WASHINGTON (Jun. 14)
Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, once a powerful political juggernaut with grand plans of putting a Bible in every classroom and a Republican in every elected office, has slammed headlong into a wall set up by the Internal Revenue Service.
The IRS concluded that the political activities of the conservative Christian lobby, which had been battling for tax-exempt status for 10 years, were too partisan. The group’s voter guides, distributed in churches across the country and widely criticized as blatantly partisan, were a main source of contention.
The group’s ideological opponents, including an array of Jewish and non-Jewish activists who have countered the coalition in battles from abortion rights to prayer in school, called the ruling long overdue.
But even as critics reveled in the setback dealt to the coalition, some Jewish legal experts said the IRS decision should prompt Jewish groups to scrutinize their own voter education activities more closely.
The IRS first denied the group tax-exempt status last year, but the IRS kept the ruling under wraps until the Christian Coalition was notified in recent weeks that it would lose its appeal.
The ruling came as no surprise to those who have watched the coalition rally voters behind GOP candidates who support the group’s conservative “pro-family” agenda in every election since 1990. It simply provided additional evidence to what most observers have long believed: that the Christian Coalition, in essence, has served as the theological arm of the Republican Party.
The ruling deals a stinging blow to an organization that has been struggling in recent years. A dominant force that helped Republicans take control of Congress in 1994, the Christian Coalition’s influence has waned in the two years since Ralph Reed departed as executive director. The coalition has lost 700,000 of its 2.8 million members and is now mired in debt of $2.5 million, Newsweek reported this week.
Robertson has given $1 million of his own money to help bail out the organization, which he founded in 1988 after his unsuccessful race for the Republican presidential nomination.
But he has repeatedly clashed with senior staff members on leadership decisions in recent months, and at least six top officials have either quit or been discharged.
As a result of the IRS ruling, the Christian Coalition has decided to split into two entities as part of a sweeping reorganization.
One, called Christian Coalition International, plans to endorse and make financial contributions to candidates and would not be tax-exempt status of the Christian Coalition of Texas and would continue to engage in voter education activities.
Robertson vowed last week that his organization would continue to be a powerful force in American politics.
But critics say the ruling is likely to make conservative pastors wary of maintaining close ties with the group and churches less willing to distribute its controversial voter guides for fear of risking their own charitable statuses.
Last year, the coalition distributed some 72 million voter guides in churches around the country.
“Pastors would have to be out of their minds to distribute these guides now,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which launched a campaign in 1997 to warn churches about legal limits on political activities and to urge them to reject the coalition’s voter guides.
“The Christian Coalition’s credibility is shot. That’s the real impact of the IRS action,” Lynn said.
For tax-exempt Jewish advocacy groups that are banned by law from engaging in “substantial political activity,” the ruling may prompt a closer look at their own voter education practices.
“I don’t think anybody in the Jewish community has done anything that’s remotely as systematic as what the Christian Coalition did, but there are gray areas,” said Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress.
Groups such as the JAC Education Foundation and the National Jewish Democratic Council have distributed guides to help educate Jewish voters about issues ranging from U.S.-Israel relations to the separation of church and state.
But unlike the congressional “scorecards” distributed by the Christian Coalition that rate each candidate, the guides do not suggest how voters should cast their ballots.
Stephen Silberfarb, deputy director of the NJDC, said his group’s voter guides are “meticulously” crafted not only to stay within the limits of the law, but to steer as clear as possible from the gray areas.
Still, the impact of ruling remains unclear.
“It’s possible that all this means is that if you’re really stupid and you shove it in the IRS’s face, that they’ll shove back,” Stern said of the coalition’s clear partisan politicking. “But it may mean the beginning of a new attitude of more stringent enforcement of these prohibitions.”
Meanwhile, as the Christian Coalition reorganizes and prepares to explicitly identify itself with conservative Republican candidates, some Jewish activists have raised concerns about the notion of partisan political activity organized along religious lines.
While religious groups may have a right to endorse and fund candidates, some question whether it is healthy for society.
“When religious groups begin to endorse candidates, the implications are if you’re going to be a good religionist, you’ve got to do what they say,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“That raises the prospect of people having to choose between their religious conscience and individual conscience, and that’s bad for democracy.”
Whether the Christian Coalition’s new activities can help strengthen the foundering organization remains to be seen. At the same time, few doubt that the Christian right will continue to play an influential role in the American political process.
“I think it’s too early to write their obituary,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has worked closely with the Christian Coalition on various legislative issues.
“They’re not going to disappear,” Saperstein agreed. “And those people who think that their agenda is inimical to the interests of our community are going to have to remain vigilant to their activity.”