Church and State, November, 1993

Inside The Covert Coalition

Frederick Clarkson

Although President Bush's Visit Was A Public Endorsement, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition Prefers To Do Most Of Its Work Behind Closed Doors

In November of last year freelance writer Frederick Clarkson went under cover to report on the activities at the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" Conference and Strategy Briefing in Virginia Beach, Va. Despite heightened security measures at this year's event, Clarkson was again able to attend the meeting and bring Church And State readers this special report from inside the Pat Robertson political machine.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, doesn't like security breaches. "I don't want to be too overly dramatic," he confided in the opening session of his group's "Road to Victory II" Conference. But it seems that at last year's conference, some people from "left wing organizations" got in and "subsequently wrote articles."

Reed wanted to make sure that didn't happen again. Thus, the 1,200 conference attendees and I were "hereby commissioned as deputy constables" to help evict any reporters who strayed into the workshops and strategy sessions.

I kept a sharp eye out for "left-wingers" in those closed sessions. But I didn't spot any.

The mostly closed-door conclave in September, which featured a speech by President George Bush, marked a certain coming of age for Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition (which seeks outright control of the Republican Party by 1996). The religious broadcaster's army of followers is powerful enough to compel the presence of an incumbent president; yet it is controversial enough to require the secrecy of a covert operation for routine intra-party politicking.

Conference attendees from across the country flocked to Robertson headquarters in Virginia Beach on a warm autumn weekend to talk about the advanced new computer and television components of their grassroots mobilization on behalf of "pro-family" candidates. They learned the mechanics of how to take over the­Republican Party from the inside and attended issues workshops on abortion, taxes, pornography and the "homosexual agenda." National figures such as Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, his predecessor William Bennett and the ubiquitous Oliver North spoke.

These speeches and President Bush's address were open to the news media. Twenty-two other speeches and workshops were not. Security was intended to be tight. As Reed told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, all conferees were carefully screened by Christian Coalition state co­ordinators to make sure only Robertson allies were admitted.

George Bush's visit to the hub of the Robertson empire was the conference's main event.

Christian Coalition activists had expected a major address on social issues. "White House sources," said Reed, had indicated the president's talk would be "the central campaign speech by the president on family values."

Bush's remarks, however, deviated very little from his standard stump speech-the economy, private school vouchers and family values. School prayer and gay rights got no mention at all, and even abortion restrictions, a topic dear to the Religious Right, drew only a single sentence.

Bush even softened the Republican campaign's family values stance, embracing Murphy Brown-style single parent families. "I do not pass judgment," said the president, "on the kind of family, you live in, whether both parents work or just one parent, or whether you're apart of a single parent family. Families are not measured by what kind, but by how close."

This middle-of-the-road rhetoric­which briefly removed the smile from Robertson's usually avuncular face­was soon followed, however, by Bush remarks that warmly endorsed the television evangelist and his Christian Coalition. "Let me say how deeply I support all the work you're doing to restore the spiritual foundation of this nation," the president observed. "And I say this-the longer that Barbara and I are privileged to live in the White House, the more I understand what Lincoln meant when he said he went to his knees in prayer."

To further please Robertson, Bush greeted over 100 major Christian Coalition donors and invited guests at a private reception in the rose garden of Pat Robertson's walled estate. With black swans gliding by on a pond and a harpist playing Pachelbel's "Canon in D Minor," the televangelist personally introduced members of his "inner circle" to the presidential candidate, mentioning their "help" or their "contributions."

Bush's Virginia Beach visit was apparently a deftly crafted campaign venture designed to shore up the president's standing among Religious Right activists without jeopardizing support among GOP moderates and ordinary voters who might be turned off by Robertson's shrill language and divisive religio-political agenda.

According to the Washington Post, top Bush aide James A. Baker III intentionally scheduled the Virginia Beach speech for 7:40 p.m., late enough to ensure that no coverage appeared on the network news programs and past the deadlines of many newspapers. To further deflect attention, Baker reportedly arranged for Bush to announce the sale of F­15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia at a campaign stop earlier in the day, thus attracting press attention to that story.

The strategy worked fairly well. The Virginia Beach pilgrimage drew little national media scrutiny. Even The New York Times, the nation's "newspaper of record," failed to record the event. But the carefully calibrated Bush courtship of the Religious Right wasn't lost on some hardliners.

The morning after the president spoke, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation addressed the bitter GOP factional fight between moderates and right­wingers in a closed conference session.

"It is very important," he declared, "that we not be pushed around as a movement, nor taken for granted by anybody. I do not want to see this movement become to one political party, what the blacks ... have become to another political party.

"You know," he continued, "I'm not against having these rallies. And ... candidates coming and presenting themselves .... I support the man who spoke last night. I'll vote for him. But let's not have any illusions about what all of this is about. They wouldn't be caught dead with us under other circumstances. And the only reason they come here is because they're in trouble-and we bail them out-and then they turn their back on us and give us nothing in return," he declared, his voice rising. "And we can no longer stand for it!"

