The Christian Coalition: Born Again?

With Help From A New TV Preacher And A Dose Of Old-Time Religion, Roberta Combs Hopes To Resurrect The Christian Coalition

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year, Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs was in a quandary about her organization's direction.

" There was something missing," Combs said. "I was praying and asking God where we should go as an organization, and it was like God was speaking to me: bring the spiritual with the political."

With that divine revelation last December, the Christian Coalition a hard\xac\xacball Republican political operation with a thin religious veneer was born again. Combs and other Coalition leaders decided to keep their partisan purpose but add a major religious component to the organization's agenda.

That component was much in evidence at the Coalition's 11th "Road To Victory" (RTV) gathering in Washing\xacton, D.C., on Oct. 11-12. As in previous years, the program featured a heavy dose of Republican politicking. But this year, a hearty dollop of Pentecostal religion was thrown into the mix. The result was a merger of partisanship and piety that for two days turned the Washington Convention Center into the Anointed Church of St. GOP.

Speaker after speaker urged the crowd to work the precincts and turn out voters on behalf of Republican candidates in November. But others at the podium delivered impassioned sermons, songs and prayers that had members of the audience lifting their hands, shouting amen and even speaking in tongues. Some speakers did both, railing against Democrats, Satan and church-state separation and praising the GOP, God and "godly" government.

Combs and other Coalition leaders seized on this "faith with works" strategy in a desperate bid to revive the fortunes of an organization that once dominated the Religious Right movement. Although Combs told The Washington Times that the Coalition's "influence with the administration is stronger than at any time in our 12-year history," most ob\xacservers believe the group's grassroots structure and its income have declined precipitously.

When Ralph Reed ran the show as executive director in the 1990s, the Coalition maintained the image often greatly exaggerated of a well-oiled po\xaclitical machine, issuing voter guides and controlling elections in many states. After Reed left in 1997, however, leadership fell to Coalition founder Pat Robertson and Combs, a long-time Coalition board member from South Carolina.

Robertson and Combs floundered in their new roles. The TV preacher made gaffe after gaffe that turned off followers, including an extraordinary CNN appearance in which the "pro-life" leader condoned China's policy of forced abortion. Combs, meanwhile, showed few skills as an administrator, driving away experienced staff and attracting a discrimination lawsuit by African-American staffers. (The case was settled out of court for a reported $300,000.)

When Robertson resigned as president in December 2001, Combs struggled with these problems and came up with religious revival as the answer. To achieve her goals, she has formed a partnership with some four dozen churches and Christian ministries. In addition, she scheduled a purely religious "praise and worship" session one evening during the RTV conference.

To ensure that the convention drew a respectable crowd, Combs persuaded popular television preacher Joyce Meyer to cosponsor the RTV gathering, pick up half the tab and speak several times. Although little known to the general public, Meyer heads a multi-million-dollar religious broadcasting empire based in Fenton, Mo. She has little record of political involvement, but her practical Christian-lifestyle advice has won a large and devoted following around the world.

The Combs plan worked reasonably well in the short run. Although attendance at RTV events fluctuated wildly, as many as 4,000 filtered in and out of the cavernous convention hall during two days of events. That was far short of the 10,000 Combs predicted, but it kept up appearances. (The Coalition's claim in a post-event press release that 15,000 people attended is as laughable as the group's claim of two million "members and supporters." Even RTV cosponsor Meyer told conferees that Combs was disappointed at the turnout.)

On the conference's first day, Coalition board member Billy McCormack, a Shreve\xacport, La., preacher, lauded Combs for "putting Christian into the Christian Coalition." Claiming that Combs was defying "the powers of darkness," McCormack compared the group's president to dynamic women of the Bible in his introduction. Strangely, among those listed was Jael, an Old Testament figure best known for driving a tent stake through the head of a man she welcomed into her tent.

" Like Jael's fatal hammer to the head of Sisera," said McCormack, "Roberta, if she must, can pack a powerful punch."

In her opening address, Combs took a militant stance.

" We need to bring the spiritual and the political and the legislature together," she insisted. "We need to take back our country. When kids can't pray in school, that should tell you something. We need to get prayer back in school, and that's just the beginning of many, many things that need to be changed."

Combs was followed by Meyer, a 59-year-old evangelist known for her flashy attire and no-nonsense speaking style. Clearly a crowd favorite, Meyer seemed to be the reason a majority of attendees came. The TV preacher urged them to become active in politics as well as religious life.

Arguing that "our godly foundation is getting cracks in it," she recited revisionist history claiming America as a "Christian nation," blasted Supreme Court rulings upholding the religious neutrality of public schools and appealed for "godly people" to "make some noise."

Meyer said she had always heard that church and state were supposed to be separate.

" I think that many people believe that," she told the crowd. "The only problem is it's really a deception from Satan. Because if God is in fact separated from the government, then we can never possibly have a godly government. And there's no way for America to be good if she's not godly."

Meyer urged pastors and parishioners to organize politically.

" There are more righteous people in this nation that love God than there are evil people," she said. "The only problem is the evil people make more noise than we do, and that is so ridiculous.

