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

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

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

On the walls are photos of Robertson with pols and potentates, plusframed tabloid headlines from Robertson's 1988 run for the GOPnomination.

That campaign flamed out, but from its ashes Robertson raised up theChristian Coalition, a grass-roots lobby that for nearly a decadeharnessed the rage and frustration of the Christian right and madeRobertson one of the most feared -- and loathed -- figures in Americanpolitics.

"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. Withthe presidential election coming down to the wire, the ChristianCoalition is missing in political action, and it couldn't come at aworse time.

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

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

"Pat, in my eyes, is the Jim Bakker of the religious politicalscene," says Paul Nagy, a former Robertson aide and moral conservativewho recently worked as a political consultant for Steve Forbes. "He'sabout power and ego. I think there is a lot of guilt in Pat Robertsonbecause 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 notmy kind of Christian. And that really bothers me."

If such judgments sound harsh, consider that they are coming notfrom Robertson's usual critics on the left, but from the likes of Nagyand Marshall Wittman, a former Christian Coalition strategist who is nowat the conservative Hudson Institute.

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

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

For one thing, the evangelical political movement is a bit long inthe 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 leadingexpert on the religious right.

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

"The religious right landscape in America is in great flux," saysGreen. "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'tautomatically give it."

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

With that victory came a measure of complacency among evangelicalvoters. At the same time, Christian right operatives, once outsiders,were being integrated into the political establishment.

"When you are entrenched in the institutions, who needs theChristian Coalition?" says Green.

With that political evolution, however, came a sobering dose ofpolitical reality. Christian conservatives did not see the payoff thatRobertson had been holding out to them in exchange for their efforts.

"All of the stated objectives of the religious right -- from endingabortion to cleaning up television to restoring family life -- have notbeen advanced one iota," says Cal Thomas, the columnist whose 1999 book,"Blinded by Might," criticized his fellow religious conservatives forselling their souls for political influence.

But the main reason for the political decline of religiousconservative power, critics say, is the decline of the ChristianCoalition, whose troubles can be laid at Robertson's feet.

The first signs of trouble started emerging early last year, whennews reports revealed the vaunted lobby -- which in 1996 claimed 2.8million members and a $26.5 million annual budget -- was $2.5 million indebt and had strong affiliates in only seven states, not 48 as onceclaimed.

The names of thousands of dead people were being kept on the rollsto inflate membership figures, and when journalists visited the Virginiaheadquarters, coalition officials hired temporary workers andleapfrogged them ahead of the observers to give the appearance of a busyoffice.

Also in 1999, the Internal Revenue Service denied the ChristianCoalition's efforts to win tax-exempt status, saying it worked on behalfof the Republican Party.

Many observers initially traced the start of the decline to thedefection of Robertson's savvy lieutenant, Ralph Reed, in 1997 to becomea political consultant.

For some, the loss of Reed's expertise wasn't as critical as theopening that his departure made for Robertson, who could not resist thetemptation to reassert control.

He wrote a million-dollar check to help the coalition out of agrowing money squeeze, but then he insisted on editing and directing amajor fund-raising campaign that bombed, as aides told him it would. Itcost the organization a half-million dollars and was indicative of howbadly the Christian Coalition's fund-raising machine was broken.

Meanwhile, the two men hired to replace Reed -- Don Hodel, a formerReagan Cabinet officer, and Randy Tate, a former Republican congressman-- were trying to make the coalition more professional andissue-oriented, like the National Rifle Association or the AFL-CIO, andless personality-driven -- the personality being Pat Robertson's.

And Pat Robertson didn't cotton to that.

"He wants to do it on his own," says one former official, who stillconsiders Robertson "brilliant," but flawed. "He is a polarizingfigure."

Robertson, who this year turned 70 -- his biblical term limit ofthree score and 10 years -- appears as fit as ever.

Many people think that if Bush wins on Nov. 7, Robertson couldsimply declare victory and ride off into the sunset, his 10-year plan asuccess.

"Assuming that Mr. Bush wins, with his testimony of faith, I thinkwe can say we've done what we set out to do," Robertson says. He speakswith manifest satisfaction, but also softly and plainly; he has no needto boast. To him, the record speaks loud and clear.

Then again, he also knows that a Bush loss could work out just aswell, at least for Pat Robertson.

"Sometimes it's more difficult to have a friendly administrationthan to have an administration with which you are fighting," he says."Because people go to sleep when they have their friends in office. Theyfigure they've done their job and they can get a little lax.

"Whereas if there's a perceived adversary, then they wake up."

Pat Robertson pauses at the prospect and smiles.

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