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Robertson confident Christian Coalition can survive, others not so sure

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

NORFOLK, Va. -- The Christian Coalition was once an influential force in U.S. politics, helping Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 1994 and championing conservative causes.

But without Pat Robertson as president, some observers are questioning whether the group he founded can survive.

Robertson says he's confident it will, and few can imagine an American political landscape without conservative Christians.

But when it comes to the Christian Coalition itself, there have already been signs its influence is on the wane: Membership has ebbed recent years, analysts say, and the organization has been forced to endure legal fights, staff conflicts and key departures.

''Quite frankly, the Christian Coalition is on its last legs,'' said Mark Rozell, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington.

''The bottom line is, I don't see anyone with his (Robertson's) national profile, his ability to raise money, his ability to organize, to save the Christian Coalition from extinction.''

Stephen Medvic, a professor of political science at Old Dominion University, said the coalition has achieved many of its goals and may have outlived its usefulness.

''A lot of Republicans in Congress do believe a lot of what the Christian Coalition believes,'' he said. ''In some sense, there is a ceiling on these things.''

Yet John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, cautioned against writing off the Christian Coalition too quickly. The impact of Robertson's departure depends on whether he withdraws his financial backing and influence, or simply plays a more behind-the-scenes role, Green said.

And Robertson has become such a controversial figure that his movement may benefit from some new faces, he added.

In announcing his resignation on Dec. 5, Robertson said that, at age 71, he wants to concentrate on his ministry. He said he's done with politics, except for commenting on public affairs on ''The 700 Club,'' the flagship program of his Christian Broadcasting Network.

''I think this is for me a change of direction,'' he said in an interview from CBN headquarters in Virginia Beach. ''I'm concerned about the public affairs of the nation and will always be, but my active participation has come to an end as a member of the Christian Coalition.''

The board's election of Roberta Combs as the new president -- she had been executive vice president since late 1999 -- leaves the coalition in capable hands, he said.

''Any organization can be renewed and refreshed,'' he said.

Combs said the coalition will be around ''as long as there are Christians out there that want to be educated on the issues, want to be politically involved.''

The coalition currently claims 1.5 million donors and supporters nationwide, about the same as it had two to four years ago, Combs said. Rozell said that, at its height, the group had as many as 2 million members.

Robertson founded the coalition in Chesapeake in 1989, to preserve the aims of his failed bid for the Republican nomination for president the year before.

Robertson rallied fundamentalist Christians to politics, championing conservative social positions (against abortion, for school prayer). The coalition built successful state and local organizations and saw its greatest success with its voter guide programs.

However, divisions grew within the organization as pragmatists clashed with others who rejected compromise, analysts said. As the coalition gained influence, those tensions came to the forefront.

The coalition also fought a long battle with the Internal Revenue Service over its claim that it was tax-exempt. In 1999, it split into two entities, one tax-exempt and one not.

The coalition also successfully fought a lawsuit filed by the Federal Election Commission, which accused it of improperly promoting GOP candidates.

In 1997, longtime executive director Ralph Reed left to become a political consultant. That was a critical loss and the organization has been diminishing since then, said Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The election of George W. Bush, a Christian conservative, ''was another factor that helped to dampen and diminish the enthusiasm for the coalition,'' Smidt said.

When President Clinton was in office, the coalition was able to stand in opposition to someone prominent, said Larry Sabato, a political analyst from the University of Virginia.

''Clinton was a very useful devil figure for the Christian Coalition for a long time,'' Sabato said. ''Clinton is now invisible.''

But the coalition could benefit from Robertson's departure because he is a ''fairly controversial'' figure, even among Christian conservatives, Green said.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Robertson drew criticism for agreeing with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's remarks during a ''700 Club'' broadcast that the attacks happened because Americans had insulted God by allowing abortion, feminism and pornography.

Falwell later apologized, and Robertson released a statement calling Falwell's remarks ''severe and harsh in tone.'' It said he had ''not fully understood'' the on-air comment.

The flap ''certainly did not sit well with the Bush administration and most Americans as well,'' said Smidt. ''He and the Christian Coalition were viewed negatively at a time of crisis in the country.''

But even if the coalition were to fade away, other conservative social organizations and leaders will rise to fill the void, Rozell said.

''As long as there are actively involved evangelical conservatives, there will be interest-group organizations to facilitate their political activities,'' Rozell said. ''It doesn't have to be the Christian Coalition.''

