Onward, Christian Soldiers?

In trying to broaden its appeal, the Christian Coalition risks alienating its base.


For the last year, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, has been trying to change the organization's image. In a series of articles and interviews, he has emphasized that a "pro-family" agenda is not limited to hot-button social issues. It also includes economic issues that are important to families of all persuasions.

"The pro-family movement has limited its effectiveness by concentrating disproportionately on issues such as abortion and homosexuality," he wrote in the Summer 1993 Policy Review. "To win at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion…the pro-family movement must speak to the concerns of average voters in the areas of taxes, crime, government waste, health care, and financial security."

Reed is attempting to move his organization's agenda into the mainstream by emphasizing issues like free trade, a cut in the capital-gains tax, a line-item veto, a balanced-budget amendment, and a higher standard tax deduction for dependents. The coalition has published a "mainstream agenda for public education," which includes school choice, "parental rights," keeping schools "free from crime and drugs," and a curriculum that will "return to the basics" of reading, writing, and mathematics. Reed would like to expand the organization's base to include more Catholics and Jews. His makeover has generated positive coverage, including a kind profile by Time, a stunning departure from the national press's usual hostility to the Christian right.

The Christian Coalition's Annual Road to Victory meeting was held near Washington, D.C., last year instead of its former site, Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network complex in Virginia Beach. The move reflected Reed's attempt to put some distance between the Christian Coalition and CBN. Although the coalition was formed in 1989 from the remnants of Robertson's failed presidential campaign and the 700 Club host continues to serve as its president, he has become something of a bogeyman among people wary of his religious beliefs and political agenda.

The September meeting was supposed to showcase the Christian Coalition's new, broader appeal. Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm addressed the group, though he sharply criticized many of its positions on both social and economic issues. The meeting was also a forum for 1996 Republican presidential hopefuls. Sen. Bob Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, and former drug czar William Bennett each spoke before an appreciative audience. When it was over, Reed declared the gathering a success in promoting a mainstream program.

Yet the most publicized event at the meeting was a remark by Pat Buchanan that did not go well with the Christian Coalition's new image. Talking about the superiority of Western culture, Buchanan noted that widows in India have been known to fling themselves onto the burning funeral pyres of their husbands. While condemning the practice, Buchanan added that "in the case of Bill Clinton, it may be justified." The audience of nearly 3,000 delegates cheered. Buchanan's confrontational message was the most popular speech at the convention.

In a way, Reed could argue, the speech and its reception represented a step forward. Buchanan, after all, is Catholic. Most evangelical Christian political activists are Protestants who come from a tradition that for many years regarded Catholics as dangerous. At the same time, the reaction of the delegates to Buchanan illustrates the Christian right's tendency to emphasize divisive social issues and promote an "us vs. them" attitude.

In attempting to moderate that message and reach out to a broader constituency, Reed runs the risk of alienating the Christian Coalition's base. Most of the group's members are motivated by precisely the issues that Reed is trying to downplay. Many are bored by his economic-policy proposals, if not actively opposed to them. Others may agree with his positions on taxes and trade, but they expect the coalition to concentrate on issues where a religious perspective has special relevance. After all, many secular conservative organizations already address "the concerns of the average voter." So the more successful Reed is at making the Christian Coalition presentable to outsiders, the less attractive it may seem to its core supporters. In smoothing its rough edges, he could sand away its reason for existence.

The stakes in Reed's gamble are large. The Christian Coalition claims nearly 750 chapters throughout the country and about 400,000 members, concentrated in the South and in major metropolitan areas on both coasts. But fully one-third of the 87 million Protestants who belong to denomination-affiliated churches in the United States are evangelicals, including fundamentalists and Pentecostals. When combined with conservative Catholics, this is potentially a very powerful voting bloc. "We expect to top out with 1 million Protestant members," Reed recently told Newsweek. "With Catholics, we can double that." Some evangelicals have relatively liberal social views, however, and not everyone who shares common ground with the coalition is an evangelical. So tapping new wells of support will require the sort of reorientation that Reed proposes.