" What we need more than anything," she continued, "are godly men and women that will pass laws based on God's word and moral principles, not laws based on their own particular feelings."

Meyer was especially harsh in her assessment of the federal courts and public schools.

" You know when prayer was taken out of the schools in 1962, it was not really about prayer being taken out of the schools, it was a violent assault against the future of the kingdom of God," she said. "Because Satan knew if he could take spirituality away from children that the next generation would not be able to do the kingdom of darkness any damage."

Meyer said her interest in public affairs came when her husband Dave read a book called America's Providential History six years ago. The volume is published by the Providence Foundation, a Charlottesville, Va.-based outfit that urges Christians to take dominion over all aspects of life, including the government. (Authors Mark Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell later spoke briefly at the Coalition pastors' luncheon.)

Meyer described the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a "wake-up call" and suggested that God is lifting his protection from America. However, she effusively praised President George W. Bush.

Arguing that Bush was placed in the White House "sovereignly and supernaturally," she said, "I know that we all appreciate and thank God for our godly president. I believe President Bush is a man that is going to say what is right and he is going to stand up for God no matter what.... I believe that God is going to keep him there to bring restoration to this nation."

Throughout the RTV conference, Bush received lavish praise both for his policies and his "born-again Christian" religious status. The Rev. James Robison, a Texas evangelist, told the crowd, "I have never seen a man's heart go after God more than this man." (While in Washington, Robison and his wife visited the White House and prayed with Bush.)

Bush rewarded the gathering's devotion with a videotaped message. Addressing "all my friends at the Chris\xactian Coalition," he cited the "values that you and I share together," listing his support for "faith-based" social services, tax cuts and "impartial" judges and his opposition to legal abortion, cloning and welfare dependency.

" We share common goals and a common faith," he said.

Although Bush steered clear of a direct appeal for Coalition help in the November elections, his Republican allies from Capitol Hill did not. (No Democrats darkened the Coalition's stage, which featured a brightly lit three-dimensional Capitol with divine hands cradling the dome.)

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) combined an appeal for help in winning GOP control over both houses of Congress with a strong fundamentalist religious message.

" When we win this revolution in November," he said, "you'll be doing the Lord's work and he will richly bless you for it."

Inhofe said Religious Right activists should not be deterred by concerns about church-state separation.

" That's the phoniest argument there is," he said. "This whole nation was founded as one nation under God."

Inhofe noted that early oaths of office required officials to swear belief in the Old and New Testaments and promise to conduct their offices accordingly. He railed against Supreme Court church-state decisions in the '60s that were "the dawn of the age of perversion in America."

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) took a similar tack, imploring the Coalition to turn out the vote so that Congress can ban cloning and so-called "partial-birth" abortion and confirm "judges that respect God."

He praised the Coalition's voter guides. Although the guides are supposed to be nonpartisan, Brownback said, "As a candidate, I could see my polling numbers shoot up as those voter guides went out. I appreciate it and they work."

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who is leaving Congress when his term expires, accepted the Coalition's "Lifetime Champion of Family Values" Award. He too praised the Coalition for its partisan endeavors, crediting the group with helping elect him in 1984, a GOP Congress in 1994 and Bush in 2000.

" The Christian Coalition took a chance on us," he said, "and I hope we haven't disappointed you." (Armey may be giving the Coalition more credit than it deserves; the group did not exist in 1984 when he was first elected to the House.)

Perhaps the most thorough mixing of religion and politics came from U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Davis (RVa.), who insisted that elected officials must "do what the scriptures say."

" God told me I would be in Congress," she said, "but he gave me two words: 'No compromise.'"

Complaining that "it gets a little lonely on the House floor," Davis said, "We need more Christians in Congress; we need more godly people.... Let's bring this nation back to godly values; let's bring this nation back to godly principles." (In fact, Christians are already well represented in Congress; 491 of the 535 members profess a Christian religious affiliation.)

Other elected officials on the RTV program included U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and U.S. Reps. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.). Jones touted his church electioneering bill and bashed Americans United for urging houses of worship to understand federal tax law provisions barring partisan politicking.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) appealed for help with the November elections, touting his Repub\xaclican campaign organization. Dubbed STOMP (Strategic Taskforce to Organize and Mobilize People), the project assigns volunteers to work for GOP candidates in competitive districts.

Speaking at the Coalition's "Christian Solidarity with Israel Rally," DeLay said evangelical participation is essential.

" This is when we put people in office that not just support Israel, but support everything that we believe in and stand unashamedly for Jesus Christ," DeLay said.

The pro-Israel component of the RTV event may seem odd, but in fact, it re\xacflects a rapidly escalating Religious Right interest in Middle East policy. According to a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, the establishment of a Jewish state is a fulfillment of prophecy and a step toward the return of Jesus Christ.

The extraordinary rally featured singing of the U.S. and Israeli national anthems, ritual blowing of a shofar, dancing, display of large Israeli flags (as well as a large banner consisting of an Am\xacerican flag literally sewn together with an Israeli flag) and speeches by religious and political figures from both countries. The thousands of RTV attendees cheered, prayed and waved small plastic Israeli flags as the speakers took the stage.

