It's sad but true that politics is sometimes a cynical business, one in which deceit often triumphs over sincerity, and fear prevails over hope. That's precisely what Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition seems to be relying on with its most recent repackaging of its political agenda — the so-called "Samaritan Project." Ralph Reed, the group's soon-to-be-departing executive director, introduced the project at a Washington, DC press conference in January, calling it a "bold and compassionate agenda to combat poverty and restore hope."
In fact, the only thing that's bold about the project is the audacity that it must have required of the Christian Coalition to construct such a transparent artifice. At the heart of the "new" agenda are the same basic proposals that the group has been promoting for years. Repackaged, to be sure, a few twists here and there, but the same goals, and the same effects. Take a look at the project's legislative components, item by item:
Item one: What the Christian Coalition describes in its materials as legislation to promote "strong families," is a program to pressure states to provide abstinence-only sex education in the schools, and to require a "waiting period" for divorce.
Item two: What the Christian Coalition describes as a program for "hope and opportunity scholarships" is another push for private school, including sectarian school vouchers. This time they dress up the package with concerns about the challenges of urban schools, but it's hard to miss the simple fact that the first beneficiaries of widespread implementation of a voucher program would be folks whose kids are already in such schools — many of the Christian Coalition's members, for example.
Item three: Here the Christian Coalition proposes something described very vaguely as a "safe neighborhood" plan. In so doing, the advocates of small government and the opponents of federal remedies urge the adoption of a plan to pass federal dollars to states as rewards for reductions in gang-related crime. In fairness, it's a new item on the Christian Coalition's agenda. It's also got the fingerprints of their pollsters all over it, and precious little in the way of specifics.
Item four: Comes now the money grab — a proposal for a $500 credit for charitable organizations, including churches, that serve the poor. Not a deduction, but a credit, so that it, first, hits the federal budget harder, and second, provides entirely unaccountable funding to all manner of institutions, including churches. The notion that public monies should be accountable to the public seems lost on the Christian Coalition, so eager is it to create a stream of taxpayer funding for religious institutions.
Item five: Empowerment Zones for urban areas. Vintage Reagan, not much new here.
Item six: Under the banner of "faith-based solutions," the Christian Coalition calls on government to "remove the obstacles that keep faith-based drug treatment programs from ministering to soul as well as body by allowing states to use private drug rehabilitation programs. Prohibit discrimination against faith-based drug treatment programs." Read closely, and again it develops that the Christian Coalition is calling for taxpayer funding for religious institutions. (Federal dollars can already flow to charities associated with churches — Catholic Charities is an enormous recipient. What those dollars can't be used to support — under current law — is religious instruction or proselytization. And a religious test cannot be applied by the charity in providing its services. That's what the Christian Coalition is trying to change.
Other items: That's the end of the legislative components of the Samaritan Project proper, but elsewhere in the same publication the Christian Coalition promotes still more of the same old thing: a "Christian Nation amendment" to the US Constitution, to permit state-sponsored prayer in schools, and even to allow states to declare official religions; more restrictions on family planning and on abortion rights; abolition of the Legal Services Corporation — which helps provide vital funding so that at least some poor people can have legal representation in civil matters before the courts — evictions, family law, etc.; and the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts, a longstanding agenda item.
In short, there's not much new in the agenda, the new rhetorical wardrobe notwithstanding.
So, why such a show? Simple. Last January, two prominent white Americans offered decidedly divergent visions of how to address racial tensions in America. Bill Clinton, in his inaugural address, offered a courageous challenge, urging Americans of all races to look within their hearts for the answers to the persistent plague of discrimination. By contrast, Haley Barbour, the departing head of the Republican National Committee urged party members to develop new ways to talk about the party's agenda so that it would appeal to minorities. No mention of reforming the party leadership's sometimes harsh stands on matters of civil rights and affirmative action; rather, Barbour called for a new vocabulary.
It is Haley Barbour to whom Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed are listening. And for good political reason. Exit polls from 1996 indicate that 85 percent of the African American vote went to Bill Clinton, making African Americans the single most cohesive voting bloc in the electorate. Indeed, African Americans were more likely to vote for Bill Clinton than self-proclaimed Republicans were to vote for Bob Dole! It's a simple matter of mathematics: if the Republican presidential nominee in the year 2000 can lose the African American vote by a three-to-one margin, he or she will still gain ground by comparison to Dole. If the nominee goes so far as to split the African American vote evenly, it'll translate to a four percentage point or greater pickup in the total vote. That could be devastating for Democrats, and that's exactly what Reed and Robertson are working toward.
The sad truth is that Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition's record of hostility to minorities couldn't be any clearer. Robertson, for one, has opposed every civil rights bill in memory. In 1991, the Christian Coalition gave its highest award to Sen. Jesse Helms, the man who led the campaign against a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and did so by impugning Dr. King's honor. Just last year, the Christian Coalition invested vast resources into supporting efforts to slash welfare, food stamps, Head Start, school lunches and more — all programs addressing some of the particular challenges confronting minorities in America today.
By using the language of racial reconciliation for political gain, the Christian Coalition does more than distort the political process. It cheapens genuine efforts by others to mend old wounds and build real trust. That will be among the chief legacies of Ralph Reed as he leaves the Christian Coalition.
Matt Freeman is a senior vice president at People For the American Way.
For a copy of a new report on the Christian Coalition's and the religious right's record on issues of concern to minorities and the poor, send $5 to The Religious Right on Civil Rights Report, People For the American Way, 2000 M Street, NW, #400, Washington, DC 20036. Or read the report for free at People For the American Way's web site.