The myth of A=M

voterguideIf access equals power and power equals money (A=P=M), then Monday’s Washington Post article on the near demise of the Christian Coalition left an unanswered question that probes deep into the true influence of evangelicals on the Bush Administration. Or perhaps it’s the connection of access and influence?

But first let me take issue with the story’s lead:

In an era when conservative Christians enjoy access and influence throughout the federal government, the organization that fueled their rise has fallen on hard times.

I know most liberals view the evangelical influence on the current White House as driven by the often idiotic comments of Pat Robertson, but please, how was the Christian Coalition the organization behind the rise of evangelicals in politics and the supposed grip the group has on national politics? How about not?

Try the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship for starters.

Founded 17 years ago by former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the organization is mired in debt and internal conflict. Part of the article’s hypothesis is that the coalition is on hard times due to its success. As an opposition group, the coalition thrived on raising money against President Clinton and a Democrat-dominated Washington. But since the Republicans ascended to power in at least two of the three branches of federal power (who controls the Supreme Court is difficult to determine conclusively), what is the coalition supposed to rally against? So the theory goes.

All that said, Robertson and the group he founded are made out to be a force that remains to be reckoned with, despite poor finances:

The Christian Coalition is still routinely included in meetings with White House officials and conservative leaders, and is still a household name. But financial problems and a long battle over its tax status have sapped its strength, allowing it to be eclipsed by other Christian groups, such as the Family Research Council and the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Although some of those groups have begun moving into the coalition’s specialty — grass-roots voter education and get-out-the-vote drives — none is poised to distribute 70 million voter guides through churches, as the Christian Coalition did in 2000.

The coalition’s decline is a story that can perhaps best be told along biblical lines: It is the narrative of a group that wandered after the departure of its early leaders, lost faith in some of its guiding principles and struggled to keep its identity after entering the Promised Land — in this case, the land of political influence.

From its inception, the coalition was built around two individuals, Robertson and Ralph Reed. Both were big personalities with big followings.

CCLogoSo a group that is routinely included in White House meetings can’t stay afloat financially? Most groups will do anything for that kind of access, and I have trouble believing that the coalition’s big asset at this point — its 70 million church-distributed voter guides — is all that precious, valuable or much of a bargaining chip when it comes to influencing key Bush administration officials. What real influence does the Christian Coalition — or Pat Robertson for that matter — have on George W. Bush and the people around him?

The closest thing I can come up with is two Supreme Court nominations that seem to have somewhat placated the 4 million evangelical voters that, yes, allegedly put Bush back in the White House. A key factor that many miss is that both nominations came after the last election Bush will ever face.

The Christian Coalition’s financial hard times have little to do with a decline in power and influence in Washington, because I don’t believe the coalition was ever that influential. I think a more likely culprit is a bit of good old American competition from similar groups. These groups have crowded out the financial support for the coalition, which has a founder many believe is frighteningly unfit as a spokesman for evangelical Christians.

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  • Harris

    I think your youth is showing.

    Were you to check back a generation ago, say the late 80s you would find that the Christian Coalition was indeed a powerful force. The guides were indeed a revolutionary development, particularly in the pre-internet era. While such guides had been around for some time, the network of distribution was new, and in the space of several cycles (1988 – 1992) had a demonstrable impact on energizing the conservative, Protestant Christian vote. Well, at least here in Red State Michigan.

    yes, competition did them in. Here, I think, because Robertson is an older generation of evangelical, media focused (and distracted btw), rather than bricks and mortar (megachurch) focus.

    A second reason, would be that Robertson’s own brand of evangelicalism is, shall we say, an acquired taste. Evangelical culture has moved to a soft Charismatic culture, away from the harder edges of Robertson’s pentecostalism.

    Finally, while competition may have done in the Coalition, that will not be Robertson’s lasting achievement. Instead, I suspect, it will be Regents University — there’s another story waiting to be told, the emergence in the 80s of the militant post-secondary institution (Liberty, Regents, Patrick Henry, the expansion of Trinity, GordonConwell, Westminister).

  • Rob

    I think there are two things going on here.

    The writer is correct. The Coalition really has accomplished many of its stated goals; among them having social conservatives in control of the government.

    Secondly, with this success, the people who have supported Robertson’s causes in the past as well as many new followers are putting their money into Robertson’s current causes, primarily the Christian Broadcasting Network. See the article from the Virginian Pilot dated March 21, 2006.

    The competition is not these other Christian Groups mentioned above but Robertson himself. These other groups are not seeing financial growth CBN has seen in the past few years.

    This leads to only one conclusion, Robertson is still a significant religious leader and sleeping tiger of sorts with the potential to at any point become a political force.

    My assumption would be that should the politics once again get out of control those forces would once again be rallied.

  • Michael

    When Focus on the Family was a one-office operation and Chuck Colson was still a Watergate cospirator, the Moral Majority was flexing power in Washington and laying the groundwork for everyone else. That’s why people pay attention to Pat Robertson and Richard Viguerie. They are the godfathers of the religious conservative political movement.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    This essay on American theocracy and why we need not fear one also touches on the scope and limits of evangelical Christian political influence in the current administration.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    These organizations come and go. First it was Falwell and the Moral Majority. Then it was Robertson, Reed, and the Christian Coalition. The CC has been in decline since Reed was forced to step down over financial issues in the late 1990s. The Family Research Council under Dobson and others have been taking the CC’s place.

    The reason everyone is shocked by this is mostly that the name “Christian Coalition” was synonymously with the religious right as a whole for almost a decade. Many of the influential christians in the current administration (like perhaps Dobson even though Bush reportedly dislikes him) aren’t directly affiliated with the Christian Coalition at all.

  • dk

    I don’t see the point. Who ever said that power=money? Of course the voter guides have been and are important, and of course the “evangelical vote” is important, and of course it has been very influential in the White House. Influence is power of a sort, but only tangentially. Don’t mistake access and influence for *control.* Of course there are a lot of other influences on a government, not all of them in accord with evangelical goals. And none of this has much to do with allegedly bad financial times for one outfit. Could be any number of factors causing that.

    But what is the point of this article? That evangelicals don’t really have much pull because they “only” got two SC justices? That is a major triumph, and it is odd to see it downplayed quite a bit by anti-bush trending evangelicals.