Although Reed's outreach efforts have received good press, the reception within the movement has been less enthusiastic. The delegates at last year's Road to Victory meeting failed to endorse the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Reed favors. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot wrote: "The Christian Coalition was once going to offer at least modest support for NAFTA. Last week it decided to sit on its hands, amid private grumbling about Trilateral Commissions and other global conspiracies." The populist leanings of many coalition supporters, which help explain Buchanan's popularity within the group, make them leery of free trade and cool toward a cut in the capital-gains tax, which is seen as benefiting the affluent.

Reed's attempt to change the emphasis of the coalition is at odds with the attitudes of the rank-and-file activists, who are much more likely to get excited about issues like homosexuality than about taxes or trade. Sharon Gadd, an activist in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, works on Christian Coalition phone banks. She says the biggest reaction she has seen recently followed President Clinton's move to lift the ban on gays in the military. She expresses her motivation for being involved in the coalition this way: "It really boils down to morality."

Dean Arnold, another coalition member, edits a newsletter called Vision Chattanooga for the Chattanooga Resource Foundation, a "pro-family" organization. The foundation's priorities are illustrated by a recent success story: It helped raise money to purchase the building where the local abortion clinic was located. After buying the building, the new owners evicted the clinic.

Arnold says that while some members of the Christian Coalition concentrate on fiscal matters, most do not. "They're more interested in social issues," he says. "Christians involved in this movement are more interested in evangelism, in getting people saved, and in dealing with obvious, deliberate sin like killing babies and sexual immorality."

Former Reagan White House aide Gary Bauer, who now heads the Family Resource Council, spoke for such activists when he recently told a gathering in Chattanooga that if the next crop of Republican presidential candidates does not address social issues forcefully enough, Christian conservatives should run a candidate who will emphasize their concerns.

And in a September Washington Post piece, Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network, criticized Reed's approach. "Activists like myself find this strategy short-sighted and, in appearance, unprincipled," he wrote. Noting that the Christian right had recently won some minor victories, he added: "We think it is a curious time to divert our focus from the bedrock issues of the pro-family movement for the sake of unrelated (though important) issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement and health care reform."

The Christian Coalition's fundraising appeals reflect the power of those "bedrock issues." Despite Reed's attempted makeover, they remain focused on topics that appeal to religious conservatives who feel they are on the losing side of a culture war. A recent six-page letter to supporters signed by Robertson mentions tax hikes and pork-barrel spending, but most of the space is devoted to abortion, school prayer, and homosexuality. "America (which was once a predominantly Christian nation) has become a largely anti-Christian pagan nation," Robertson declares, "and our government has become a weapon the radical Left now uses against Christians and religious people….You and I, working together with millions of Christian voters, can turn America back from its headlong plunge into moral chaos."

This sort of talk reflects the original motivation for evangelical political activism, a relatively new phenomenon. The evangelical movement, which has roots in John Wesley's 18th-century Methodism, emphasizes the need for each individual to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ in order to assure salvation. Fundamentalism, a subset of evangelical Protestantism, grew out of the theological controversies of the late 19th century.

After the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, which directly challenged the story of creation as told in Genesis, Protestants split into two broad groups. One group accepted evolutionary theory and a critical approach to the Bible; these liberals also tended to accept the "social gospel," which emphasizes charity and political action as ways of fulfilling the Christian mission. The other group, the fundamentalists, insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible, which they viewed as the literal word of God, and emphasized saving souls as the primary task of Christians. Unlike their liberal counterparts, they eschewed political action.

This remained true through the first half of the 20th century. But after the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s, fundamentalists—together with their more-moderate counterparts, the evangelicals—became politically involved. They were interested not in economics but in school prayer and sexuality, the subjects of two landmark Supreme Court decisions. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that organized prayers in public schools were unconstitutional. Since then, the Court has expanded that decision to include nearly all religious activities in the public arena. In 1972, the Court in Roe v. Wade ruled that the right to abortion is protected by the Constitution.

