POLITICS / ECHO OF ’88 : Robertson Moves to Fill Christian Right Vacuum : His new grass-roots coalition starts with a donor base of 1.8 million households from his presidential campaign.
Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster and evangelist who ran for President in 1988, has returned to politics, launching a new religious coalition to train conservative Christians to shape government policy.
Robertson--who retreated from political involvement after his failed GOP presidential bid--insists this is not the warmup for another White House run but a grass-roots campaign “to make government and the media responsive to our concerns. . . . Christian Americans are tired of getting stepped on.”
The primary political goals of the Christian Coalition, according to a brochure mailed recently to a quarter million U.S. homes, are pressing for legislation making abortion a crime and school prayer legal, protesting films and TV programs that “defame our Lord” and protecting the presence of religious symbols on government property such as Christmas creches on courthouse lawns and crosses depicted in city seals.
The coalition, built from Robertson’s 1988 campaign mailing list of 1.8 million households, already has 25,000 members in about 30 states and a 1990 budget of $1.5 million, Robertson said. By year’s end, there will be 150,000 members in 500 local chapters, he predicted during an interview in the studios of his Christian Broadcasting Network at Virginia Beach.
Ralph E. Reed, 29, the coalition’s executive director and former head of the College Republican National Committee, said: “What Christians have got to do is take back this country, one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time, and one state at a time.”
“I honestly believe that in my lifetime we will see a country once again governed by Christians . . . and Christian values,” he said.
The group is establishing networks of business and church leaders, and hopes to train potential political candidates--as many as 5,000 at all levels--by the end of the decade, Reed said at the coalition’s modest offices in this Virginia tidewater community.
Irma Diaz, a San Gabriel Valley resident who has been a consultant to President Bush on racial minority and evangelical Christian representation in government, is Western regional director for the Christian Coalition. In California, chapters have been formed recently in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and in the Sacramento area, Reed said.
Overall, the coalition has elicited the strongest responses in California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and the Carolinas, he said.
Reed said the coalition, in operation since the beginning of the year, is designed to pick up where the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Robertson’s Freedom Council--both now defunct--left off.
But, unlike the former organizations, the Christian Coalition is not tax-exempt and may engage in lobbying. Although it is organizationally and financially separate from Robertson’s CBN and Regent University, the coalition bears the strong imprint of Robertson’s leadership.
“We want the activists mobilized in 1988 to stay involved in the political process, not for a single campaign, but for the long haul,” Robertson wrote in the coalition newsletter.
Jeffrey Hadden, a University of Virginia sociologist and expert on the Christian right and television preachers, believes the Christian Coalition may indeed be a strong successor to the high-flying but short-lived Christian political groups of the 1980s.
“Somebody’s got to take up the slack,” Hadden said. “The Christian right movement is gone except for what’s alive in the anti-abortion movement. . . . Clearly there is a constituency out there . . . and a vacuum waiting for somebody to fill.”
Reed acknowledged that the coalition got off to a flying start with “a huge donor base that raised $20 million” for Robertson’s campaign. “These people have a tremendous personal interest in anything that Pat might be doing politically,” he noted.
The group has the backing of several well-known conservative religious activists, including Southern Baptist minister Charles Stanley of Atlanta, Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge, Fla., Beverley LaHaye of the Washington-based Concerned Women for America and Father Michael Scanlan, a Roman Catholic priest who heads the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
A major thrust of the coalition, according to Reed, is to oppose perceived “anti-Christian bias” in the media and to defend the legal rights of Christians.
“You can’t legitimately govern a country when you are being consistently and systematically ridiculed as hayseeds, boobs, bigots and snake oil salesmen,” Reed said.
Added Robertson: “We’re not going to be the nation’s punching bag.”