Weyrich's blast provoked a loud and sustained ovation from the crowd.

"We are in a war," Weyrich observed. There are, he insisted, two main components of a winning strategy for that conflict: organization and communication. He envisions the Christian Coalition as the main organizational structure.

The key communications mode is the newly created National Empowerment Television (NET)-a closed circuit, interactive satellite TV system produced by the Weyrich-run Coalitions for America. Through NET, leaders of the Christian Right can give their marching orders on electoral tactics and lobbying, and even hold national or intra-state teleconferences. With Ralph Reed on the NET board, Weyrich expects that Christian Coalition affiliates will be plugging in soon.

The national impact could be great. Although it is only three years old, the Christian Coalition claims 250,000 members and 550 chapters. Press reports indicate a $13million war chest. All these resources are devoted to revoking the constitutional separation of church and state and giving Robertson and like­minded religionists a controlling influence in American society. Their first goal is dominance in the Republican Party.

Although the Christian Coalition is ostensibly a "nonpartisan" citizens action group, partisanship was everywhere apparent at the recent "Road to Victory II" Conference. This fact was perhaps best crystallized when one delegate declared in a general session, "It is impossible for a Christian to vote for a Democrat." His comment was greeted by applause and laughter.

Although the Coalition presents itself as a "grassroots" organization, in fact it is a top-down tightly controlled political unit. At the state level, a recently obtained copy of the "Pennsylvania Christian Coalition County Action Plan" reveals the hierarchical control. For example, the document notes that "starting a chapter will not necessarily be done through a democratic process." The state office assigns a president, who in turn appoints an executive committee.

Information also flows from the top down. The executive committee of the local chapter appoints "Public Affairs Representatives" in local congregations who "are recruited to serve as a conduit for information to their churches."

Given this leadership structure, it is significant that the Rev. Billy McCormack, a Louisiana political activist with a disturbing record in regard to ex-Nazi, ex­Klansman, ex-presidential candidate David Duke, is one of four directors of the Christian Coalition, along with Pat Robertson, Robertson's son Gordon and Dick Weinhold of the CC's Texas affiliate. (McCormack, a Shreveport minister, is also the director of the Louisiana Christian Coalition.)

The McCormack-led Robertson forces, along with other ultraconservative allies, have controlled the Louisiana GOP since 1988. They blocked efforts by party moderates to denounce Duke during his ascent in Louisiana politics and refused to investigate charges that he was selling Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf and other hate literature from his state legislative office.

Although the national GOP, led by Ronald Reagan and George Bush, repudiated Duke in 1989 (when Duke ran as a Republican for the state legislature), it wasn't until November, 1990 that Robertson publicly urged McCormack to "examine" Duke's record. The Louisiana clergyman apparently found little to concern him. Although McCormack stopped short of a public endorsement in the 1991 race, Duke received 69 percent of the white evangelical vote as the unsuccessful GOP nominee for governor.With this record of dalliance with Duke, it was a quietly dramatic moment at the Christian Coalition gathering in September when McCormack was seated next to President Bush on the dais during the presidential visit and address.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there were few blacks (perhaps a dozen out of 1,200) among the Road to Victory delegates, and no black speakers. One young man from Michigan (who was white) found it "kind of disappointing" that there were "not more of my brothers and sisters in Christ who are black" at the conference. He asked Gary Bauer of James Dobson's Family Research Council, who was at the podium, how "we ... the Christian Right, could do a better job of reaching out to our black brothers in Christ? "Calling the point "extremely important," Bauer complained, "You know how our opponents try to picture us. If we're not radical right-wingers, we're racists. We're just barely a step past the Ku Klux Klan. We're bigots, hatemongers, all the rest of it." Thus, he felt, "it behooves us to go the extra mile to make a common cause with black Americans."

Bauer was applauded for his expressed hope that the Coalition's next conference include "a third or a fourth or a fifth of this audience being our black brothers and sisters."

But the subject did not come up again. The reason, of course, is that it is difficult to take affirmative action and at the same time feature top leaders like McCormack who run interference for David Duke.

In their quest for Republican Party control, Christian Coalition activists have unseated incumbent county GOP committee members in party contests across the country, often turning out churches­full of voters in election day surprises.

Guy Rogers, the Coalition's National Field Director, complains they are unfairly accused of being "anti-democratic" and "infiltrating" the party. "We're just good American citizens who believe we should get involved and want to make it work," he declared. "I mean, what's wrong with that?"

Rogers' protests notwithstanding, the Pennsylvania manual reveals a covert modus operandi. "You should never mention the name Christian Coalition in Republican circles," the manual advises. The leadership of each county chapter is to include a "Republican Party Liaison" who is to "become directly involved in the local Republican Central Committee so that you are an insider.