In the wake of Roe and the sexual revolution, government authorities at all levels began to subsidize activities that offended conservative Christians, from abortion to condom distribution in public schools. The religious right has tried to turn back what its members see as a state endorsement of immorality. Its main concerns have been abortion, homosexual rights, and public-school curricula (especially sex education and the teaching of evolution). Members of the religious right may differ on issues like free trade and the minimum wage, but they are united on abortion, teen sex, and homosexuality. Here they stand apart not only from liberals but from many Americans who share common ground with religious conservatives on economic issues.

Many Americans fear that the Christian right, if it had its way, would compel everyone to follow its moral standards. This fear is reinforced by the press, which tends to view fundamentalists (and evangelicals generally) as unsophisticated prudes, straight out of H.L. Mencken's accounts of the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee. In a 1993 Washington Post story about opposition to Clinton's attempt to lift the military ban on gays, reporter Michael Weisskopf wrote that evangelical political activists are generally "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." Although many surveys have shown that evangelicals and fundamentalists have the same education and income as the rest of the U.S. population, this image persists.

It doesn't help that conservative Christian activists often speak in terms of "winning a government for Christ," the sort of expression that sounds scary to people outside the fundamentalist subculture. Says Arnold, the Chattanooga activist: "I am motivated because I've given my life to Jesus Christ completely and totally, and Jesus Christ is the ruler of the nations, and that concept has been robbed, not only from me as a Christian and not only from the Christian church today, but it has been robbed from our country that understood Jesus Christ is the ruler of the nations. We are the most prosperous country in the history of mankind, and the most influential, and the most free because of the fact that we were founded on that concept….And so, I'm angry about that. I'm angry that we've been defrauded."

Reed's kinder, gentler strategy is an attempt to relieve the discomfort caused by such rhetoric. It's also an attempt to counter left-liberal activists who portray the coalition as a grave threat to constitutional democracy. People for the American Way, which was founded by Norman Lear to fight the now-defunct Moral Majority, says it "monitors" the Christian Coalition's activities, language usually reserved for groups with violent tendencies. The Montana Human Rights Commission has labeled the Christian Coalition and other "pro-family" groups religious "extremists," the same classification given to organizations such as the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan.

This demonization of the Christian right, and of Pat Robertson in particular, was apparent in Virginia's state elections last fall. The Democrats attempted to discredit Republican candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general by tying them to Robertson and the Christian Coalition. But although Mike Farris, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, had been head of the Moral Majority in Washington state, he was never a Robertson crony. His opponent, Donald Beyer, wrongly claimed that Farris was treasurer for Robertson's presidential campaign in 1988, when Farris supported Jack Kemp.

Neither George Allen, the Republican candidate for governor, nor James S. Gilmore III, the Republican candidate for attorney general, had strong ties to the Christian right. Nor did they toe the Christian Coalition line on abortion. The Republicans used the Democratic obsession with Robertson to their advantage, arguing that the attacks were intended to avoid discussion of substantive issues. Farris received a surprising 46 percent of the vote, while Allen and Gilmore both won by double-digit margins.

The Democrats' tactics in Virginia reflect a widespread fear that the Christian right is hijacking the Republican Party. In the March 1993 Playboy, journalist Joe Conason warns: "Should the Christian right succeed in taking over the Republican Party, it will inherit an extremely powerful apparatus. Such a party, running against the usually fractious and disorganized Democrats, is a chilling prospect."

Such fears are based partly on the Christian Coalition's reputation for "stealth" campaigning. In 1990, the group helped numerous evangelical activists win local school-board elections, especially in Southern California. Instead of directly participating in political debates, the candidates ran low-profile campaigns, distributing coalition "voter guides" in local evangelical churches. About 40 percent of them were elected. But the way they won created the impression that they were hiding "a radical agenda behind a back-to-basics mask," as Tom Teepen of the Atlanta Constitution wrote.

