Oct 08, 2002

When the Christian Coalition gathers for its national conference in Washington, D.C., this weekend, a controversial television preacher will be the star of the show.

But this year, instead of Coalition founder Pat Robertson, it will be Joyce Meyer.

The Coalition has turned to Meyer, a TV evangelist with a large and loyal following, to boost attendance at its "Road To Victory 2002" Conference at the Washington Convention Center Oct. 11 and 12.

Critics say the Coalition's alliance with Meyer is a desperate bid to keep afloat despite declining political clout and financial resources. Robertson cut his formal ties with the group on Dec. 5, 2001.

"I'm not surprised that the Coalition has teamed up with another TV preacher," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It will take a miracle to pull the Coalition out of its downward spiral.

"The Coalition still has disproportionate influence in the White House," he continued, "but its grassroots network has withered in most states. The Coalition is clearly in decline, and I say, hallelujah!"

Americans United's Lynn noted that the Coalition's influence plummeted in recent years under the leadership of Robertson and Coalition President Roberta Combs. Although Combs told The Washington Times this week that the Coalition's "influence with the administration is stronger than at any time in our 12-year history," few Washington observers think the group's power is as great as it once was.

On Combs' watch, key staffers have resigned or were forced out, and the group became entangled in a damaging civil rights lawsuit by African-American workers who said they were discriminated against. Black staffers said they were excluded from staff prayer meetings, were forced to eat in a separate facility and asked to come into the office through a back door. (The lawsuit was later settled out of court.)

Robertson is scheduled to make only one speech at the Coalition's "Faith and Freedom Gala" Saturday night, but Meyer is scheduled to address the gathering five times. Based in Fenton, Mo., Meyer's "Life In The Word" program beams out her sermons on a reported 410 television stations, 307 radio stations, four cable networks and nine satellite systems. The Joyce Meyer Ministries' reach is international with programming ranging from Africa to Asia and the Middle East. Ministry offices exist in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and South Africa.

While little known to the general public, the 59-year-old preacher's fame in Pentecostal circles should help with attendance at the conference. However, critics say Meyer also brings some of the same controversies that have dogged Robertson. Her political and religious stands have raised eyebrows, and her refusal to reveal information about her multi-million-dollar empire's finances has sparked ethical questions.

Politics: Meyer's political views come straight from the Religious Right handbook. She touts "Christian nation" rhetoric while crusading for school prayer and church-based electioneering and against legal abortion. In an Oct. 4, 2001, action alert, her ministry demanded the return of school-sponsored prayer to the classroom, complaining that "a miniscule amount of people" had outdone "the Christian majority." America is in a "spiritual war," the Meyer alert said, insisting that "it's time for the army of God to arise, take action and watch God move." Members of Congress, the alert added, should turn "from seeking their agenda to seeking God's agenda."

Religion: Meyer has drawn criticism for deceptive evangelism in public schools. Her "Rage Against Destruction" youth outreach program conducts motivational assemblies for public school students. Although the assemblies are ostensibly nonreligious, program staffers use the appearances to invite students to an off-campus "Firefest" event that features high-pressure conversion efforts.

Meyer's religious viewpoints have also sparked controversy within the evangelical Christian community. The Christian Research Institute, an evangelical watchdog group, insists Meyer is outside the Christian mainstream, teaching that Jesus literally descended into hell after his crucifixion to atone for people's sins. The group also chides Meyer, who has no formal theological training, for insisting that certain kinds of jewelry attract evil spirits. In an audiotape on "Witchcraft & Related Spirits," Meyer reportedly said, "There are many different signs and emblems that people wear as jewelry that are straight from the devil.... And what they do is they draw evil spirits."

Finances: Meyer's ministry has drawn criticism for its refusal to reveal information about its finances. According to Ministry Watch, a Christian watchdog agency, Meyer's Life in the Word, Inc., "has demonstrated substandard openness and transparency through a lack of responsiveness, an absence of sending information and a lack of financial information available in public arenas." Because the Meyer ministry is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a church, it is not required to issue a Form 990 or make other information about its income available to the public. Some critics say the ministry is basically a family-run business that has shrewdly received nonprofit status. (Meyer's husband and other family members work at the enterprise.) According to the Orlando Sentinel, some 500 employees work at the ministry's Missouri headquarters. 

In recent months, Meyer has been in a battle with Jefferson County, Mo., officials over the tax status of her operation. Assessor Randy Holman said the 52-acre facility, valued at $384 million, should be taxed as a business. He said the ministry holds no public worship services and appears to devote much of its activities to a money-making mail-order enterprise selling books, tapes and other items. The Jefferson County Board of Equalization, however, ruled in Meyer's favor in July. The controversy is expected to continue.

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.