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Pat Robertson has stepped down as President of the Christian Coalition and has also resigned from the organization's Board of Directors. Does this mean we won't have Pat Robertson to kick around any more? Is the Christian Coalition's demise just around the corner? If so, what does this mean for the Religious Right?
Robertson's early-December resignation from the Christian Coalition, the powerful political organization he founded in 1989 doesn't mean he's giving up the spotlight. He will still be hosting his daily "700 Club" television program and running his multimillion-dollar business empire.
Robertson's been swimming in a sea of ridicule for the past few months. Always one to shoot from the lip, in early October, he told an audience at the 40th anniversary celebration of his Christian Broadcasting Network that: "The Lord is getting ready to shake this nation. We have not yet seen his judgment in America. This thing that happened in New York was child's play compared to what's going to happen."
This followed the Falwell/Robertson tag-team debacle that took place on Robertson's "700 Club" two days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. As you'll no doubt remember, the Rev. Jerry Falwell told Robertson's audience: "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle...all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" And, as the Washington Post reported, Robertson nodded in agreement responding, "Jerry, that's my feeling."
Robertson has also taken a pummeling in the press, particularly by Washington Post columnist Colbert King, over questionable business deals including a gold mining operation with Liberia's dictator Charles Taylor. In addition, his business dealings with China and statements of support for its controversial "family planning" practices have irritated a number of colleagues on the right over the past few years.
Despite the apocalyptic visions set out in a number of his books and charges of anti-Semitism and loopy predictions, Robertson maintained his position as a major figure on the Christian Right and a power broker within the Republican Party for the better part of the nineties.
Robertson founded the Christian Coalition in 1989, shortly after he failed to win the Republican Party's 1988 presidential nomination. He converted a campaign mailing list into the most influential and technologically sophisticated grassroots political force on the right. With Robertson at the helm and the cherubic and politically savvy Ralph Reed as executive director, donations poured in, membership soared, conservative politicians showed up in droves at the Coalition's annual "Road to Victory" conferences, and the organization perfected the art of the one-sided voter "guide."
In the resignation letter, sent to the Coalition's Board of Directors, Robertson wrote: "We are seeing an outpouring of revival power in the United States that exceeds anything that I have known in my lifetime. With the few years left to me of active service, I must focus on those things that will bring forth the greatest spiritual benefit."
Robertson added: "it is now time for the Lord to raise up someone to take my place and to mobilize a whole new cohort of patriotic Americans to swell the ranks of those who have faithfully supported us in the past." In the December 5 press release issued from his Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters, Robertson "strongly encouraged continued work within the Coalition 'to bring forward the pro-family, pro-life values that we all cherish.'"
"Without a doubt," the press release read, "this organization has played a pivotal role in the election of Christian conservatives to important public offices across our land and in mobilizing the evangelical churches and our pro-family Roman Catholic allies to bring our agenda to the forefront of American political thought. 'Without us, I do not believe that George Bush would be sitting in The White House or that Republicans would be in control of the United States House of Representatives.'"
Robertson won't be sitting home watching the soaps munching on bonbons. Despite a penchant for bizarre comments, he will continue to serve as Chairman and CEO of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Founded in 1960, CBN describes itself as "one of the world's largest television ministries producing programming seen in over 90 nations and heard in over 65 languages around the world. CBN's broadcast of its flagship program, The 700 Club (hosted by Robertson), remains one of the longest running religious television shows, reaching an average of one million American viewers daily." Robertson is also the Chancellor and Interim President of Regent University, the graduate school he founded in 1978.
Troubled times at the Christian Coalition
What about the Christian Coalition? Will Robertson's resignation sound the death knell for the organization? It is generally recognized that the Coalition, once one of the premiere organizations within the broad constellation of groups that make up the Religious right, has been a shell of a national organization over the past few years.