An elated Reed declared, "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." He says he now regrets those remarks, and the coalition has largely abandoned stealth tactics. But the quote, frequently cited by opponents, still haunts him.

From the coalition's perspective, there are two major problems with stealth campaigning. It antagonizes voters, and the candidates it elects cannot claim a mandate to, say, introduce creationism or remove material they find offensive from the curriculum. Furthermore, they have not built the alliances that would help them achieve their goals and win re-election.

As a result, the coalition's candidates have not had much of an influence. The officials elected a few years ago either have since been defeated or are on the defensive. Kenneth L. Woodward, writing in the May 17 Newsweek, reported that the coalition's push to dominate the nation's 16,000 school boards has fizzled. He also noted that boards with conservative Christian majorities have generally made few if any changes in the schools they oversee.

To have a significant impact, the Christian Coalition will have to overcome the problems created by its early tactics. More important, it will have to convince a skeptical public that it is not a threat to individual liberty, that its agenda is not one of religious intolerance.

In truth, evangelicals differ on the extent to which the law should reflect Christian values. For example, although they all believe that heterosexual marriage is the only proper context for sex, most would leave such matters to the individual. On the other hand, a minority among the Reconstructionists, themselves a minority within the evangelical movement, believe the state should enforce religious law, including the death penalty for homosexuality and abortion.

Reed is eager to distance the Christian Coalition from such theocrats. "We want to assure people that we do not want to legislate our theology," he says in Robertson's new book, The Turning Tide. The coalition supports a ban on abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother's life; opposes anti-discrimination laws and legal marriage for homosexuals; and favors vigorous enforcement of obscenity laws to close down stores that specialize in sexually explicit material. But it does not seek to regulate private, noncommercial sex acts involving adults.

Reed tries to put a mainstream spin on the coalition's social agenda when he addresses a general audience. "If you are a Christian," he says in The Turning Tide, "don't expect to use the language of the Bible study and the church in the public arena." He tells REASON, "The Christian Coalition is not a church, and the Christian Coalition is not a religious institution, in terms of being a ministry. It is a public-policy organization….In that particular capacity, I'm not seeking to convert people or preach the Gospel. I'm seeking to espouse public-policy views."

This secular approach leaves Reed open to criticism from within the movement. In an October Washington Post piece, Charlotte Allen, an evangelical journalist, criticized secular conservatives who offer utilitarian arguments for traditional values, arguing that they are out of touch with "the church-going conservative rank-and-file." Although Reed is himself an evangelical, he appeals to the practical benefits of tradition rather than biblical authority, sounding more like a neoconservative than a fundamentalist.

"I think the government ought to be involved in strengthening the role of parents, rather than undermining them," he says. "I think that most of the sex education and the distribution of birth control devices in the schools runs contrary to the authority of parents….Obviously, we've always had teenage pregnancy, we've always had abortion, and we've always had the social pathologies that have afflicted our young people, but the reason we were able to minimize them prior to the mid- and late-1960s is that the church, the home, and the schools, the most important institutions of acculturation, were all delivering a mutually reinforced and consistent message, which was that sexual activity was something that was best abstained from prior to marriage.

"We maintained that message, realizing that there were going to be young people who diverged from that message. But as a general rule, we had less teen pregnancy, we had less sexually transmitted disease, we had fewer abortions. And today, after spending roughly $3 billion on so-called safe-sex programs, primarily through schools, we see an epidemic of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease."

Reed argues that government is not simply neutral on questions of sexual morality; it is teaching the values of the sexual revolution. "I think we ought to be real careful about the government imposing a morality on children that is inconsistent with the teaching that they're receiving at home," he says.

