Christian Coalition in unprecedented crisis: sudden problems with money and mission

Christian Coalition in unprecedented crisis: sudden problems with money and mission

Michael J. Gerson

Last December, leaders of the Christian Coalition met in Virginia Beach, Va., to discuss a fund-raising emergency. Contributions, which had been at a record $26.4 million in 1996, had dropped to $17 million in 1997. While some at the meeting pushed for gradual budget cutbacks, Chairman of the Board Pat Robertson–known as a tough, unsentimental businessman–insisted on more-drastic measures. Shortly after the meeting ended, 20 Christian Coalition employees–almost a fifth of the total staff–were given holiday pink slips, with two weeks to find new jobs. The coalition also severed support for its Catholic and minority outreach programs, and ceased publication of its national magazine, which was losing $1.6 million a year.

Over the previous seven years, the Christian Coalition had earned a reputation as the most powerful force in Republican politics. Its victories reached from local school-board elections to helping ensure Bob Dole’s presidential nomination in 1996. Under the high-visibility leadership of Executive Director Ralph Reed, donations had increased by an average of 40 percent per year. Now the coalition is in financial crisis, giving up office space, searching for major donors, and considering becoming a dues-based, membership organization like the American Association of Retired Persons. But just as important, it is also in an ideological crisis, wrestling over its mission. The struggle pits Reed’s approach–emphasizing political access and legitimacy–against a more confrontational, anti-establishment approach epitomized by conservative activist Gary Bauer that seems to be gaining ground on the religious right. The outcome will determine much about the direction of social conservatism and the shape of the Republican Party.

The Christian Coalition is not the only conservative group that had trouble raising money in 1997, an electoral off year, with a cautious, uninspiring Republican Congress. But the Christian Coalition added problems of its own to this cyclical slump. In July, Reed left the group to start a political consulting firm, causing an immediate fund-raising dip of $2 million to $3 million. Coalition officials also blame part of the drop-off on former fund-raiser–and Reed ally–Ben Hart, who they claim has cost the group up to $1 million by misusing its mailing list.

For an organization that depends on direct-mail fund-raising solicitations, this is no minor matter. Lists of loyal donors are important assets, jealously guarded and even used as collateral for loans. As a security precaution, they are “salted” with fictitious donor names, so their unauthorized use by other organizations can be traced. This was how, last October, the coalition discovered its valuable “Greenbar” list of recent donors was being mailed by the Christian Defense Fund, a group run by Hart. A subsequent lawsuit, now in settlement talks, accused Hart of devaluing the list with his use, like an angler overfishing a pond. Hart argues that he legally shares ownership of the list and dismisses the idea that he has been a significant cause of the Christian Coalition’s troubles: “If a couple of mailings . . . devastates the Christian Coalition’s funding, what does it say about the strength of the organization to begin with? Are they a paper tiger?”

Lost visibility. Although the coalition continues to have grass-roots success in those states where it is heavily organized, such as California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and Texas, there is little doubt that it has lost national visibility and standing. “It is extraordinary how relatively irrelevant they have become in congressional debates,” observes Rep. Mark Souder, a leading conservative.

In part, the coalition is missing Reed’s omnipresence in the media and bold issue choices, such as apologizing for Christian antisemitism and offering to help rebuild burned black churches. But the coalition is also struggling because Reed’s vision for the Christian political movement is under assault. From the beginning, Reed set out to radically reshape the Christian right. “To demonstrate,” he says, “it is inclusive and optimistic,” and “to thoroughly integrate religious conservatives into the machinery of the Republican Party.” The Christian Coalition was to be the Republican equivalent of the AFL-CIO in the Democratic Party, with a permanent and prominent place at the table.

Keeping that place required compromise, which subjected Reed to a drizzle of conservative criticism: for refusing to read Colin Powell out of the Republican Party; for recommending an incremental strategy to restrict abortion; for supporting Dole against Patrick Buchanan in the Republican primaries. When Reed moved on, the movement was left without a strong advocate for his insider approach–at a time when a rambunctious, outsider populism is gaining strength. Now, a coalition official privately argues that Reed’s close association with the Dole campaign and the GOP establishment hurt the organization and cut fund-raising.

Under new President Don Hodel (a former Reagan cabinet secretary) and new Executive Director Randy Tate (a former congressman), the coalition seems to be adopting an anti-establishment tone. “Hodel,” observes a conservative operative with close ties to the coalition, “heard the voices of those dissatisfied with Ralph. He and Tate have reverted to form . . . attacking the sellouts of the Republican establishment.” Tate says: “I get my marching orders based on 50 state organizations. . . . People think [congressional Republicans] are too tepid, lack the guts to take on big issues.”

The main beneficiary of the shift from assimilation to confrontation is Gary Bauer, the former Reagan aide who runs the Family Research Council and has become a major force in conservative politics overnight. He is openly critical of the “establishment brand of politics” that has reduced social conservatives to a “sect at the table” with “so little to show for it.” His group increased its fund-raising by a third from 1996 to 1997, the same period the coalition experienced its slump. “Even among Christian Coalition people,” says Souder, “Gary Bauer is more influential than their own national leadership.”

Gentler Buchananism. Though Bauer recommends sterner stands on social issues like abortion, he is not merely a militant on the march. Like Reed, his objective is a redefinition of social conservatism. But while Reed wants religious conservatives to influence the existing coalition of the Republican Party, Bauer wants to create a new alliance, even if it involves breaking the current one to pieces. Bauer believes the GOP should excommunicate the socially liberal wing symbolized by New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and, using a combination of social conservatism and economic populism, win back Reagan Democrats and blue-collar Buchananites. But he intends this to be a Buchananism stripped of anger and isolationism, and elevated by a concern for the economic and moral atmosphere in which children are raised. Bauer opposes the popular conservative idea of privatizing Social Security, saying it ignores the pro-family effect of death benefits to nonworking spouses. And he calls the flat tax “elitist” for its burdens on middle-class families. Like Buchanan before him, Bauer is seriously considering a presidential run because he knows that without such an effort supporters of his approach would likely remain a rabble without a cause.

Usually the kind of coalition shift Bauer proposes is considered when a political party is in a congressional minority, not a majority. But Bauer is convinced the current Republican alliance is “losing in slow motion.” William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, admits that Bauer is “taking a big risk. He is willing to reshuffle the deck in a majority.”

Ralph Reed, of course, is highly critical. “Why,” he argues, “do you try blowing up the train when we are riding in the dining car?” He says that Bauer’s views are based on a “misunderstanding” of religious conservatives: “They are not backward-looking, fearful populists. . . . They don’t want to dismantle the majority and start over again.” Ultimately, Reed says, the problem for religious conservatives is a practical one: “We can stop the Republican moderates from winning. But they can also stop us from winning. We need to de-emphasize the divisions, to be team players, not kamikaze pilots.”

For now, however, Bauer appears to be expanding his influence among Christian conservatives, posing a challenge for Republican leaders. “They have never seen anyone like Bauer before,” says Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries. “He is unmanageable.”

For this reason Republican strategists fear a Bauer candidacy. “Bauer could not care less if Republicans are in a majority,” argues pollster Frank Luntz. “And if you want to set libertarian conservatives against social conservatives, we will lose that majority. We are the San Andreas Fault. Bauer could be the earthquake that breaks us apart.” Twenty-four months before the next presidential race begins in earnest, the most loyal part of the current Republican coalition is calmly, seriously considering whether that coalition is worth maintaining.

COPYRIGHT 1998 All rights reserved.

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