The minister delivering the invocation at the Christian Coalition's “Road to Victory” conference last month had a special prayer for the coalition's leaders -- Pat Robertson, its founder and president, and Executive Director Ralph E. Reed. “Their calling is so heavy, Lord; their critics so harsh,” Dr. Billy McCormack prayed. “Please place your angels in protection around them.”
To its supporters, the Christian Coalition's mission is nothing less than a divine calling. “We are seeing the Christian Coalition rise to where God intends it to be in this nation,” Robertson told the conference last month, “as one of the most powerful political forces that have ever been in the history of America.”
Its critics view the coalition quite differently. Some regard it as nothing more than a partisan political organization disguised in religious clothing. “Behind family-values rhetoric,” says Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm, “the Christian Coalition fights the fight of the economic elite.”
Other critics view the coalition more ominously -- as a threat to the American tradition of religious liberty. In a critique published last month, the liberal group People for the American Way charged that the coalition favors “the formation of a Christianized government, which disavows the separation of church and state.”
In the five years since its founding, the Christian Coalition has grown from a little-noted spinoff of Robertson's failed 1988 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination into a sophisticated political operation with a $20 million budget this year and a claimed following of 1.4 million supporters and dues-paying members.
The coalition holds a critical position among the panoply of religiously oriented conservative organizations that make up what is variously called the Christian right, the religious right or the radical right. (Reed himself rejects the term religious right as connoting “an intolerant and extremist political agenda” and prefers “religious conservative” or “pro-family conservative.”
The Mississippi-based American Family Association, headed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, has squared off against the National Endowment for the Arts over funding of what it calls pornographic art. In California, Citizens for Excellence in Education, headed by Robert Simonds, has mobilized campaigns to elect religious right candidates to school boards across the country. Concerned Women for America, headed by anti-feminist activist Beverly LaHaye, opposes abortion, homosexuality and sex education. The Washington, D.C.-based group claims 600,000 members, more than twice as many as the liberal National Organization for Women.
Unlike these other conservative groups, however, the Christian Coalition has a broad policy agenda and a focused political strategy to accomplish it. In the past two years, the coalition has expanded its focus from social issues such as abortion and gay rights to economic questions as well. In February, Reed said the group's highest priority this year was defeating President Clinton's health-care legislation.
The coalition's political strategy has been crafted by the 33- year-old Reed, who has a doctorate in American history and experience in conservative Republican politics since his college days in the late 1970s. In place of the political televangelism of his mentor Robertson, Reed concentrates on local grass-roots organizing. Initially, he kept the coalition's profile low -- prompting critics to accuse him of “stealth” tactics.
Now that the coalition has emerged as a significant player in GOP politics, it faces other criticisms, including its very name. Critics say the coalition's name implies that it regards its political adversaries as un-Christian.
“We need to be careful about appropriating the name 'Christian,' ” says Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. “You are implying a lot if you claim to be speaking for Christianity and Christians.”
Supporters disagree. Speaking to the coalition's conference last month, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett noted that many other organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, have religious identification in their names. “They surely recognize that there are American Jews who don't belong to the committee,” Bennett said.
The coalition also has been challenged on its right to claim tax- exempt status as a nonpartisan educational organization. One of the coalition's major activities is preparation of what it calls “voter guides” showing the positions of opposing candidates on selected issues in the weeks before an election. “We're like a League of Women Voters for people of faith,” Reed often tells reporters.
Critics, however, view the guides as blatantly partisan. “If you read their voting guides,” says Matthew Freeman, research director of People for the American Way, “you can't help but come to the conclusion that they are pressing the tax laws to the limits, if not beyond. It's hard to conclude that their interest is in providing good, solid, nonpartisan voting information.”
The coalition has also been criticized by other organizations in the Christian right, according to Clyde Wilcox, a professor of political science at Georgetown University. “They take credit for everything, but don't send the soldiers out to do the work,” Wilcox said.
The coalition's political clout is by no means proven. Wilcox, for one, has predicted that religious conservatives will fall short of taking control of the Republican Party -- a Robertson goal
Other observers, however, believe that religious conservatives have wrought a lasting shift in the U.S. political landscape. “In one sense, 1992 may be remembered as the 'Year of the Evangelical,' ” a team of academic experts on the religious right wrote in a paper last fall. “It is safe to predict that this mobilization will continue or even intensify in future local, state and national elections.”
Reed is similarly confident that the Christian Coalition will have a lasting impact on American politics. “This is a long-term cause for us,” Reed says. “We expect to be a permanent part of American politics for the next half century or longer.”