TheocracyWatch Logo


The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party

What's New?  
SEARCH TheocracyWatch

First Road to Victory, 1991

Church and State, January, 1992

The Christian Coalition: On Ihe Road To VICTORY?

A Special Report From Inside The Pat Robertson Political Machine

by Frederick Clarkson

When I slipped into the national leadership meeting of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, I thought I knew what to expect. I'd written many stories about the Religious Right. But I was unprepared for what I saw, heard and felt inside Robertson's Virginia Beach, Va., headquarters for two days in November during the "Road to Victory" Conference and Strategy Briefing.

The historic Louisiana governor's race was reaching its climax. Men and women crowded around televisions, awaiting the electoral fate of neo-Nazi Republican David Duke. Although Pat Robertson denounced racism and Naziism to reporters outside the conference, inside there were open expressions of support for Duke, from the ordinary membership to the leadership. (I saw only five blacks out of 800 delegates.) For many there was grim disappointment at Duke's defeat.

I was also surprised to see a rapidly growing, technologically sophisticated religio-political organization, built largely from Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign. Christian Coalition activists are working to take over the Republican Party from the grassroots up, while electing right-to-life conservative Christian Republicans to public office at all levels.

They view George Bush and "establishment" Republicans as their principal opponents and believe themselves divinely appointed to take power and rule the United States. I also heard Coalition leaders gleefully describe-from the podium-political activities that are clearly unethical, if not illegal.

Founded in October 1989, the Coalition now claims 150,000 members and 210 local chapters in 38 states. Many "members" are just direct mail contributors. Nevertheless, it is quickly becoming the major Religious Right political organization of the 1990s.

Signaling the importance of the Robertson Republicans, the keynote address was given by Vice President Dan Quayle. Quayle had brushed aside requests that he cancel the speech because Robertson's Founders Inn discriminates in hiring on the basis of religion-only born-again Christians are allowed to work at the hotel. Ignoring the controversy, the vice president spoke at an Inn banquet hall, a stone's throw from Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) headquarters and a stroll to Regent University, of which the religious broadcaster is chancellor.

Quayle said we were gathered that day because he, the president and the Coalition have shared values of "faith, family, and freedom" and that together we would defeat "the liberals" and re-elect Bush. He said the first step is to "make 1992 the year of pro-family values."

Other party leaders speaking or present included Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), Rep. Robert K. Doman (R­Calif.) and Rep. William Dannemeyer (R­Calif.), as well as Christian Right leaders Phyllis Schiafly, Gary Bauer and Christian Reconstructionist author George Grant.

Much of the Virginia Beach conference consisted of "how to" presentations on the mechanics of electoral and internal Republican Party politics. One session was divided into regional briefings on how to become delegates to the Republican National Convention. There was a single caucus for how to become a delegate to the Democratic Convention, but no one came. At this gathering, I quickly learned, a denunciation of "the liberals" usually referred to George Bush, California Gov. Pete Wilson and the Republican National Committee. "The far left" meant the Democratic Party. One panel titled "Turning Out the Christian Vote in 1992" presented two field-tested election tactics: voter identification ("voter ID") programs and "voters' guides."

"We don't have to worry about convincing a majority of Americans to agree with us," declared Guy Rodgers, the Coalition's national field director. "Most of them are staying home and watching `Falcon Crest."'

"Even in a high turn-out presidential election year," Rodgers explained, "only 15 percent of the eligible voters determine the outcome. Of all eligible adults, only about 60 percent are actually registered. Only half of those cast ballots. So," he continued, "only 30 percent of the eligible voters actually vote. Therefore, only 15 percent of the eligible voters determine the outcome.

"In low turn-out elections," he concluded, "city council, state legislature, county commissions-the percentage of the eligible voters who determines who wins can be as low as 6 or 7 percent."

The Coalition's imaginative executive director, Ralph Reed, describes the group's voter mobilization program as if it were a covert military operation: "I want to be invisible," he told one reporter. "I do guerilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night."

By this standard, election night in November was a body bag bonanza for the Robertson Right as they took seven seats for State Senate and House of Delegates from the Virginia Beach area. One recent Regent University graduate defeated a 20­year incumbent Democrat. Describing the group's voter ID program, Reed explained that volunteers would telephone into pre-selected precincts and say "I'm taking an informal survey" for the Christian Coalition. Then, four quick questions: Did you vote for Dukakis or Bush? Are you a Republican or a Democrat?

"If they answered, 'Dukakis, Democrat' that was the end of the survey," laughed Reed. "We didn't even write them down. We don't want to communicate with them. We don't even want them to know there's an election going on. I'm serious. We don't want them to know." The third question, if respondents got that far, was do you favor restrictions on abortion? And finally, what is the most important issue facing Virginia Beach?

The Coalition used the data to create a computer file on each voter, with survey answers coded according to 43 "issue burdens." The ID'd voters would then mysteriously receive a letter from the Coalition's candidate: Computer-generated, laser-printed and individually tailored to one's "issue burden"-crime, education, traffic, etc.

