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Christian Coalition Is Splintering

Times Staff Writer

When Congress was debating bills on embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage back in May, an e-mail from the Christian Coalition of America appeared in activists’ inboxes.

“Christian Coalition Announces Support for ‘Net Neutrality’ to Prevent Giant Phone and Cable Companies From Discriminating Against Web Sites,” it said.

For John W. Giles, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, the e-mail was yet another sign that the famous political powerhouse of the religious right had strayed from its founding mission: defending marriage, strengthening the family and protecting unborn human life.

“The Christian Coalition is drifting to the left,” Giles said. “There’s a new vision -- and we’re not part of it.”

Last month, the Christian Coalition of Alabama announced that it was severing ties with the national organization.

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It’s one of a growing number of chapters to express frustration as the Christian Coalition broadens its mission to include issues such as so-called Internet neutrality, the minimum wage and the environment.

In March, the Christian Coalition of Iowa announced it was changing its name to Iowa Christian Alliance. Steve Scheffler, the president of the group, said the national organization, which is struggling to raise funds and is accumulating debt, had lost focus and become “an albatross around our necks.”

In July, the Christian Coalition of Ohio pulled out too.

The breakaway of Alabama -- a strong affiliate with 1,900 volunteers and links with more than 13,000 churches -- underscores the grass-roots decline of the organization credited with helping the Republican Party consolidate power in Washington in the 1990s.

Founded in 1989 by Republican televangelist Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition became politically influential under the direction of Ralph Reed, distributing millions of voter guides in churches and coordinating major voter drives.

Today, neither of those high-profile leaders is affiliated with the organization -- Reed left in 1997, Robertson in 2001. And though it continues to claim large numbers of followers, in the last decade its annual budget has plummeted, from about $26 million down to $1 million.

Despite the loss of the state chapters and its limited finances, the organization remains strong, according to its president, Roberta Combs.

“This is not the demise of the Christian Coalition,” Combs said in a telephone interview last week. “Three disillusioned state chairmen have pulled out, but no one is indispensable. The Christian Coalition is a household name.”

Combs said the fallout with the states began after some chapters refused to follow new regulations over distribution of voter guides and political surveys.

After a long dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over the coalition’s tax-exempt status, the national office reached an agreement last year that requires it to allow candidates to write up to 25 words of explanation on each issue in the voter guides. In January, a lawyer for the national office sent letters to state chapters reminding them that, under the new agreement, they had to submit all voter guides for national approval.

Last month, a few days before Giles announced the Alabama withdrawal, Combs said, she learned Giles had distributed surveys that had not been approved and that did not include spaces for candidates’ explanations. Immediately, she said, she sent a letter to the Alabama chapter breaking the affiliation.

Whether the national or the state group initiated the separation, the loss of Alabama -- where 92% of residents are Christian and 62% voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 election -- is a symbolic setback for the Christian Coalition, which has long vaunted its grass-roots base.

While the coalition continues to describe itself on its website as “the largest and most active conservative grassroots political organization in America,” many political activists say it is now active in only a handful of states, notably Georgia and Florida.

“Today, the Christian Coalition is a shell of its former self,” said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “It has been and gone as a force in American politics.”

At its peak in 1996, the group said it had a grass-roots network of 2.8 million people in nearly 50 states.

Last week, Combs described the organization as having “close to 3 million supporters” and chapters in 50 states; a day later, her daughter Michele Combs, the organization’s spokeswoman, said it had 2.5 million members, defining members as those “who are active or donate money.”

These figures are disputed. Josh Glasstetter, a spokesman for liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, said that the organization had long inflated its membership and that its budget suggested it had fewer than 300,000 members.

In part, the organization’s decline can be attributed to the difficulty of rallying conservative Christians when Republicans already control Congress and the White House.

“We live in a different era now,” Combs said of her effort to expand the coalition’s core tenets. “We need to get out of the box and look at the organization. I’m a family person. If you really read the Bible, it says to take care of the least among us.”

In Alabama, resentment against the national Christian Coalition emerged in 2003, when Combs came to Montgomery to campaign in support of Republican Gov. Bob Riley’s plan to overhaul the tax system, which involved a $1.2-billion tax increase. The Christian Coalition of Alabama had already stated its opposition to the plan.

When Combs agreed with Riley that Alabama’s existing tax system placed an unfair burden on poor families, Giles accused her of departing from the organization’s traditional commitment to low taxes.

“It was a total bushwhack,” he said of Combs’ visit. “It confused Christians and it divided the Christian vote.”

In May, Combs raised eyebrows with her decision to join forces with the liberal MoveOn.org and American Civil Liberties Union on Net neutrality, to defend open Internet access and push for regulations to prevent phone and cable companies from charging for higher-speed online content.

Although Combs insists that she continues to campaign on issues such as stem cell research and gay marriage, many activists questioned whether the Christian Coalition needed to wade into new territory.

“Mainstream America loves God,” Giles said. “We already have the right issues. What makes us so profound is that we unite conservative Christians.”

The breaking away of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, most political analysts agree, will have political repercussions outside Alabama.

“The state doesn’t need the national organization nearly so much as the national organization needs the state affiliation,” said William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama.

Combs is not alone in attempting to broaden the Christian agenda. Organizations such as the National Assn. of Evangelicals have expanded their missions to include environmental issues and government protections for the poor.

“Alabama may be out of sync with the rest of the country,” said Richard Cizik, the evangelical association’s vice president for governmental affairs.

Whatever the fate of the Christian Coalition, the organization’s decline does not seem to point to any corresponding decline of the religious right.

“It’s more a maturing of the movement than a weakening of the movement,” said William Martin, a senior fellow in Religion and Public Policy at Rice University, who noted that many Christians had joined the Republican Party in recent years.

Many former coalition activists now concentrate their energy at the local level, where they have pushed for statewide legislation on gay marriage and parental notification of abortion.

In Washington, the coalition has been supplanted in its political influence by other Christian interest groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

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jenny.jarvie@latimes.com


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