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Christian Coalition fading fast

Posted on Sun, Sep. 18, 2005

The South Carolina State

Christian Coalition fading fast
Grass-roots religious group now based in S.C. has lost leadership, influence
Staff Writer

Rocked by financial debt, lawsuits and the loss of experienced political leaders, the Christian Coalition has become a pale imitation of its once-powerful self.

Some say the group - now based in Charleston and headed by a South Carolinian - is on life support, having been eclipsed by higher-profile, better-funded groups such as Focus on the Family.

"The coalition as we knew it doesn't exist," says Lois Eargle, former chairwoman of the Horry County Christian Coalition.

The 16-year-old organization once was a political juggernaut. But it has been in steady decline since it lost one of its most effective national leaders, executive director Ralph Reed. Reed left in 1997 to form his own political consulting firm in Atlanta.

"He was a great media figure, able to convey his particular message," says Corwin Smidt, professor of political science at Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts school in Michigan. "But he was also a very bright young man and was able to articulate and make arguments effectively on behalf of the coalition.

"Today, the coalition doesn't have anyone of that caliber. Once Reed left, the organization never recovered."

During Reed's tenure, the politically conservative coalition began distributing millions of voter guides containing candidates' records on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay rights.

In 1994 alone, the group mailed 30 million postcards opposing President Clinton's sweeping health-care proposal and made more than 20,000 phone calls to urge support for the balanced budget amendment - two issues that helped Republicans win control of Congress that year.

That was the coalition's heyday.

Today, the organization founded in 1989 by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson has fallen on hard times. It has gone through two executive directors, seen its revenues drop dramatically, and watched its clout and influence wane.

In 1999, Roberta Combs, who had headed the coalition's South Carolina chapter, took over as national executive director and began to run the show.

Her tenure has been marked by internal strife, which some observers say was a result of her management style. Combs fired, demoted or drove away much of the coalition's seasoned political staff, critics say.

Black staffers filed a $39 million racial discrimination suit against the coalition, alleging they were forced to use a separate entrance at its headquarters. The suit was settled with an out-of-court payment of some $300,000 to the employees.

Reed saw the impending financial problems and staff conflicts and quickly left a "sinking ship," says Furman University political scientist Jim Guth, a nationally recognized scholar on the Christian Right movement. "Reed's departure was the final nail in the coalition's coffin."


Today, the cash-strapped group faces a host of problems, not the least of which is its inability to pay its bills.

Most recently, on June 2, Pitney Bowes filed a lawsuit against the Christian Coalition for $13,649 in unpaid postage. The issue was settled out of court, says Pitney Bowes attorney Robert Bernstein of Charleston. The coalition now is making monthly payments to help erase the debt.

The coalition, once a powerful national voice for traditional family values, has moved its headquarters to Charleston where Combs spends most of her time.

The group also maintains a small operation in Washington that has a full-time staff of 10. In 1994, when the coalition was at its peak, its headquarters employed as many as 25 full-time paid staffers.

Combs denies the coalition is in trouble. But she acknowledges money has been harder to come by since Robertson stepped down as coalition president in February 2002 and turned control over to her.

"It hurt fund-raising," she says of Robertson's departure. "There's never enough money."

The coalition is looking for a media spokesman - someone of Reed's caliber - to be a talking head on the television news shows and to put the organization back on the map.

"We have not had a media spokesman for a good while now," says Drew McKissick, a Columbia-based political consultant and coalition activist. "You've got to show the flag these days. It makes a big difference in people's perception. We need to boost our profile so folks know we exist."

Horry's Eargle thinks that's a waste of time.

"I don't see anyone stepping up to the plate that could revitalize the coalition," she says.

In many ways, the coalition has been replaced by organization's like James Dobson's Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council in Washington, says University of Toledo professor John Green.

Both of those groups were singled out when "Christian conservatives" were credited with pushing President Bush over the top in his 2004 re-election bid. The Christian Coalition was barely an afterthought in the presidential race.


Still, the group wields influence in a handful of states - Iowa, Alabama, Texas, Michigan and Florida.

But that's about it, Green says.

The coalition calls itself America's largest Christian grass-roots organization with more than 2 million supporters.

But former members, like Eargle, feel the coalition has outlived its usefulness.

"The Christian Coalition did a wonderful job at its time," Eargle says. "It did a good job in getting grass-roots people involved. Maybe it has served its time."

This begs the larger question: Can the one-time political behemoth survive at all?

Combs says it will.

"All organizations have their ups and downs, and there are seasons. The Christian Coalition will always be out there. Don't count us out."

© 2005 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
Last updated: September 18, 2005