"This way," the manual continues, "you can get a copy of the local committee rules and a feel for who is in the current local Republican Committee."

The Christian Coalition's liaison then is to recruit conservatives for vacant party posts or to run against moderates or others who "put the Republican Party ahead of principles."

In more candid moments, Christian Coalition leaders are boastful about their "stealth" tactics.

"We've learned how to move under the radar in the cover of the night with shrubbery strapped to our helmets," the CC's Reed told Newsday. "It's like being a good submarine captain: You come up, fire three missiles and then dive."

Meanwhile, among the facts raising 'eyebrows at the IRS is $64,000 which the Christian Coalition, a tax-exempt group, received from the National Republican Senatorial Committee in October 1990­just before the November election. Perhaps coincidentally, Coalition activists assisted the come-from-behind re-election drive of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) that year.

In an early use of a tactic the Coalition has since employed widely, 750,000 "voter guides" were distributed, mostly through churches, on the Sunday just before the Tuesday vote.

"The press had no idea what we were doing," said Regional Director Judy Haynes at the Christian Coalition conference last year. "And they still don't know what we did."

While reports of such victories give the group momentum going into the November elections and beyond, they also may lead to some bumps and detours on the "Road to Victory."

The Washington Post recently reported an ongoing IRS investigation of possible violations of the Coalition's provisional 501(c)(4) non­profit tax status. At issue is the Coalition's electoral and GOP activities, which may exceed the limits of federal tax guidelines.

This potential problem, however, seems to be of little concern to Christian Coalition activists this year. They claim they will distribute 40 million "non-partisan" presidential voter guides (including one million in New York and 2.5 million in Florida) and millions more aimed at candidates in state and local races.

According to literature mailed to evangelical and fundamentalist churches across the country, unlimited numbers of the "Christian Coalition Family Values Voter Guide" are available for the asking.

Signed by Robertson, Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright, Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Young and former SBC president Adrian Rogers, the cover letter implores "Christian leaders" to "provide your members with the non­partisan knowledge they need to prosper as citizens." The flier assures readers that the Christian Coalition is a "non-profit organization that is not affiliated with any political party and does not endorse candidates."

The voters guide then goes on to charge that Democrat Bill Clinton supports "abortion on demand," homosexual rights, raising income taxes, tax-funded abortion and condom distribution in schools. Clinton opposes, the guide says, a balanced budget amendment, parental choice in education (vouchers), term limits and increased funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative (the so-called "Star Wars" system).

In contrast, Bush is listed as taking the opposite position of all these issues. (The two candidates are both listed as supporting the line-item veto and the death penalty.) Democratic Party officials insist the guide is biased and misleading. Avi Lavelle, press secretary for the Clinton campaign, called it a "gross oversimplifcation."

Computerized voter identification and voter guides continue to be the twin engines of the Christian Coalition's electoral strategy. They have worked dramatically well. For example, in Central Florida (in and around Orlando), 22 of 27 Coalition-backed candidates won GOP primaries in September.

"We want to build the largest voter file in America," said Guy Rogers.

Comprised of anti-abortion and anti-gay voters, the files contain a variety of other personal and political data about individuals so that, according to Rogers, "we not only know who they are but what precinct they vote in.

"That right there," he slowly intoned, "is the ammo for Uzis. One of the prob lems we've (had) as Christians," he said, extending the violent metaphor, "is we've pointed Uzis at the opposition, but when we've pulled the trigger, there've been no bullets."

Christian Right leaders are anxious to expand the range of issues that animate their constituents. Opposition to abortion has been the rallying point of past efforts, but homosexuality is apparently the next big issue designed to stir emotions and win the organization support for its larger goals.

Guy Rogers gets unnervingly agitated about the political accomplishments and level of organization of the gay community. "Why do you think the homosexuals have made so many inroads the last few years?" he asked. "Because they have so many people? No! Not only do they not have a lot of people, they are dying off. And they're dying young."

The conference's best attended workshop, a session on the "Homosexual Agenda," drew about half the attendees (who chose among four concurrent sessions). It was led by Boston Herald columnist Don Feder and Lon Mabon of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (a Christian Coalition affiliate). Mabon is spearheading an Oregon ballot referendum this year that would require government to oppose homosexuality, an initiative that the Coalition hopes to replicate in other states.

What does all this mean? As evidenced by the extraordinary Republican National Convention and a string of electoral successes, Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition are fast becoming a powerful force in the GOP, and indeed in American society at large. So far, they're doing so with little more than a disciplined voting bloc, computers and political smarts. How long this small, but fervent faction can out-organize the vast majority in many areas remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Christian Coalition activists are buoyant. Said the CC's Rogers, "Legislators are looking at us with a very keen eye because they know we've reached a point where we can deliver votes. We can turn our people out, educated on the issues. And that scares you know what out of 'em."