------

On the Net:

Christian Coalition: http://www.christiancoalition.com/

Christian Broadcasting Network: http://www.cbn.org/

End advance

BYLINE1:By SONJA BARISIC

BYLINE2:Associated Press Writer

NORFOLK, Va. -- The Christian Coalition was once an influential force in U.S. politics, helping Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 1994 and championing conservative causes.

But without Pat Robertson as president, some observers are questioning whether the group he founded can survive.

Robertson says he's confident it will, and few can imagine an American political landscape without conservative Christians.

But when it comes to the Christian Coalition itself, there have already been signs its influence is on the wane: Membership has ebbed recent years, analysts say, and the organization has been forced to endure legal fights, staff conflicts and key departures.

''Quite frankly, the Christian Coalition is on its last legs,'' said Mark Rozell, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington.

''The bottom line is, I don't see anyone with his (Robertson's) national profile, his ability to raise money, his ability to organize, to save the Christian Coalition from extinction.''

Stephen Medvic, a professor of political science at Old Dominion University, said the coalition has achieved many of its goals and may have outlived its usefulness.

''A lot of Republicans in Congress do believe a lot of what the Christian Coalition believes,'' he said. ''In some sense, there is a ceiling on these things.''

Yet John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, cautioned against writing off the Christian Coalition too quickly. The impact of Robertson's departure depends on whether he withdraws his financial backing and influence, or simply plays a more behind-the-scenes role, Green said.

And Robertson has become such a controversial figure that his movement may benefit from some new faces, he added.

In announcing his resignation on Dec. 5, Robertson said that, at age 71, he wants to concentrate on his ministry. He said he's done with politics, except for commenting on public affairs on ''The 700 Club,'' the flagship program of his Christian Broadcasting Network.

''I think this is for me a change of direction,'' he said in an interview from CBN headquarters in Virginia Beach. ''I'm concerned about the public affairs of the nation and will always be, but my active participation has come to an end as a member of the Christian Coalition.''

The board's election of Roberta Combs as the new president -- she had been executive vice president since late 1999 -- leaves the coalition in capable hands, he said.

''Any organization can be renewed and refreshed,'' he said.

Combs said the coalition will be around ''as long as there are Christians out there that want to be educated on the issues, want to be politically involved.''

The coalition currently claims 1.5 million donors and supporters nationwide, about the same as it had two to four years ago, Combs said. Rozell said that, at its height, the group had as many as 2 million members.

Robertson founded the coalition in Chesapeake in 1989, to preserve the aims of his failed bid for the Republican nomination for president the year before.

Robertson rallied fundamentalist Christians to politics, championing conservative social positions (against abortion, for school prayer). The coalition built successful state and local organizations and saw its greatest success with its voter guide programs.

However, divisions grew within the organization as pragmatists clashed with others who rejected compromise, analysts said. As the coalition gained influence, those tensions came to the forefront.

The coalition also fought a long battle with the Internal Revenue Service over its claim that it was tax-exempt. In 1999, it split into two entities, one tax-exempt and one not.

The coalition also successfully fought a lawsuit filed by the Federal Election Commission, which accused it of improperly promoting GOP candidates.

In 1997, longtime executive director Ralph Reed left to become a political consultant. That was a critical loss and the organization has been diminishing since then, said Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The election of George W. Bush, a Christian conservative, ''was another factor that helped to dampen and diminish the enthusiasm for the coalition,'' Smidt said.

When President Clinton was in office, the coalition was able to stand in opposition to someone prominent, said Larry Sabato, a political analyst from the University of Virginia.

''Clinton was a very useful devil figure for the Christian Coalition for a long time,'' Sabato said. ''Clinton is now invisible.''

But the coalition could benefit from Robertson's departure because he is a ''fairly controversial'' figure, even among Christian conservatives, Green said.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Robertson drew criticism for agreeing with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's remarks during a ''700 Club'' broadcast that the attacks happened because Americans had insulted God by allowing abortion, feminism and pornography.

Falwell later apologized, and Robertson released a statement calling Falwell's remarks ''severe and harsh in tone.'' It said he had ''not fully understood'' the on-air comment.

The flap ''certainly did not sit well with the Bush administration and most Americans as well,'' said Smidt. ''He and the Christian Coalition were viewed negatively at a time of crisis in the country.''

But even if the coalition were to fade away, other conservative social organizations and leaders will rise to fill the void, Rozell said.

''As long as there are actively involved evangelical conservatives, there will be interest-group organizations to facilitate their political activities,'' Rozell said. ''It doesn't have to be the Christian Coalition.''

------

On the Net:

Christian Coalition: http://www.christiancoalition.com/

Christian Broadcasting Network: http://www.cbn.org/

End advance



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