Robertson, in a fiery speech, warned that disaster would befall the United States if we do not give unconditional support to Israel, including recognition of a unified Jerusalem as the capital of that nation. According to the Bible, "General Joshua" and the Jews took the land of Israel in 1300 B.C., he said, and King David in 1000 B.C. purchased the area around the Temple Mount.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, an Islamic house of worship, stands there now. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the nearby Dome of the Rock and regard the location as the third holiest site of their faith (after Mecca and Medina).

Arguing that American policy in the Middle East must be based on the Bible, Robertson dismissed the Islamic religious interests.

" This is God's territory," he said, "and it was a place of holy significance long before anyone ever heard of Muhammad or any of their incredible claims."

Other speakers at the rally included Rep. Graham and Religious Right leaders Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and singer Pat Boone. In a videotaped message, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said, "I have believed in and supported the Abrahamic covenant that God blesses those who bless Israel and curses those who curse Israel."

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and Israeli Knesset Member Benny Elon also spoke.

The rest of the RTV conference included many familiar faces from Religious Right events. Among those on the dais were "Christian nation" activist and Texas Republican Party Vice Chair David Barton, Phyllis Schlafly, right-wing columnist Don Feder, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, the Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, talk show host Armstrong Williams, Col. Oliver North and Niger Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality, a right-leaning civil rights group.

Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court spoke twice, addressing the general audience as well as a pastors' luncheon. Moore is being sued by Americans United and other civil liberties groups for displaying a large stone monument of the Ten Com\xacmand\xacments in the foyer of the Alabama Judicial Building.

The judge told the clergy event that pastors, lawyers and teachers have been deceived about the role of religion in American society. Bashing church-state separation, Moore said, "That phrase has so warped our society it's unbelievable."

Moore cited biblical warnings about people who turn from the truth and begin to believe in fables. "That fable," he said, "is separation of church and state."

Moore fancies himself a poet and he read an example of his works to the full convention. One Moore poem has been set to music and a vocalist sang the verses with recorded accompaniment.

Coalition founder Robertson delivered a stem-winding tirade at the RTV's "Faith and Freedom Gala" Saturday night. The speech was both openly partisan and ominously militant in its religious triumphalism.

Robertson insisted that the first thing the early settlers at Cape Henry, Va., did was erect a seven-foot cross and dedicate the land to Jesus Christ and Almighty God.

" This country does not belong to the ACLU, the radical left or the communists," said Robertson. "It belongs to God and his people. I frankly am tired of us being second-class citizens in a land our forefathers founded and claimed for the Lord."

The TV preacher dismissed the constitutional principle of church-state separation.

" We have had a distortion imposed on us over the past few years by left-wingers who have fastened themselves into the court system," he continued, "and we have had a lie foisted on us that there is something embedded in the Constitution called separation of church and state."

Robertson bitterly blasted Democrats who control the Senate as "a kind of dictatorship." He especially railed against their reluctance to approve some of Bush's judicial appointments.

Robertson gave the Christian Coalition credit for electing evangelical Christians and Republicans to top posts in the U.S. government. Citing a 10-year plan outlined in 1990, he said those goals were achieved when the organization won major influence over one of the two political parties, when "conservatives" took control of both houses of Congress in 1994 and when a "born-again man" was elected president in 2000.

Until Sen. James Jeffords gave control of the Senate to the Democrats, Robertson said, "born-again" men served as House speaker, House majority leader, House majority whip, Senate majority leader and president of the United States.

" And that ain't too bad for a little organization," Robertson chuckled to wild applause. "Not too bad. I thought having gotten that array, the courts would be next. The courts have taken away our power."

Robertson also returned to the controversial theme that got him and Falwell in trouble after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In an appearance on Robertson's "700 Club" program at that time, the pair blamed Americans' sinfulness and support for church-state separation for the attacks and suggested God had allowed the terrorists to strike for that reason.

When a public uproar ensued, Robertson shifted the blame for the incendiary comments to Falwell, who bore the brunt of public censure.

At the RTV, however, Robertson said, "When I suggested that God had lifted his protection from this land that we had enjoyed for many years, the people were incensed." He noted that a CNN poll showed that 95 percent of Americans rejected his analysis.

But at the RTV dinner, before a sympathetic audience, Robertson again suggested that America's sins had caused divine punishment.

" We cannot stand before God and say we're righteous when we have the blood of 40 million unborn babies on our hands," Robertson thundered. He then listed other national sins including Internet porn, divorce, sex addiction, teenage sex and venereal disease.

" I think we should follow Lincoln's advice," concluded Robertson. "He said repent and call upon God for mercy."

Robertson's speech and others like it at the Road to Victory demonstrate that the Christian Coalition may have added a new dose of old-time religion, but its top priorities remain achievement of partisan political power, repeal of church-state separation and establishment of a "Christian" government in the United States. Critics say the organization may be weaker than it once was, but its agenda is no less dangerous.