Behind the Christian Coalition's Tax Dodge

Since its rise from the ashes of Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential bid, the Christian Coalition has been widely considered an organization of, by, and for Republicans. There's plenty of evidence to support that perception: the coalition's first members came from the Robertson campaign's Republican-primary mailing lists, after all, and its first hire, executive director Ralph Reed, once headed the National Young Republican Committee.Despite its Republican roots, the coalition nonetheless maintains it is a nonpartisan organization -- a claim many political observers consider specious. Not only has Reed taken credit for influencing the outcome of critical GOP primaries, but his organization has also distributed "training kits" to help members take over local Republican committees. Too, the coalition essentially wrote the 1992 Republican Party platform, and Reed & Co. have emerged as the key power brokers at next week's GOP convention in San Diego.So why does Ralph Reed insist the coalition is nonpartisan? Simple: while Reed clearly likes reveling in the power and the glory, he doesn't seem particularly keen on the idea of rendering unto Caesar what Caesar is probably due. Since its founding in 1989, the coalition has been incorporated as a nonprofit "educational" entity, tagged 501(c)4 under the tax code, a designation that excuses it from paying taxes -- and also bars it from engaging in partisan political activity. The rules on this point are clear: 501(c)4 groups cannot contribute anything -- money, literature, or manpower -- in support of specific parties or candidates.But since 1990, Democratic leaders have been filing complaints with the Federal Election Commission contending that the coalition is, in fact, a partisan adjunct of the Republican party. Similar criticism comes from political and religious figures who have long held that the coalition is both hiding behind and warping the word "Christian."According to the complainants, the coalition's supposedly nonpartisan voter guides (popularly known as "Christian scorecards") are anything but what they claim to be: "neutral and informational" aids based on the voting records of candidates, and on the candidates' answers to questionnaires. Rather, they say, the coalition is knowingly propagating inaccurate information meant to advocate one candidate, or one party, over another.Last week, after reviewing six specific complaints, the bipartisan Federal Election Commission agreed, and filed suit against the Christian Coalition. The FEC is alleging the coalition violated election laws by making nearly 30,000 phone calls in support of Jesse Helms's 1990 re-election effort. The suit also contends that the coalition illicitly identified possible voters for the Bush presidential campaign in 1992; illegally coordinated scorecard distribution with the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1990; illegally endorsed Newt Gingrich in 1994; and acted in an improperly partisan manner by circulating scorecards deeming congressmen either "good" or "misguided."The response? Not inclined to grant interviews, the Christian Coalition sent out a one-page press release characterizing the lawsuit as an "attempt by a reckless federal agency to silence people of faith and deny them their First Amendment rights." According to Stephen Bates, a scholar who specializes in conflicts between conservative Christianity and the secular world, this reaction isn't surprising; part of the coalition's political success, he says, is due to Reed's shrewd use of victim rhetoric. "They've done a very good job," says Bates, "of recasting their rhetoric from the Moral Majority to the Downtrodden Minority." But according to independent researchers like journalist Glenn Simpson and academic Larry Sabato, and liberal groups like People for the American Way, when it comes to politics -- and the use of "voter guides" in particular -- the Christian Coalition is usually the victimizer.At best, they say, the coalition is inattentive to detail; at worst, it's blatant in its attempts to get Republicans elected. During the 1994 elections in Texas, for example, coalition voter guides stated that 19 Democratic incumbents were in favor of "promoting homosexuality to schoolchildren." In fact, those 19 Democrats had actually voted for an amendment that forbade the use of federal funds to support educational programs promoting gay lifestyles.Another prominent example comes from the 1994 Florida state elections. After reviewing a Christian Coalition voter guide, the state court in Seminole County issued an injunction forbidding the coalition from distributing the guide, ruling that it knowingly misrepresented a Democratic candidate's responses to the coalition's questionnaire. And in the course of researching their 1996 book Dirty Little Secrets (which includes a whole chapter on Christian Coalition skullduggery), Sabato and Simpson found that in the 1994 Kentucky congressional races, the coalition's voter guide addressed the issue of term limits only in the districts where Republicans favored them. Where Republicans did not (and, in one case, where a Democrat did), the issue was left off the guide. Similar cases of misrepresentation, selective