For years, the Christian Right was treated as a joke. Jim and Tammy Bakker, not to mention Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson were (and still are) the stuff of late-night TV comedy. Those of us who cover the Christian Right faced skepticism that this was a movement of political consequence. Since the 1992 Republican convention, however, everyone is writing and talking about the Christian Right, its growth and its political power. Largely unreported however, are its problems. The "stealth" tactics used by the Christian Right over the past few years worked well to conceal hidden strengths, but they also concealed its weaknesses.
More moderate than though (for now)
The political strategy of the Christian Right rightly assumes that the vast majority of the electorate is unsympathetic. This is why their strategy has a major "stealth" component. It is also why when this, and other reporters, exposed the theocratic views, covert modus operandi, and militarist language of Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, the Coalition hired a public relations firm to reshape not its program, but its image. The coalition's executive director, Ralph Reed, now scurries between TV and radio talk shows, and newspaper interviews, broadcasting his claim that the Christian Coalition really does respect religious pluralism, and is reaching out to "the mainstream," or "casting a wider net." Reed is emphasizing Republican "pocketbook issues" because the Christian Right social issues don't have a wide enough appeal.
Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network, recognizes the hypocrisy in this. Writing in the Washington Post recently, he suggested that Reed may have "become a slave to public opinion polls and statistics."
This split between the ideologue and the political operatives is an inherent weakness in this movement. By appealing to the mainstream, they risk alienating their conservative religious base. But there are limits to expansion without allies, which so far, are few and tentative.
The Coalition's ballyhooed (and virtually nonexistent) outreach to blacks, for example, has produced little beyond their alliance of convenience with the opportunistic Roy Innis of CORE, whose collaboration with the neo-fascist and anti-Semitic Lyndon LaRouche discredited Innis with most of the black community.
Concern about how few blacks were present at the 1992 Coalition national conference was even raised from the floor. Gary Bauer (of the Family Research Council, who was at the podium) said he hoped that the 1993 conference would include "a third or a fourth, or a fifth of this audience being our black brothers and sisters." However, there was about the same number of blacks as 1992, (about a dozen) while the number of whites increased by about a thousand.
There will undoubtedly be few black siblings in the Christian Coalition family as long as Billy McCormack (a longtime supporter of ex-Nazi, ex-Klansman David Duke) remains one of the only four directors of the Christian Coalition — along with Pat Robertson, his son Gordon, and Dick Weinhold of the Texas Christian Coalition.
Robertson just completed his multi- million dollar law school building at the sprawling Regent University campus. Besides the 350 law students, the state- of-the-art facility houses the American Center for Law and Justice, Robertson's answer to the ACLU.
Regent Law has a provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association. However, problems have broken out which may sink the school's chances for full accreditation.
Robertson wants to groom a generation of"Christian" lawyers to litigate and legislate their way to theocracy. It is worth recalling that the school changed its name from CBN University to Regent in the 1980s, to better reflect its mission. Robertson said at the time that a "regent" is one who governs in the absence of a sovereign."
"One day, if we read the Bible correctly," he predicted, "we will rule and reign along with our sovereign, Jesus Christ. So this is a kingdom institution to teach people how they may enter into the privilege that they have as God's representatives on the face of the earth."
Herb Titus, the founding dean, was recently fired in an apparent effort to make the school appear more mainstream to the ABA. Titus taught common law and constitutional law — alongside the works of R. J. Rushdoony, the progenitor of Christian Reconstructionism who advocates replacing the "heresy of democracy" with biblical law.
However, the firing has led to concern about the stability of the school. In a rare action, eight of Regent's 14 full-time professors have filed a complaint with the ABA. The Virginian-Pilot reported that when Robertson announced Titus' replacement, he publicly warned faculty and students against"ongoing rebellion." In a draconian measure, campus security guards received orders to collar any students seen wearing "Reunite us with Titus" T-shirts. This is, of course, the standard response of an autocrat whose views or actions are questioned, and exactly why the faculty and the ABA are concerned about standards of tenure and academic freedom at Regent Law.
Titus, meanwhile, is considering a lawsuit. Marilyn Titus, Herb's wife, told the Freedom Writer that her husband is trying to iron out the disagreement "according to Matthew 18," a biblical pattern to resolve conflicts, but Robertson is unwilling to talk. A suit appears imminent.
A pattern of abuse?
Meanwhile, the Robertson empire may be in jeopardy of losing tax-exempt status held by its core organizations, and lead to its ultimate collapse.
The IRS, along with a Congressional committee, is currently investigating 19 television ministries including CBN.
Recently, the Virginian-Pilot reported that a for-profit business jointly owned by Pat Robertson and the nonprofit CBN is under scrutiny because of possible conflict of interest between the charitable role of CBN and Robertson's pecuniary interests. Robertson reportedly ordered the use of CBN personnel in dealing with a problem with the business. This may be an example of what the commissioner of the IRS recently told Congress of a "pattern of abuse" in the non-profit tax status of TV ministries "that cause us concern." The problem is the misuse of the resources of tax-exempt charitable organizations by "insiders" for private, personal benefit.
Another example that might fit a pattern of abuse was when, in the 1980s, CBN funneled millions of dollars into Robertson's non-profit, tax-exempt Freedom Council, which in turn used the money to further his presidential ambitions. The Freedom Council shut down in the face of federal investigations.
The Robertson organization often functions as an integrated unit, carrying out a common mission, without regard to the rules by which the rest of society plays.
Robertson wants his law school to be accredited by the ABA, but apparently ignores or interprets away its standards when they are inconvenient.
Robertson wants tax exemptions for his organizations, but appears to be unwilling or unable to adhere to the rules by which everyone else is required to play. In fact, when I attended the Christian Coalition's first two Road to Victory conferences, it was apparent to me that the coalition was flaunting its provisional non-profit 501 (c)(4) tax status by functioning as a blatantly electoral entity. The IRS is investigating the coalition as well.
Robertson claims that evangelical Christians are persecuted, victims of religious discrimination. Yet Robertson's hotel, the Founders Inn, adjacent to CBN studios and Regent U, practices religious discrimination with a policy of hiring born-again Christians only.
The numbers game
The Christian Coalition routinely uses inflated statistics and makes unsubstantiated claims about itself. Sources inside the Christian Coalition have informed the Freedom Writer, for example, that the chapter and membership figures are inflated. While the Coalition's growth has been genuinely impressive, there is absolutely no evidence to support its claims of 10,000 new members a week — nor that there are 850 chapters, or, as the Christian Science Monitor unquestioningly reported, "450,000 dues-paying members." In New York state, for example, a number of chapters have fallen apart or are moribund. These are not, of course, the kinds of things the Coalition issues in the form of press releases.
At the 1992 Road to Victory conference in Virginia Beach, Reed declared that they would have 3,000 delegates at the 1993 conference in Washington, DC. They got about 2,200 unimpressive for a group claiming 10,000 new members a week. What's more, attendance was determined by whomever had the time and money to come, rather than as elected representatives of a larger body, as the term delegate implies.
While it is important to take the Christian Right seriously, it is as important to avoid exaggeration as it is to avoid underestimation. While unique in many respects, the Christian Right suffers the same kinds of problems as any other political movement — burnout, deaths, children, jobs, members moving away, internal conflicts, hypocrisy, failures of leadership, and inability to live up to its own propaganda.
The days of the religious right as a joke are mostly gone. It's also time to dispel the myth of the religious right as a juggernaut.