After President Bush concluded his keynote address to the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition on September 11, 1992 the television crews and the print reporters from the national media packed up and called it a night. The president's remarks had deviated little from his standard campaign speech and, in any case, the reporters had no choice but to leave when he did. Once the president finished, the remaining two days of the Coalition's second annual Road to Victory strategy session were completely closed to the press.
As one observer discovered by attending the local conference undercover, there is ample reason for the tight secrecy surrounding Mr. Robertson's controversial organization, whose weekend proceedings attracted more than 1,500 Christian conservative activists from across the nation. For it was after the presidential entourage departed that the Coalition unfolded its ambitious plans for influencing the November election — including a massive literature campaign in New York and other Northeastern states — as well as a long-term, highly sophisticated and technically advanced plan for winning control of the Republican Party.
But even those reporters who covered the president's visit to Mr. Robertson's Virginia Beach, Virginia headquarters were excluded from what was probably its most significant moment. Inside the walled estate where the televangelist resides, the president greeted about 100 major donors to the Coalition and other invited guests at a private reception preceding his public appearance.
There, in a rose garden by a pond with black swans gliding by, as a harpist played Pachelbel's Canon in D Minor, Mr. Robertson personally introduced his 1988 presidential rival to the members of the Christian Coalition's "Inner Circle" while warmly describing to the president their "help" and "contributions." The televangelist expects his grassroots political organization to raise and spend over $13 million this year. The friendly gathering at the Robertson mansion contrasted sharply with the hostility toward Mr. Bush expressed by Mr. Robertson in his recent book The New World Order, which termed the president an unwitting agent of "Lucifer." Its cynicism about Mr. Bush and his wing of the Republican Party was echoed the next morning by right-wing activist Paul Weyrich, a key ally of Mr. Robertson who heads the Free Congress Foundation in Washington.
Outlining the bitter faction fight that is shaking the G.O.P., Mr. Weyrich bluntly declared, "I support the man who spoke last night. I'll vote for him. But let's not have any illusions about what all of this is about. [G.O.P. moderates] wouldn't be caught dead with us under any other circumstances. And the only reason they come here is because they're in trouble — and we bail them out — and then they turn their backs on us and give us nothing in return!" His voice rising, Mr. Weyrich concluded, "And we can no longer stand for it!" as the assembled activists cheered loudly.
Mr. Bush's strategists say privately that they can use Mr. Robertson and his army of Christian Coalition supporters to win re-election while keeping a safe distance from their more extreme ideas. (Seated next to Mr. Bush on the dais was the Rev. Billy McCormack — one of four Christian Coalition national board members and Louisiana Christian Coalition director — who helped run ex-Klansman David Duke's 1991 campaign for governor.) In their view, to raise funds for the Coalition, as the president did during his visit, is to help finance a fall campaign that Mr. Robertson promised will feature the nationwide distribution of 40 million "pro-family" presidential voter guides that steer readers away from the Democratic ticket.
The Bush-Quayle organizers are also, no doubt, impressed by the breadth of the Coalition's reach, which has grown from its founding in 1989 to include 250,000 members of 550 county chapters in 49 states. Many of the voters the Coalition will seek to influence are culled from lists obtained from thousand of churches in its network, as well as from callers responding to commercials aired on Rush Limbaugh's nationally syndicated daily radio talk show.
According to Mr. Robertson and his aides, however, it is the Christian Coalition that is using the Bush campaign to achieve its 1996 goal of gaining control of the Republican Party. At the Virginia Beach conference, Coalition officials described in detail the huge computerized voter data base being compiled by it organizers, as well as a closed circuit satellite hookup, known as National Empowerment Television, that the Coalition recently inaugurated in cooperation with Mr. Weyrich's foundation. It will allow Coalition leaders to communicate regularly and rapidly with their disciplined activists, facilitating their participation in lobbying and elections. So far, said Mr. Weyrich, "it is working beyond my wildest expectations." "We want to build the largest voter file in America," said Guy Rodgers, the Coalition's national field director. Consisting of anti-abortion and anti-gay voters, these files will contain a variety of other personal and political information so that "we not only know who they are, but what precinct they vote in. That, right there," he slowly intoned, "is the ammo for Uzis."
"One of the problems we've had as Christians," Mr. Rodgers said, extending the metaphor, "is we've pointed Uzis at the opposition, but when we've pulled the trigger there've been no bullets." Among the chief targets of the Coalition's wrath is the homosexual community, subject of much discussion during the conference. "Why do you think the homosexuals have made so many inroads in the last few years?" Mr. Rodgers asked. "Because they have so many people? No! Not only do they not have a lot of people, they are dying off, and they're dying young." Homosexuals were gaining political power because they vote en masse.
Mr. Robertson's focus on such highly charged issues as homosexuality and abortion has already attracted enough support to win control of a dozen Republican state committees, including those in Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Virginia and Washington. The Coalition is also close to winning the G.O.P. in California. Its growing influence was reflected in the 1992 Republican platform, which distressed more than a few of the party's more moderate members at the Houston convention in August.
Still the Christian right-wingers perceive themselves as second-class citizens within the Republican Party. Though they protest the notion that they are "infiltrating" the party — "We are just good American citizens who want to get involved," said Mr. Rodgers — that is the unmistakable impression left by certain training materials distributed at the Virginia Beach conference. A "county action plan" published by the Pennsylvania Christian Coalition and obtained by the Freedom Writer reveals a covert modus operandi. It says that each chapter must have a "Republican Party Liaison" who is to "become directly involved in the local Republican central committee so you are an insider. This way you can get a copy of the local committee rules and a feel for who is in the current local Republican committee." Above all, the manual urges, "You should never mention the name Christian Coalition in Republican circles."
While the Pennsylvania chapter is among the most developed, the Coalition is making inroads even in more liberal communities in New York. Fred Gioffre, a former council member in the town of Rye, who is now director of information services for Westchester County, was among the New Yorkers attending the Virginia Beach conference. In 1988, he ran unsuccessfully for county clerk and currently chairs the Rye Town Republican Committee. Mr. Gioffre told The Observer that he, like other Coalition members, wants to "alert the American people to the assault on family values...There's been a blurring of the line between good and evil." He also disputed the idea of a separated church and state, calling it "a myth."
New York Christian Coalition director Jeff Baran said that the group will distribute up to a million "voter guides" in the state, contrasting the views of Mr. Bush with those of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, as well as those of Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato and Democrat Robert Abrams, on such issues as homosexuality, abortion, taxes and school prayer. The fliers, which are being produced at the organization's Virginia head- quarters, will be handed out through churches and Christian book stores beginning in "mid-to-late October," according the Mr. Baran. Although he declined to speculate on whether Mr. Abrams or Mr. D'Amato would be presented in the fliers as the more "pro-family" candidate, Mr. Gioffre was more forthright in saying that the group would be helping "President Bush and Senator D'Amato."
Such obvious partisanship has caused some experts — including officials of the Internal Revenue Service — to question the Christian Coalition's tax-exempt status as a nonprofit "social welfare" agency. The Washington Post recently reported that the IRS, is conducting an investigation that could lead to revocation of the Coalition's provisional exemption. But no action is likely until well after the November election.