Christian Coalition no evangelical monolith

— The most frequently mentioned role model was Ronald Reagan, not Jesus Christ. And the devil drew less attention than Jesse Ventura.

There were exhibits for the National Rifle Association and for a committee raising money to re-elect the House Republican managers who prosecuted President Clinton, but none for Bible publishers.

Recorded martial music took the place of hymn-singing.

The annual conference last weekend of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition was unlike other evangelical events, but American religion has produced few major groups that so openly play politics.

These are turbulent times for the decade-old Religious Right organization. This year Robertson reasserted direct command and went to work on what he calls a ''housecleaning'' of the national staff. He then doubled full-time state directors to 30 and aims to have one in every state before those millions of voter guides go out next year.

''Fund-raising is not where it ought to be,'' Robertson acknowledges, though he refuses to reveal income data. He says coalition debt reached $3.5 million but has been whittled to a ''manageable'' $2 million.

The coalition had to split into two organizations, one tax exempt and one not, after losing a long struggle with the Internal Revenue Service and Barry Lynn's Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Robertson says the mailing list of contributors contains 2 million names, but Lynn contends the core constituency is only 425,000. Registration for the conference was 3,500, compared with 4,000 in 1998.

Nonetheless, Republicans still consider the coalition a strategic asset, and their top brass in Washington turned out: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and party chairman Jim Nicholson, who treated the coalition as an arm of the GOP.

''We can win the White House and the Congress and then go on the offense for a change,'' Nicholson preached. ''Working together, we can make history.''

Similarly, Robertson declaimed, ''If we aren't in the field next election, the Republicans will lose. We will be the margin of victory in the key states.''

Democrats Bill Bradley and Al Gore declined invitations to this unfriendly venue, as did Republicans John McCain and Pat Buchanan, no Robertson favorites. But all other GOP candidates cleared their schedules to appear.

As each spoke to a ballroom packed with placard-waving enthusiasts, there were complex interweavings of faith and politics.

The crowd welcomed Religious Right favorite Gary Bauer, even though rumors had forced him to profess fidelity to his wife. Robertson was unimpressed, citing in an interview biblical grounds why Bauer should have heeded now-departed advisors' warnings that spending too much time alone with a young female aide looked bad.

Proverbs 24:6, Robertson noted, says, ''... in multitude of counsellors there is safety.''

Elizabeth Dole, offering heartfelt Christian testimony along with her platform, drew less enthusiasm than Steve Forbes' hard-right pronouncements.

The main event was George W. Bush's visitation. Except on abortion (''every child born and unborn must be protected by law and welcomed to life''), the Texas governor soft-pedaled the Religious Right agenda. He was repaid with lusty cheers anyway, thanks to his front-runner's glow and the blessings of Robertson.

Doug Wead, a Texas-based evangelical author and unpaid Bush adviser, puts the coalition in context: ''The media give the impression that the Christian Coalition is a monolithic organization that represents the rank and file of the Evangelical movement.''

Despite its visibility, he says, it is ''only one group among many ... (and) there are huge blocs that do not participate at all.''

Opposing the Religious Right, while it may win applause inside the Beltway, will not help win the Republican nomination, Wead says. ''And in the general election there are simply too many born-again Christians.''

Smart politicos go by the numbers, he observes, and a recent Gallup poll shows 48 percent of Americans call themselves ''born-again or evangelical.'' The number has risen steadily since 1976 when candidate Jimmy Carter famously professed his faith.

Yet Robertson, a Democratic senator's son, says disappointment with Carter's presidency propelled him into the Republican Party and political organizing. Besides that, ''I saw just a steamrolling liberal animus against the Christian values moving though the court system and into society.''

Robertson-style activism has lately come under attack not only from the likes of Lynn but former Moral Majority leaders Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas. They assert in a recent book that fellow Christians should stick to evangelism. Robertson scoffs, ''The building is on fire, and to say Christians should not grab a hose is stupid.''

Ralph Reed, who built Christian Coalition into an effective organization before he became a political consultant, maintains that politics can be just as holy a vocation as preaching. ''Done properly, it elevates issues that are otherwise neglected,'' he said in an interview.

Disputing Dobson and Thomas, Reed says the Religious Right has had an impact and will do more. It took a 55-year crusade, he notes, to end slavery and 70 years to win the vote for women.

''These people who engaged the political system the past two decades are not going to leave it,'' he says.

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