reporting, and data manipulation have been reported in dozens of other elections.Although the Christian Coalition tends to characterize critics of its political practices as nothing more than godless liberal secularists (on the stump, Reed constantly makes reference to "Christian bashers" and "anti-Christian bigots"), it is interesting to note that the coalition's voter guides have come under fire even from some of Reed's fellow travelers. In a 1994 roundtable discussion, George Weigel, one of the country's leading conservative Catholic theologians, told Reed that the voter guides "demean the Gospel by identifying it with an ideological agenda" -- a point echoed by Christian political-science professor Claude Cochran, who added that the coalition seemed to be "taking the secular conservative agenda and stamping it 'Christian' without any theological or philosophical analysis."Causes that many Christians support, Cochran pointed out, "such as gun control, justice in health care, protecting the vulnerable, dignified work for people, and property for the common good," get no airing in the Christian Coalition. Indeed, he said, rather than "engaging in a religious, philosophical, theological analysis of issues and arriving at independent judgments," the coalition defaults to a "conservative ideological position" -- one strikingly similar to that of the Republican Party.Indiana congressman Andy Jacobs Jr. can attest to this firsthand. Known for his biting wit, his tendency to deliver speeches in metered rhyme, and a legendary sense of ethics and frugality (he takes no PAC money, returns half of his office expenses and paycheck to the Treasury Department, and has rarely spent more that $30,000 on re-election efforts), Jacobs is a devout Catholic who embraces an odd but consistent mix of fiscal conservatism, advocacy for the poor, pro-life sentiment, and civil-liberties advocacy. Jacobs, a Democrat who has represented Indiana's 10th Congressional district for 30 years, has been a popular legislator both in Washington and in Indiana. He has never, however, been popular with the religious right -- or, as he calls it "the religious wrong" -- which in his view preaches "a gospel of hate and selfishness." He holds Pat Robertson's "profit-motivated" brand of Christianity in particular contempt. When the Christian Coalition sent him a questionnaire before the 1994 election, he unhesitatingly remanded it to the circular file.But a week before the election, local churches started distributing the "Indiana Congressional District 10 Voter Guide." (The guide bore the disclaimer: "For educational purposes only, not to be construed as an endorsement of any candidate or political party.") Even though Jacobs had not answered the questionnaire, the Voter Guide indicated that he had -- and misrepresented virtually every one of his positions."The best one was next to 'Balanced Budget Amendment.' It said 'Opposes,'" chuckles Jacobs, who in fact drafted the first version of the balanced-budget amendment in 1976 and has been a visible champion of the cause ever since. "I have never failed to vote for a balanced-budget amendment, even the weaker ones," he says. "I've been to hell and back for that resolution, and they say I'm against it."But it didn't end there. Jacobs, according to the voter guide, was also advocating "taxpayer funding of obscene art." "Apparently," he says, "if you vote to fund the National Endowment for the Arts, which helps support the Indianapolis Art Museum, you're automatically a porno supporter."As Jacobs handily won re-election, he eschewed filing a complaint against the coalition. But he is nonetheless troubled by Reed, Robertson, and their ilk. "They don't care about details," he says. "They don't care about truth. It would have been less disturbing if this group didn't call itself 'Christian,' because I'm a Christian, and Christians do not bear false witness against their neighbors. But they obviously felt compelled to bear false witness against me because they thought I ought to be defeated."According to the coalition, that just isn't so -- at least with regard to the complaints that make up the suit now pending against it. In the press release, Ralph Reed is quoted as saying the lawsuit is not about impropriety or duplicity, but about "people of faith hav[ing] every right to be involved as citizens and voters." The release also quotes spokesman Mike Russell as calling these charges "baseless and legally threadbare." But lest the shield of faith prove inadequate, the coalition has retained the services of DC's Webster, Chamberlain & Bean, specialists in election law.Other suits of this type brought by the FEC have usually fizzled, and it wouldn't be surprising if the coalition won its case. But though the FEC may fail, says Andy Jacobs, the hubris of Reed and his cohorts might result in a reckoning with a higher power."Reed seems to like to make a point of how much power he has," says Jacobs. "Personally, I think it's a paradox to claim to be a servant in the house of the Lord and at the same time claim to wield power." Perhaps, says Jacobs, Reed might want to refer back to Proverbs 11:29: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."

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