Since 1999, the Coalition has been beset by a number of internal problems, organizational discord and strife. Its executive director and president were summarily dismissed by Robertson; it was charged with discriminatory practices in a suit filed by several African-American employees; it was sued by a direct-mail marketing firm that claimed the Coalition hadn't paid its bills on time; the membership roles dramatically shrank; The Christian American, its flagship publication, shut down; it was denied tax-exempt status after years of haggling with the Internal Revenue Service; and it downsized its staff when it moved its headquarters from Virginia Beach, Va. to Washington, DC last year.
As a result of the IRS situation, the organization split into two separate entities: Christian Coalition International, which could openly endorse candidates and make campaign contributions; and the tax-exempt Christian Coalition of America (formerly the Christian Coalition of Texas) which carried on many of the organization's previous activities, including the distribution of CC voter "guides."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, longtime critic of the Coalition, said that the organization had been a "sinking ship" for years "and now the captain's jumped overboard." Stephen Medvic, a political analyst at Old Dominion University, told the Associated Press that Robertson's leaving was "symbolic of the decline of the Christian Coalition." Robert L. Maginnis, vice president of policy for the conservative Family Research Council, told the Unification Church-owned Washington Times that "anyone who watches the Christian Coalition knows it doesn't have a big profile these days."
Maginnis acknowledged that several organizations on the Christian Right have stepped forward during the past few years and taken up the slack created by a weakened Coalition. These groups include Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, Maginnis' Washington, DC-based Family Research Council, Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America and its Culture and Family Institute, and Dr. D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministry.
Can Combs rebuild the Coalition?
Roberta Combs was immediately promoted from executive vice president to president after Robertson's resignation. Can she right the "sinking ship?" She might be one of the few people around who thinks so. Charisma News Service (CNS) reported that Combs was optimistic about the future, claiming that the Coalition would rebuild with "a new generation of leadership who are also committed to giving Christians a voice and defending America's godly heritage."
Combs, a longtime Coalition operative, is no stranger to political hardball and is not afraid of making the tough calls. According to an October 3, 1999 article in The St. Petersburg Times, at Robertson's behest "she took an ax to the Christian Coalition gutting the nation's most prominent organization of religious conservatives so badly it may not recover in time to be a significant force in the 2000 election year."
Earlier in the year, according to the Times, Combs, as executive director for national operations, "fired, demoted or drove away much of the coalition's seasoned political staff. Many of these conservative activists worked under the coalition's former executive director, Ralph Reed, who built the coalition into a political powerhouse before leaving in 1997 to become a Republican political consultant.
"Defenders of Combs say she was simply clearing out dead wood. 'I know on a national level she had to really go up there and clean house at the invitation of Pat Robertson. People were kindly permitted to leave rather than be asked to leave. Some of them have been quite snide in their comments,' said Dee Benedict, a member of the South Carolina Christian Coalition board."
Combs has known Robertson since 1988. She headed up his South Carolina campaign and became the director of the state's Christian Coalition chapter, "leading religious conservatives in an attempted take-over of the state GOP apparatus." According to the Times, "former Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell had a much publicized break with Combs after she reneged on an agreement to support his election as a delegate to the 1996 Republican National Convention. Cyndi Mosteller, a Charleston-area religious conservative who has appeared on ABC's Politically Incorrect, said Combs did the same to her."
After her appointment, Combs paid tribute to Robertson's "vision and tremendous sacrifice to give Christians a seat at the table," which she said had been "the inspiration for millions who are now in their communities actively defending America's godly heritage." She added: "During this time of national crisis, as Americans are turning to prayer in record numbers, it is imperative that the Christian Coalition continue to build on [its] solid foundation."
She dismissed suggestions the organization was a spent force. "We are excited [about the future]," she told CNS. "As long as we can educate and activate people we can always have an impact." She pointed out that as recently as last year's election, the organization had distributed some 70 million voting guides.
Spent force, sinking ship you pick the metaphor. Suffice to say, without the high-profile leadership of Pat Robertson and with no Ralph Reed-like figure ready to step in and take charge, the Christian Coalition could easily become another footnote to history.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing movements.