As Reed's complaint suggests, the activism of conservative Christians is to some extent a reaction against government encroachment. Anita Bryant's 1977 campaign against gay rights, for example, came after the Miami City Council passed an ordinance forbidding organizations, including Christian schools, from discriminating against homosexuals. Since then, other jurisdictions have followed suit, restricting the rights of religious people to set and enforce moral standards for their teachers and pastors. Conservative Christians worry that Congress will pass a similar measure. The many heated controversies about what should be taught in public schools, what should be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and who should pay for abortions also grow out of actions by the state.

But when conservative Christians object to having immorality "crammed down their throats," they are often talking about movies and TV shows, commercials and billboards, fetishist conventions and Gay Pride parades. Many of them would like to restrict these and other private actions. And abortion, of course, will always be a burning issue for those, like Pat Robertson, who consider it a form of murder. Reed's makeover can only go so far without triggering a mass exodus. On the other hand, Reed is probably right that a narrowly focused Christian Coalition is doomed to a marginal role in our political system.

This dilemma suggests that the early fundamentalists knew what they were doing when they refused to get involved in politics. In 1992 Cal Thomas, a former vice president of the Moral Majority, wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times in which he argued that conservative Christians should not rely on politics to change the moral climate of the country.

"Preachers need to get back to their primary mission, which is to build up their members spiritually and morally and to attract new members to a life, a cause and a kingdom not of this world," he wrote. "I don't like trickle-down morality. If a nation is not ready to accept a universal standard of righteousness, no President or Congress can impose it….Ministers who think that government alone, or government mostly, can accomplish their legitimate objectives might wish to reconsider this great biblical truth: 'Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.'"

Thomas is no libertarian, of course, and many Americans would not like a society built on the tenets of evangelical Protestantism, no matter how it were achieved. But by asking evangelicals to reconsider their relatively recent foray into politics, he offers an alternative solution to Ralph Reed's dilemma.

William L. Anderson teaches economics at Covenant College and Chattanooga Christian School.

School Duel

Taking Credit in New York's curriculum controversy

In the months leading up to last spring's school-board elections in New York City, People for the American Way warned that the Christian Coalition was sponsoring "stealth campaigns" for the candidates it backed, working "feverishly under a cloak of secrecy." The American Civil Liberties Union called the elections "the greatest civil liberties crisis in the history of New York City." The New YorkDaily News weighed in with headlines in large block letters above pictures of Pat Robertson and stories that told of fear in the gay community.

This picture of fundamentalists taking over the schools of the nation's largest city bore little resemblance to reality. But it showed that opponents of the Christian Coalition share with its supporters a tendency to exaggerate the group's power and influence. Organizations like People for the American Way need enemies like the Christian Coalition to symbolize know-nothing religious extremism and oppressive prudery. (Conversely, the coalition needs enemies like PAW to symbolize arrogant secular humanism and anti-Christian bigotry.) Playing up the menace represented by the other side helps to raise money, rouse the troops, and attract attention.

The controversy over what New York's public schools should teach kids about sex was an ideal stage for a stylized confrontation between PAW and the Christian Coalition. It took place in a major media center, and it involved issues close to each side's heart. Most important, the battle was already joined before either group got involved. All they had to do was charge in and take credit.

In 1992 New York's public schools introduced two initiatives, both supported by Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez and Mayor David Dinkins, that generated intense opposition among conservatives. The first was a series of pamphlets prepared as part of the AIDS curriculum for the city's junior and senior high schools. One pamphlet, Teens Have the Right, included a "bill of rights" with declarations like: "I have the right to decide whether to have sex and who to have it with," "I have the right to use protection when I have sex," and "I have the right to buy and use condoms."

Other innovative ideas included raps like, "A night full of love, just you, me, and a glove." The pamphlet said that "guys can get used to the feel of condoms while masturbating" and declared: "Condoms can be sexy! They come in different colors, sizes, flavors, and styles to be more fun for you and your partner." Other pamphlets were even more explicit. It is clear that many parents would disapprove of these materials, especially since they were coupled with the distribution of condoms.