If the voter happened to be pro-choice, the letter wouldn't mention abortion. "I'll take the votes of the pro-abortion Republicans" to get anti­abortion Republicans in, Reed admitted. In fact, Reed said only 28 percent of his targeted voters identified themselves as anti-abortion.

This signals a significant shift from the grandiose Christian Right notion of a "moral majority." The Robertson forces are a self-conscious minority seeking power through smart utilization of political campaign technology and the institutions of democracy. Reed said one Democrat attempted to make an issue of Pat Robertson's contributions to political candidates. "But people didn't care if Pat Robertson had given money to anyone," Reed gloated. "They wanted better roads, etc.... We knew it. He didn't. We won. He lost. It's that simple."

Amidst the braggadocio about clever tactics, a "Christian" variety of dirty politics sometimes showed. On the morning of the Virginia Beach election, Reed personally went to the largest precinct and told voters he was with an "independent, outside organization" unconnected to either campaign, doing exit polling for "later broadcast." The Republican was losing, so Coalition activists called every­ one on their precinct list and got their candidate down to the polling place to greet voters. Ultimately, he won.

Reed tried to explain how the Coalition could do such partisan work. He explained: "We also control the Second District Republican Party. So many of our people who were doing this voter ID were also (Republican) precinct captains .... So if they shared some of this voter ID information ... we really didn't care." Personifying this political incestuousness is Pat Robertson's son Gordon, who is secretary treasurer of the Coalition and also Republican chairman in Virginia's Second Congressional District.

The other wing of the Coalition's strategy for 1992 is the use of "voter guides"­ which are usually biased comparisons of candidate views or records. The Christian Coalition of Florida distributed 1.5 million of them in 1990, primarily by shipping them in batches of about 300 to 4,000 churches selected from a purchased list of 11,000. (Coalition activists also obtained church membership lists and cross-referenced them against lists of registered Republicans as part of a voter ID project in central Florida.)

During the Virginia Beach gathering, Ralph Reed told an inside story from the 1990 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina. Helms called Pat Robertson a week before the election to ask for help. Reed reported, "I had access to the internal tracking, and I know [Helms] was down by 8 points. So Pat called me up and said, `We've got to kick into action.' Bottom line is ...five days later we put three quarters of a million voters' guides in churches across the state of North Carolina and Jesse Helms was re-elected by 100,000 votes out of 22 million cast." "We" said Reed, also made over 30,000 phone calls.

Unlike Florida, the North Carolina Coalition activists tried to insert voter guides into church bulletins on the Sunday before the election. Where that failed, they leafletted at carefully chosen spots just outside church parking lots. "The press had no idea what we were doing," added CC's Southern Regional Director Judy Haynes, "and they still don't know what we did. But it worked."

The Coalition is expecting a similar impact in North Carolina in 1992. Haynes organized a meeting last October, and according to Reed, "All five Senate candidates, announced and unannounced, came to meet with our key county coordinators." All were Republicans, of course; Sen. Terry Sanford, the Democratic incumbent, is the target.

The Christian Coalition claims it is an "issues-oriented" organization of "Evangelicals, pro-family Catholics and their allies" working to "reverse the moral decline in America and reaffirm our godly heritage." But at the November meeting there was little talk about issues. This conference was devoted to electoral politics, the mechanics of taking over the Republican Party and Coalition chapter development.

Former Reagan White House Domestic Policy chief (and now head of James Dobson'sFamilyResearch Council) Gary Bauer said, "Obviously this conference is about the 1992 elections." And the reason this and other elections are important, he added, is because "we are engaged in a social, political and cultural civil war."

Three members of the Republican National Committee explained the hows and whys of becoming an RNC member. One Coalition leader told me that he expects a conservative Christian majority on the RNC in the next few years. Several speakers stressed that it is time to stop thinking like outsiders and begin to be insiders interested in power and governance. This dynamic was played out in an interesting way when sympathetic staff from the Republican House and Senate campaign committees addressed the gathering.

The party is supposed to be neutral in party primaries- especially when there is a Republican incumbent. However, Curt Anderson of the National Republican Senatorial Committee warned against "pro-family" candidates splitting the vote in GOP primaries where moderate Republicans are also running. In California, where Democrat Alan Cranston is retiring, a Republican primary fight is underway. Said Anderson, "It is really important that we understand who's pro-life and who's pro-family and who's conservative in that primary" between TV commentator Bruce Herschenson and U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell." Anybody who has the resources ... better pay attention to that primary," Anderson insisted, "and help out Mr. Herschenson."

Observed Ralph Reed, "I wanna tell ya, I deal with Curt Anderson on a daily basis, and ... he shares your values and he shares your outlook .... He's really our best friend at the Senatorial Committee." Said Anderson, "I have never considered myself a party-first guy"--an attitude which he believes has "no integrity."

