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The Nation

Christian Coalition Is Splintering

The national grass-roots political group has been expanding its mission -- and, say breakaway chapters, it's `drifting to the left' and losing focus.

September 05, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When Congress was debating bills on embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage back in May, an e-mail from the Christian Coalition of America appeared in activists' inboxes.

"Christian Coalition Announces Support for 'Net Neutrality' to Prevent Giant Phone and Cable Companies From Discriminating Against Web Sites," it said.

For John W. Giles, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, the e-mail was yet another sign that the famous political powerhouse of the religious right had strayed from its founding mission: defending marriage, strengthening the family and protecting unborn human life.

"The Christian Coalition is drifting to the left," Giles said. "There's a new vision -- and we're not part of it."

Last month, the Christian Coalition of Alabama announced that it was severing ties with the national organization.

It's one of a growing number of chapters to express frustration as the Christian Coalition broadens its mission to include issues such as so-called Internet neutrality, the minimum wage and the environment.

In March, the Christian Coalition of Iowa announced it was changing its name to Iowa Christian Alliance. Steve Scheffler, the president of the group, said the national organization, which is struggling to raise funds and is accumulating debt, had lost focus and become "an albatross around our necks."

In July, the Christian Coalition of Ohio pulled out too.

The breakaway of Alabama -- a strong affiliate with 1,900 volunteers and links with more than 13,000 churches -- underscores the grass-roots decline of the organization credited with helping the Republican Party consolidate power in Washington in the 1990s.

Founded in 1989 by Republican televangelist Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition became politically influential under the direction of Ralph Reed, distributing millions of voter guides in churches and coordinating major voter drives.

Today, neither of those high-profile leaders is affiliated with the organization -- Reed left in 1997, Robertson in 2001. And though it continues to claim large numbers of followers, in the last decade its annual budget has plummeted, from about $26 million down to $1 million.

Despite the loss of the state chapters and its limited finances, the organization remains strong, according to its president, Roberta Combs.

"This is not the demise of the Christian Coalition," Combs said in a telephone interview last week. "Three disillusioned state chairmen have pulled out, but no one is indispensable. The Christian Coalition is a household name."

Combs said the fallout with the states began after some chapters refused to follow new regulations over distribution of voter guides and political surveys.

After a long dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over the coalition's tax-exempt status, the national office reached an agreement last year that requires it to allow candidates to write up to 25 words of explanation on each issue in the voter guides. In January, a lawyer for the national office sent letters to state chapters reminding them that, under the new agreement, they had to submit all voter guides for national approval.

Last month, a few days before Giles announced the Alabama withdrawal, Combs said, she learned Giles had distributed surveys that had not been approved and that did not include spaces for candidates' explanations. Immediately, she said, she sent a letter to the Alabama chapter breaking the affiliation.

Whether the national or the state group initiated the separation, the loss of Alabama -- where 92% of residents are Christian and 62% voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 election -- is a symbolic setback for the Christian Coalition, which has long vaunted its grass-roots base.

While the coalition continues to describe itself on its website as "the largest and most active conservative grassroots political organization in America," many political activists say it is now active in only a handful of states, notably Georgia and Florida.

"Today, the Christian Coalition is a shell of its former self," said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "It has been and gone as a force in American politics."

At its peak in 1996, the group said it had a grass-roots network of 2.8 million people in nearly 50 states.

Last week, Combs described the organization as having "close to 3 million supporters" and chapters in 50 states; a day later, her daughter Michele Combs, the organization's spokeswoman, said it had 2.5 million members, defining members as those "who are active or donate money."

These figures are disputed. Josh Glasstetter, a spokesman for liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, said that the organization had long inflated its membership and that its budget suggested it had fewer than 300,000 members.

In part, the organization's decline can be attributed to the difficulty of rallying conservative Christians when Republicans already control Congress and the White House.

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