recent blow, one of the group’s most active chapters, the Iowa Christian Coalition, severed its ties to the national group and became independent, renaming itself the Iowa Christian Alliance.
The Coalition’s woes were the subject of a front-page Washington Post article April 10 that chronicled the scope of the Coalition’s decline. The newspaper noted that during its peak in the 1990s, the Coalition, then run by GOP operative Ralph Reed, employed a dozen lobbyists on Capitol Hill and worked with churches nationwide to distribute millions of slanted “voter guides” that favored Republican candidates.
Today, the Coalition, which was cut loose by Robertson in December of 2001, is more than $2 million in debt and has only one employee left in Washington. Roberta Combs, a long-time Robertson associate, has moved the group to her home state of South Carolina. Its budget, which once reached as high as $26 million, is now estimated to be a paltry $1 million.
Even the Coalition’s famous voter guides are taking a hit. The Post reported that Coalition leaders entered a settlement a year ago with the Internal Revenue Service that allowed the group to regain its 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status only if it alters the guides. (The Coalition’s tax status had been yanked by the IRS after the agency concluded its voter guides were far too politically partisan.)
The settlement requires the Coalition to allow candidates for public office to provide lengthier – and therefore more accurate – answers to the guide’s questions. Critics say this change could be a serious blow to the Coalition. For years, the group’s clearly stacked voter guides were used to promote favored candidates and demonize others. Despite their dubious legality, millions were distributed in churches nationwide.
That began to change in the mid 1990s, when Americans United stepped up its campaign to warn church leaders about the partisan content of the guides. The Coalition began having difficulty getting them into churches.
“You’d be amazed at the churches around the country that won’t take our voter guides because they’re fearful,” Combs said. “They’re fearful of voter guides because of Barry Lynn [executive director of Americans United].”
Many Religious Right activists are looking for other groups to work with. In Iowa, Steve Scheffler, former president of the Iowa Coalition chapter, announced March 6 that his group was going its own way.
“For years, the board of Christian Coalition of Iowa struggled with its ‘parent’ organization, Christian Coalition of America,” Scheffler said in a statement. “For years the national organization reigned as the country’s premiere conservative organization, leading the fight against those who would tear down our Judeo Christian values. Although in the early years, the national organization was a GREAT help, assisting us with financial support and political savvy, the past few years had been mired with dissent and distrust. Promises made were not kept and when confronted the typical response was to threaten.”
Continued Scheffler, “It seems that the eyes of the national organization lost focus. It appeared to the board of Christian Coalition of Iowa, that the focus was no longer on our ultimate service, that of our Lord, but on those things of this world. When the focus of a Christian organization becomes blurred, the organization is doomed. After the national organization found itself riddled with lawsuits and unpaid bills, when the leadership appeared to be more interested in ‘looking good’ than ‘being good,’ your board members decided that in order to uphold their personal integrity and to stand firm in the face of the Lord, that the ties needed to be severed.”
The Coalition’s woes do not amount to a crippling blow to the Religious Right. Groups affiliated with radio broadcaster James C. Dobson are becoming more active, and Religious Right pastors Rick Scarborough and Rod Parsley are working to fill the void left by the Coalition.