Meanwhile, the complicity between the Republican Party, individual candidates and the Christian Coalition may be creating violations of the Coalition's tax status. As a 501(cX4) organization under the Internal Revenue Service Code, the Coalition is non-profit and tax-exempt, although donations to it are not deductible by contributors. It can do things like lobby on legislation, produce voter guides and wage other political activities. IRS regulations about candidate endorsements are somewhat ambiguous, but they clearly forbid a 501(c)(4) organization to have partisan politics as its primary undertaking.

One IRS official told Church and Slate that partisan politicking may not exceed 49 percent of the group's endeavors. If my experience at the Virginia Beach meeting is any indication, partisan political activities clearly constitute almost all of the Christian Coalition's work.

Playing fast and loose with the IRS rules got a similar Robertson group in trouble a few years ago. According to 1987 reports by The Washington Post and syndicated columnist Michael McManus, Robertson poured some $8.5 million from his Christian Broadcasting Network into a group called The Freedom Council during the 1980s. The Council ostensibly sought to mobilize "Christians" into politics. However, several former Council executives now admit that it fronted for Robertson's electoral ambitions.

The Post reported that among many actions of dubious legality, Robertson "used the tax-exempt FreedomCouncil­ funded by millions of dollars from CBN­to help elect his supporters in Michigan's GOP convention delegate selection process." As McManus wrote in 1987, "It is illegal for a non-profit organization like CBN to give money for the direct or indirect benefit of a person running for political office." When the IRS began investigating The Freedom Council, Robertson shut it down. Five years later, the IRS is still investigating.

Many veterans of The Freedom Council and the Robertson campaign are active in The Christian Coalition. Among these is the Rev. Billy McCormack, one of Robertson's closest political associates and the Coalition's state director in Louisiana. One of the first people Robertson recruited for the Council, McCormack served as a regional coordinator. He played a similar role in the Robertson presidential bid.

McCormack introduced Robertson at the Christian Coalition's closing banquet in November. He said that in the two centuries since Washington and Jefferson, "The forces of evil have coalesced. They've formed a mighty tide of approaching destruction. Providentially, God has raised up (another) man from Virginia to lead America in the rediscovery of its soul."

McCormack also epitomizes the Coalition's hidden Duke dimension. A Duke for Governor campaign spokesman claimed their candidate had the support of the Coalition's Louisiana affiliate. State leader McCorrnack declined to comment at the time, but informed sources have told me he was prevented from making a formal endorsement only by last-minute arm-twisting by other Robertson allies. Thus, it is important to note that, according to a New York Times poll, Duke received seven out of ten votes cast by white evangelicals in the Louisiana governor's race. Now that Duke is running in the Republican presidential prima ries, newly uncloseted Duke supporters may emerge from the Coalition.

Robertson himself, usually smilingly avuncular, displayed a terrifying, paranoid and messianic vision of current and future events during a banquet speech that was greeted with cheers and standing ovations from the assorted Christian Coalition activists. Attacking "humanism" as communism's "sister," he claimed that America is under assault from its own leaders. "When the failed monstrosity of Russia ... went down, so did the so-called elites of the United States," he declared. "They just don't know it yet."

A financial collapse in the Soviet Union that will affect the rest of the world is imminent, Robertson said, "And while this is going on, we are hearing noises about a New World Order." He claimed that the "United Nations is going to rule the world ... We're to cede the sovereignty of America to this organization. One world currency. One world army. One world court system, very possibly. And it can happen overnight.

"The elites," Robertson said, "have turned against themselves and have tried to destroy the very society from which they drew their nurture. The academic elites, the money elites and the government elites, turned on their own society. And into that void steps an organization called the Christian Coalition."

Robertson envisions the Coalition arrayed against "Satanic forces," saying, "We are not coming up against just human beings to beat them in elections. We're going to be coming up against spiritual warfare. And if we're not aware of what we're fighting, we will lose."

Robertson credited McCormack with calling on him to form the Coalition from the Robertson forces' preceding ventures, lest the time and money they had invested, "be for naught." Remarked Robertson, "He said there are people by the hundreds of thousands around the country who are waiting to rally to leadership. And I said, `Well, Billy, I'll pray about it.' And as I did, it was clear that what he said was right."

What does all this mean? The Christian Coalition provides a militantly sectarian-only Christians of the "right" sort are welcome-political vehicle for Robertson and his allies. It also provides a convenient, if unstable, umbrella group for a strange range of opinion. It is home not only to strains of back-to-the-Bible social conservatism but also free enterprise (even libertarian) economics and a kind of nativist fascism.

The Coalition is held together by agreement on a few issues, charismatic leaders like Robertson and Reed, an inclusive grassroots strategy and periodic denunciations of "The Evil One," who, of course, is represented by the group's enemies, from "Teddy Kennedy" to George Bush.

Despite the Coalition's strengths, it is a volatile mix that is certain to make 1992 much more interesting, and disturbing, than the conventional wisdom is ready to believe.


Frederick Clarkson is an investigative journalist based in Washington, D. C, who frequently writes about the Religious Right.

Last updated: January-1992