The Christian Coalition Fights to Stay Relevant


An abrupt departure by president Joel Hunter has raised doubts about the conservative group's influence and mandate.

Nearly two decades after exploding onto the American scene as the powerful voice of religious conservatives, the Christian Coalition is showing its age. The group, founded in 1989 by Pat Robertson to leverage the political influence in Washington of millions of conservative Christians, is most famous for lobbying Congress and for what it calls nonpartisan — opponents say slanted — voter guides used by followers to make decisions at the polls.

But most recently a public-relations smack-down following the abrupt departure of its president-elect has raised questions about the group's future. Joel Hunter, who resigned as president-elect only weeks after announcing his appointment, cast his departure as a clash between a wheezing organization fixated on the old "below-the-belt" issues of abortion and homosexuality, versus his post-modern view — buttressed by the results of the midterm election — of a more expansive Christian activism that also champions the environment and cares for the poor. Roberta Combs, who had picked Hunter to be her replacement as president, contends the real issue was Hunter's tendency to act unilaterally without clearance or consultation. Hunter says the coalition is too skittish about tackling compassion issues for fear of being labeled liberal.

"When word starts to leak out that you might start to expand it into some of these issues that heretofore have been labeled as liberal, that word starts to float around and those that have been in leadership in a conservative organization start to blink and that's what happened," Hunter said in parting.

"The Christian Coalition is still seen symbolically as a major force, but the narrative now is that maybe their time has passed," says political analyst Stephen Medvic of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "In a way, the Christian Coalition is kind of a victim of its own success."

A generation ago, before the Christian Coalition rose from the ashes of Rev. Pat Robertson's failed bid for the U. S. presidency and the demise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority (which disbanded but has recently been revived by Falwell), evangelicals considered politics too worldly for their attention. More than any other group, the coalition mobilized the religious right and gave evangelicals a taste of their potential clout on such issues as abortion and prayer in schools. But as most large political organizations eventually do, the coalition, which has recently weathered declining membership, shakeups in several state chapters and financial problems, has now started to splinter.

"Christians and more specifically evangelicals are now so active, and there are so many of them that have been brought into the political world, that it would be hard to imagine there would be one group that would be the umbrella group for all of them," Medvic says.

Combs, who will continue as both president and board chair, says she was stunned by the unflattering publicity and Hunter's portrayal of the coalition. But she cautions against writing the organization's obituary. "I don't think Joel needs anymore press. I think he's had his 15 minutes of fame," Combs says. "I'm excited about the future and it's going to be interesting what the Christian Coalition's going to be working on."

Hunter says he spent his short tenure with the coalition raising money for an Orlando headquarters, though Combs said the coalition never received any money. (Hunter said he collected pledges that he can tap at any time.) Hunter also says the favorable response to the publicity over his resignation has been huge, and he's now floating the idea of a new mobilizing organization to lead the Christian community into the future.

"The emerging constituency, especially the 20- and 30-year-olds' generation, are not prone to the old categories, they don't care about Republican or Democrat, they don't care about conservative or liberalism, they say let's just do what's right to love our neighbor," he says. "I went into the Christian Coalition thinking maybe we can turn one of these traditional narrow organizations and broaden it into these compassion issues. But it didn't work."

Medvic doubts that the Hunter controversy will spell the end of the Christian Coalition. "But they will certainly be equaled by lots of other groups that are going to compete for resources the evangelicals have," he says. "They'll be one among many and they will no longer be seen as 'the group that stands for evangelicals.'"

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