The second controversial initiative was a new curriculum called "Children of the Rainbow." Some parents objected to an environmental education section that suggested teachers should have their students "pledge themselves" to the earth. The most criticized part of the curriculum, however, was the "family structures" section, which reminded teachers that some students have gay or lesbian parents and urged them to adjust their lessons accordingly. Contrary to the popular impression, the section did not encourage children to become gay, nor did it say that youngsters would be required to read the books Heather Has Two MommiesDaddy's Roommate, or Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, which attempt to explain homosexuality to young children. (It did suggest that teachers look at the books.)

Still, "Children of the Rainbow" was controversial enough to stir a conservative backlash. In addition to a city wide Board of Education, New York's public schools are supervised by 32 local boards with nine members each. The Queens District 24 Board, in a rebellion led by board member Irene Impellizzeri, refused to implement the new curriculum. Fernandez dismissed the board but in the process lost support from the Board of Education, which fired him in early 1993. The school-board elections followed three months later.

Both Christian Coalition backers and opponents would like people to believe that the organization was at the forefront of the effort to elect conservatives to the board seats. But the coalition's participation consisted mainly of printing and distributing "voter guides" in English and Spanish. The guides listed candidates in each district race and gave their responses to eight questions. Predictably, the questions covered implementation of the Rainbow Curriculum, the AIDS initiative, and school prayer. But they also asked about support for "stressing basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic over social programs." The pamphlet was dominated by the views of conservative candidates, since most of the liberals refused to respond.

The Christian Coalition received some favorable publicity in the form of a New York Times article on the Rev. J. Terry Twerell, who spearheaded the coalition's New York efforts. Other press coverage, especially in the Daily News, was not so kind. Some groups passed out flyers with Robertson's picture that warned of dire consequences should the conservatives be elected.

People for the American Way waged a relentless campaign of its own, issuing reports and news releases that painted conspiratorial pictures of the religious right: Those tricky fundamentalists are taking over, right under our noses! This secret operation might have worked, PAW reported, had it not been for "a persistent research and reporting effort headed by People For's New York office."

According to a PAW press release, the religious right's cover was not blown until February 1993. Yet theDaily News carried a story detailing the coalition's coming involvement in the New York races, including interviews with Christian Coalition officials, in its January 3 edition. The article did not indicate any attempts by the coalition officials to be evasive. In truth, the coalition was quite open about its involvement.

The real question is not whether the coalition was honest but whether it was effective. One of the conservative candidates, Robert Bell of District 15, says the "perception of a well-oiled machine for the Christian Coalition" was inaccurate. "The Christian Coalition only distributed their booklets, and didn't do a good job at that," he says, noting that many of the people who received the pamphlets were not registered to vote. "I don't think they did much. They rode in and announced that they were here and tried to take credit for what happened."

Bell says most of the conservative candidates were homegrown and were not part of the Christian right's natural constituency. Many were Catholic. Although the Christian Coalition made some publicity points by receiving the endorsement of Cardinal John O'Connor, New York City has never been a stronghold of Christian conservatism. "Nobody on our slate of candidates [in District 15] was associated with the Christian Coalition, but we were tapped with that title," Bell says.

After the votes were counted, both sides claimed victory. The coalition's newspaper, Christian American, had a large front-page headline, "VICTORY IN THE BIG APPLE: Pro-family Candidates Win School Board Posts." PAW issued a press release asserting that it had led "progressives" to victory, although it lamented the fact that "large blocs of Latino voters…supported Religious Right-backed candidates."

While PAW's literature painted the conservatives as a monolithic Christian Coalition bloc, Barbara Handman, director of PAW's New York office, admits that the coalition was not the instigator of the conservative backlash. She says the conservative candidates were "already in place" when "the Christian Coalition recognized that they could enter this fray." In fact, she is reluctant to give the coalition any credit for having influenced the elections. The monster portrayed by PAW before the elections looks decidedly tame in retrospect.

William L. Anderson