Christian Coalition potent despite legislative setbacks

WASHINGTON — Pat Robertson still has a dream for America.

It includes a Bible in every classroom, a ban on abortion, an end to gay rights and a hand-picked presidential candidate winning the White House, giving religious conservatives footholds at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since rising to prominence in the last decade, Robertson's Christian Coalition has achieved a great deal of success in furthering that vision.

In 1994, the group was instrumental in sweeping the first Republican majority to power in both houses of Congress in 40 years, and religious conservatives began to see their agenda advanced by Republican leaders who made clear their debt of gratitude.

But most political observers believe the influence of the conservative Christian lobby has waned in recent years, particularly following Ralph Reed's departure as the group's executive director. The legislative successes have been fewer, while some lawmakers have publicly shied away from the group's agenda.

Still, few doubt the group's continued potency, both as a political and electoral force.

With the November mid-term election only weeks away, the group's ideological opponents, including most mainstream Jewish groups, will be watching closely to see how voters respond to candidates with strong backing from the Christian Coalition during an election year in which religious conservatives have predicted large gains.

The Senate races in Washington state between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Linda Smith, and in South Carolina between Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings and Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, are among those on the watch list. Both Smith and Inglis have the support of the coalition.

The coalition's critics hope the group's interests fare as poorly at the polls as they say their agenda did in the 105th Congress, which is set to adjourn this month.

Indeed, the current Congress has handed the Christian Coalition few major legislative victories. Two of the group's priority issues — a constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for school prayer and government funding of religious institutions, and an override of President Clinton's veto of the so-called partial-birth abortion ban — both went down in defeat.

A third priority issue, passage of legislation aimed at fighting religious persecution abroad, finally stands a good chance of passing after a series of setbacks.

"Their inability to achieve victories on their priority issues in the 105th Congress, a Congress that should be highly favorable to their concerns, suggests they're not very effective as an advocacy group," said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The Christian Coalition, for its part, emphasizes that it is involved in a long-term fight to promote its agenda and has claimed victory in winning a majority of votes on issues like the school-prayer amendment and the partial-birth abortion override attempt, both of which required a two-thirds vote in order to pass.

It also touts passage of a $500 per child tax credit, which became law, as well as passage of a school voucher program for Washington, D.C., and a bill creating tax-favored education savings accounts, both of which President Clinton vetoed.

"Our No. 1 obstacle has been at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, not at Capitol Hill," a spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition said.

Turning their attention to the upcoming election at the group's annual conference in Washington last month, leaders of the Christian Coalition said they will work harder than ever to energize their members to get out and vote on Nov. 3.

The organization intends, as it has in years past, to distribute 45 million voter guides, most of them in churches on the Sunday before the election. The guide includes a score card rating congressional candidates.

At the same time, Robertson is seeking to galvanize the rank and file to turn their outrage at Clinton into an all-out effort to elect what he called "family values" candidates in November.

"I think they smell blood with the Clinton controversies and hope that they will be able to claim credit for significant Republican gains, and then argue that it was because of their social agenda," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

While Jewish activists have been at the forefront in trying to counter the Christian Coalition's agenda, there are some in the Jewish community, particularly among the Orthodox, who believe the effort is misguided.

"The majority of American Jewish organizations have a vested interest in misleading the Jewish community with respect to this group [in order to] to promote a liberal agenda that has replaced Judaism," said Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, who proudly proclaims himself the "rabbi" of the Christian Coalition faithful.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the pro-Republican National Jewish Coalition, agreed, saying that "demagoguing and scare tactics" used by some in the Jewish community have "not only backfired but undermined and jeopardized what should be an important working relationship between the Jewish community and evangelical Christians."

He added that there is a misperception in the Jewish community that the Christian Coalition is a "monolithic force that wields this enormous power over Republicans."

While most attention on the Christian Coalition tends to focus on its activities on the national level, not to be overlooked are its political successes beyond the Washington Beltway.

The organization has been active in getting religious conservatives, including Christian Coalition members, elected at the state and local level, including hundreds of school boards across the country. That, perhaps more than anything else, foretells a long-term and influential presence on the American political landscape.

Speaking at last month's Christian Coalition conference here, Robertson declared that reports of his organization's demise were greatly exaggerated, saying, "The coalition is here for the long haul and we're going to see victory."

Jewish activists acknowledge that they, too, must be ready to fight a long-term ideological battle and must not become complacent in the face of any short-term setbacks for religious conservatives.

"One always likes to take some comfort in any sort of signs of weakness in one's adversaries, but the safest strategy is to just carry on assuming that they're going to put up a good fight, and we have put up a good fight, too," said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women.