As the religious right in America struggles for its voice, one of its most important spokesmen has stepped down.
Pat Robertson resigned as president of the Christian Coalition on Wednesday, leaving Jewish leaders to wonder just how potent a force fundamentalist Christianity will be in coming years.
Robertson left to focus on spiritual leadership, according to the Coalition.
It is time to “mobilize a whole new cohort of patriotic Americans to swell the ranks,” Robertson said.
Even with Robertson at its helm, however, the power of the conservative Christian lobby waned in recent years.
The movement grew out of the grass-roots organization built during Robertson’s failed 1988 bid for president. Its power peaked in the early- to mid-1990s, after it established itself by helping to rally voters behind conservative Republican candidates in local elections.
Since then, however, the movement has run into a number of problems that lead many to question its continued viability.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, predicted that Robertson’s resignation will not make any difference to the Coalition’s power — or lack thereof.
“Time has passed it by,” Foxman said. “It peaked many years ago.”
The ADL and the Christian Coalition have had a number of “sharp disagreements” over the years, Foxman said, but he said Robertson appeared to have softened recently and become more pluralistic.
Although Robertson did carve out a political role for religious fundamentalists, the movement never became as much of a national force as some once feared, Foxman said.
“The religious right is no longer significant,” Foxman said. “I do not see them today as a potent political force.”
Other Jewish leaders stressed that while the Christian Coalition has lost some credibility, it can’t be written off entirely.
The public largely has repudiated the group’s message, but the extreme right still has an influence on American life, said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
“I wouldn’t underestimate its impact in many places in America,” Baum said.
Financial problems, revelations that it inflated its membership numbers and the defeat of many candidates it supported have caused some people to all but dismiss the Coalition.
When Ralph Reed, the group’s powerful director, left the organization in 1997, some observers wondered how the group could go on. The IRS also denied the group tax-exempt status, concluding that its political activities are too partisan.
The IRS ruling prompted the Coalition to split into two groups — Christian Coalition International, which endorses and makes financial contributions to candidates and is not tax exempt, and a second, tax-exempt group called Christian Coalition of America, which engages in voter education activities.
Despite his departure, the outspoken Robertson probably will continue to attract attention.
Robertson frequently incurred the anger of liberal groups with sometimes outrageous accusations. For example, he has blamed the feminist agenda for leading women to lesbianism, and called Judeo-Christian moral values better than those of other cultures.
Baum noted that the Coalition may have more political potential now than in recent years, as the Bush administration is considered partial to aspects of the organization’s message, such as government funding of social services provided by religious groups.
In addition, the role of religion in public life is at a peculiar stage right now. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, people increasingly invoked religion in the public arena and held public prayers.
While that phenomenon too may have peaked, some believe the current climate in the United States is still ripe for an increased visibility for religion.
Religious conservatives are believed to make up about 17 percent of the general population. In Congress, the Christian Coalition suffered many defeats as it tried to promote school prayer and stop abortion.
An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that religion is increasing its influence on American life, according to a new poll, presented jointly by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
The poll shows that 78 percent of respondents say religion’s influence in American life is growing, up from 37 percent eight months ago.
Still, Jewish groups seem certain that the Christian Coalition will not rise again to its former level of national importance. But it remains a force to be reckoned with, particularly at the grass-roots level, warned Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
On the issue of Israel, however, fundamentalist Christian groups find much common ground with American Jewry.
Although the Coalition never formally endorsed aid to Israel, Robertson supported Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, based on the Bible.
While Jewish groups often clashed with Robertson on church-state issues, they also joined together on some issues like international debt relief, and Robertson had respect for the Jewish community.
“He generally wanted the Jewish community to understand him better,” Saperstein said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.