The Christian Coalition

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No discussion of the Christian Right is complete without the Christian Coalition, which has so dominated media coverage of the Christian Right-thanks in part to the telegenic qualities of its executive director from 1989 until 1997, Ralph Reed. The Coalition opened the 1990's as the archetypal Christian Right organization, becoming a convenient barometer when journalists and others needed a reading and a forecast on the condition of the movement. However, coverage of the Christian Coalition to the exclusion of other major organizations has distorted the picture of the wider movement. Though significant, the Christian Coalition has never provided an accurate reading of the condition of the movement as a whole. Earlier, a narrow focus on the Moral Majority by interest groups and the media provided comparable distortions. The Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition were the leading, but far from the only, Christian Right political organizations of their eras. Popular and expert understandings (and sometimes misunderstandings) of these organizations have sometimes been too casually substituted for those of the Christian Right movement as a whole. For example, just prior to the 2000 elections, some prominent commentators pronounced the Religious Right dead as a "social movement," and blamed it on the decline of the Christian Coalition.7

When Reed resigned as the high-profile executive director in 1997, the Coalition's decline in membership, resources, and influence were well-established trends. His legacy included several private lawsuits and federal investigations into the finances and tax status of the organization.8 Nevertheless, many journalists were quick to ascribe the Coalition's problems to Reed's departure rather than to his tenure. There is further mythology about Reed that distorts the history and therefore the present and future of the Christian Right. Reed is often credited with inventing stealth tactics and voter guides, but he invented neither.9 The mechanics of conservative movement electoral politics had been honed over several decades and had reached maturity at a time when another long-term trend had come to fruition-the raising of political consciousness and the articulation of a theological justification for the political engagement of evangelicals who had been largely on the political sidelines since the Scopes trial.

Still the Reed-led Christian Coalition developed a mastery of computer-generated, church-based voter lists to carry out effective voter ID campaigns.10 During the 1990s the now-famous half-page voter guides that were distributed through selected churches complemented this campaign. The strength of the voter guides lay in their uniformity of design and economies of scale for centralized production and distribution, as well as an effective use of the media to enhance their impact. But the real secret of the Christian Right's success has been the forging of a disciplined voting bloc that fields and backs candidates through the GOP primaries and the general elections, and capitalizes on the long-term decline in American voter participation by maximizing voter participation among Christian conservatives. Voter guides were an important factor contributing to this discipline.

However, recent attendance at the Coalition's annual Road to Victory conferences has dropped dramatically, and its budget has reportedly halved from a high of about $25 million in the mid 1990s.11 In 1992 and 1996, GOP Presidential candidates invariably attended the conference, but in 2000 it took pressure from Pat Roberson on his 700 Club before George W. Bush sent Lynn Cheney, the wife of his vice presidential candidate, and a video of his personal greetings. Bush had already ducked a Republican candidate forum organized by the national Christian Coalition in New Hampshire in February 1999. Interestingly, the Coalition excluded Christian Right third party candidates Pat Buchanan and Howard Phillips from its 2000 Road to Victory conference.12 Part of the strategy of the Bush campaign appeared to be to keep the Christian Right at arms length in public, even though the movement was fairly uniformly supporting the GOP ticket. Apparently Bush campaign strategists calculated that the appearance of a close relationship between Bush and the Christian Right would be a liability for Bush's candidacy. Such an assumption is a measure of the shaky standing of the Christian Right in U.S. public opinion.

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the Christian Coalition's voter guides has diminished, in part because of a drop in activist participation. The effectiveness of the guides was also diminished by publicity about the unfair pro-GOP slant of the voter guides and efforts of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to warn churches that they may jeopardize their non-profit tax exempt status by engaging in partisan electoral activities.13 During the 2000 campaign, the Coalition was compelled to withdraw the distribution of the Nebraska guides, when it was revealed that they completely misrepresented the positions of leading Democrats on several key issues. Other Christian Right groups, aligned with the Republican Party but operating in the shadow of the Christian Coalition, routinely issue similarly constructed and slanted voter guides. These include the Traditional Values Coalition, D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America, and the National Right to Life Committee. The latter received $250,000 from the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee in October 1999.14

Additionally, many of the 35 state-level "family policy councils" affiliated with Focus on the Family also issue voter guides. In some states these organizations have been more politically significant than the Christian Coalition. The network of family policy councils has grown in size, resources and experience since 1989, when the network was first formed. Indeed, veteran GOP political operatives staff many family policy councils.15 Focus on the Family itself joined the National Day of Prayer Taskforce headed by Shirley (Mrs. James) Dobson in urging churches to make the Sunday before the Tuesday election in 2000 a day of prayer about the elections, and to disseminate church bulletin inserts that stressed the obligation of Christians to vote. Other Christian Right groups that were particularly active in the 2000 elections include Gary Bauer's PAC called the Campaign for Working Families, Eagle Forum and the Pearland, Texas-based Vision America headed by Rev. Rick Scarborough.

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