Christian Coalition: Missing in Action?

The Christian Coalition is missing in political action. Is it Pat Robertson's fault?

BY: David Gibson

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va., Nov. 3 (RNS)-- He may be the prime suspect in the death of the religious right, but Pat Robertson isn't about to let all the accusations -- much less a guilty conscience -- keep him up at night.

"The Bible says, `If a man's ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him,"' the televangelist says, quoting Proverbs and flashing a smile that somehow manages to project "aw shucks" and ambition at the same time.

Robertson is sitting in a wingback chair in his office, a tastefully appointed room that is the command center of an empire consisting of equal parts gospel, big business and Republican politics.

On the walls are photos of Robertson with pols and potentates, plus framed tabloid headlines from Robertson's 1988 run for the GOP nomination.

That campaign flamed out, but from its ashes Robertson raised up the Christian Coalition, a grass-roots lobby that for nearly a decade harnessed the rage and frustration of the Christian right and made Robertson one of the most feared -- and loathed -- figures in American politics.

"I try my best to please other people," the preacher insists. "But," he adds, "that is secondary."

At this point, that is probably a smart strategy for Robertson. With the presidential election coming down to the wire, the Christian Coalition is missing in political action, and it couldn't come at a worse time.

In the past, the coalition was able to mobilize thousands of voters to provide critical margins in key swing states. Indeed, until two years ago, the Christian Coalition had been the main organizing force behind the religious right, the most important conservative political movement of the last generation.

Its failure at this juncture is a bitter pill for Christian conservatives who have waited eight long years to put an end to the era of the despised Bill Clinton and his proxy, Al Gore, and the target of their outrage is clear.

"Pat, in my eyes, is the Jim Bakker of the religious political scene," says Paul Nagy, a former Robertson aide and moral conservative who recently worked as a political consultant for Steve Forbes. "He's about power and ego. I think there is a lot of guilt in Pat Robertson because he's not the man he thinks he is.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say he's not a Christian, but he's not my kind of Christian. And that really bothers me."

If such judgments sound harsh, consider that they are coming not from Robertson's usual critics on the left, but from the likes of Nagy and Marshall Wittman, a former Christian Coalition strategist who is now at the conservative Hudson Institute.

"If you are going to speak the truth to power, you corrupt yourself by becoming beholden to power," Wittman says.

In reality, several of the factors behind the decline of the religious right as a cohesive force, and of the Christian Coalition as its mouthpiece, were beyond Robertson's control.

For one thing, the evangelical political movement is a bit long in the tooth, in sociological terms.

"The Christian right as a social movement lasted two decades -- they're old," says John Green of the University of Akron and a leading expert on the religious right.

Green and others say the white evangelicals who are the core of the Christian right are making more sophisticated political choices today. Having been led from their self-imposed exile in the political wilderness, these conservative Christians are now more experienced in public life, more independent and less willing to vote the way Robertson, or anyone else, says.

"The religious right landscape in America is in great flux," says Green. "They have a much broader view of what politics is all about. They still tend to vote Republican, but they're not clearly so partisan. They expect candidates to seek their support, but they won't automatically give it."

In another sense, Robertson and others like him are victims of their own impressive successes over the past decade, especially their critical role in the stunning Republican takeover of Capitol Hill in 1994, forming the first all-GOP Congress in 40 years.

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