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Dirty little secrets: a short history of the Christian Coalition.

A few short weeks from now, Christian churches all over America will be asked to distribute voter's guides produced by TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.

Coalition activists will assure pastors that the guides are nonpartisan and purely educational in character, not unlike the Coalition itself. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Here are the facts.

The Christian Coalition was assembled in late 1989 by Robertson from the remains of his failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Because the Virginia Beach broadcaster's run was in the GOP primary, the organization had a Republican slant from its very beginning.

Ralph Reed, the group' s first executive director, quickly pushed the Coalition into direct campaign activity on behalf of conservative Republican candidates. At the 1991 "Road to Victory" Conference in Virginia Beach, Reed boasted of the group's key role in re-electing U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) the previous year.

In that closed-door session, Reed said he and Robertson decided to act after they discovered Helms was down by eight points in the polls. "Bottom line is...five days later we put three-quarters of a million voter's guides in churches across the state of North Carolina," observed Reed, "and Jesse Helms was re-elected by 100,000 votes out of 2.2 million cast."

Such electioneering endeavors were no doubt helped by a $64,000 contribution in October 1990 from the Republican Senatorial Committee, a group not known for its nonpartisanship.

During the `90s, the Coalition's political activities continued to metastasize, and its partisan character became more and more apparent. In their book, Dirty Little Secrets, researchers Glenn R. Simpson and Larry J. Sabato examined 193 congressional voter guides issued by the Coalition during the 1994 elections and found a pattern of "manipulations, distortions and outright falsehoods."

"By systematically rigging the content of its voter guides to help Republican candidates...the group had essentially donated hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps millions) in free advertising to the Republican Party," observed Simpson and Sabato. (Simpson is a reporter for the conservative Wall Street Journal, while Sabato is a political science professor at the University of Virginia.)

Although the Coalition usually stacks its guides to favor Republicans over Democrats, in a few cases it even unleashes its propaganda efforts within Republican primaries. Former allies are sometimes cast aside, if it suits the purpose of Robertson and company.

In the 1997 GOP attorney general primary in Virginia, for example, Coalition leaders put out guides that favored Mark Earley over Ken Stolle, even though both men were equally in line with Coalition views. (Stolle actually got his start in politics with help from the Coalition.) Earley won, and Robertson took credit for his victory, citing the distribution of thousands of voter guides.

Some Religious Right activists who backed Stolle were bitter.

"For years I have trusted the Christian Coalition and helped to distribute its guides," wrote Lloyd Dunnavant, in a letter published in several Virginia newspapers. "But never again .... Is it OK for Christian Coalition leadership to stomp on basic Christian values if it helps their candidate win? If the Coalition will smudge the record of a conservative Christian lawmaker like Senator Stolle, what is it doing to the liberals?"

All of this shady politicking has not gone unnoticed by federal watchdog agencies. The Federal Election Commission is currently suing the Coalition. The commission, which is governed by a strictly bipartisan board, charges that the Coalition engaged in illegal coordination of activities with Republican candidates in 1990, 1992 and 1994.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is still reviewing the Coalition's application for tax-exempt status, a process that has dragged on for nine years.

But the most damning evidence of Coalition partisanship comes from Robertson himself. The TV preacher, who serves as chairman of the group, relishes his role as a Republican Party insider and kingpin.

In a now-infamous speech last fall in Atlanta to his state lieutenants, he urged the Coalition to emulate Tammany Hall and other notorious political machines of American history. (Call Robertson "Boss Pat.") He also suggested ways to skirt election law and align the Coalition behind a single Republican presidential candidate in 2000. And just before the November election, the multi-millionaire businessman gave the Republican National Committee a $200,000 donation.

More recently, Robertson met in March with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to demand more partisan action from GOP leaders in Congress as a means of energizing the Republican Party base in November.

On CNN's "Evans & Novak," Robertson said he told Gingrich, "I am your supporter. But please get moving on these issues. We have a great grassroots movement we have to energize, and if you folks just continue to make nice with Clinton, and there' s no differentiation, how can we get people to the polls to support you?"

All this sounds pretty partisan to us.

Churches are legally obligated to avoid electioneering. But more importantly, they are morally obligated to be paragons of integrity and sources of truth. It's hard to see how a church can do that while playing sleazy politics with Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition.
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Publication:Church & State
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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