Albion Monitor /Features
[Editor's note: in a previous issue, a news story described how Ralph Reed and others in the Christian Right will likely form a third party next year unless the Republicans offer presidential and vice-presidential candidates to their liking.]

Stealth Strategy

by Rob Boston

According to Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition is strictly non-partisan. Reed and his boss, TV Preacher Pat Robertson, frequently insist that the Coalition is a "pro-life, pro-family" issues organization that does not endorse candidates for public office or tell members who to vote for.

But events at the Coalition's Sept. 8-9 "Road to Victory" Conference in Washington, D.C., indicate that once again Reed and Robertson are being less than honest. Christian Coalition activists, in fact, have formed a partisan political machine that aims to seize control of the Republican Party and place Coalition allies in public office. The group does overtly endorse candidates in some cases, although the organization would rather no one outside Coalition circles know that.

Complex political issues reduced to a few lines of misleading type

Critics have accused the Christian Coalition of engaging in backhanded endorsements through biased voters guides that distort candidates' records and reduce complex political issues to a few lines of misleading type. But evidence from the recent conference indicates that some Christian Coalition activists are going way beyond that in their quest to get Religious Right operatives elected.

Several people interviewed who attended the Coalition's closed-door state caucus sessions and learned that de facto endorsements were in fact handed down during several sessions.

For instance, Reed's dictum on endorsements didn't stop Roberta Combs, director of the South Carolina Christian Coalition, from backing a congressional candidate during a gathering of state activists. At the start of the South Carolina CC caucus, Combs announced, "We do not endorse candidates but work with candidates as individuals" a distinction without a difference when it comes to politics.

Discussing South Carolina's 5th Congressional District, Combs said of the Democrat who holds the seat, "He needs to go." She then introduced Larry Bigham, a Republican running for the slot. "He's going to be our next congressman in the 5th District," Combs told the 100 plus attendees.

Bigham challenged incumbent Democrat John M. Spratt Jr. in 1994 but lost in a close race. He told the crowd that his appearance before the caucus Sept. 9 constituted an official announcement of his candidacy in 1996.

Bigham noted that Spratt scored only 29 percent on the Christian Coalition's Congressional Scorecard. "Larry Bigham will score 100 on your scorecard," he declared. "I need your help. I need your support. Roberta has given me her personal support."

Continued Bigham, "With your help, we can defeat John Spratt. John Spratt is a nice guy, but John Spratt votes wrong." Before Bigham could finish, an indignant Coalition member called out, "If he votes wrong, that's not a nice guy!"

Continued Bigham, "In January of 1997, we will have a good Christian in office along with all the others." (Spratt, a Presbyterian, apparently does not fit the Coalition's definition of a "good Christian.")

Combs seemed well aware that her activities were of a questionable nature. Twice she demanded that any reporters present leave the room. On another occasion, when a man walked into the room carrying a camera tripod, Combs snapped, "Are you press?"

Combs has good reason to be concerned. In South Carolina, the Christian Coalition is already the subject of an inquiry by the Federal Election Commission over some of its activities. In addition, Internal Revenue Service regulations do not permit a non-profit group structures like the Christian Coalition to have partisan politicking as its primary activity.

The line, "Affiliation given for identification purposes only" sidesteps ban on endorsements

In other state CC caucuses, similar endorsements were handed down. In the Louisiana meeting, state director Sally Campbell pushed the gubernatorial candidacy of state Sen. Mike Foster, a Republican. Campbell told attendees that she has met with Foster several times and that he promised her that if elected he will call a special session of the legislature to mandate a ballot initiative against gambling. Foster, Campbell reported, told her he can't be elected without the Christian Coalition's help.

Campbell related how she had made a television commercial on Foster's behalf, in her capacity as Louisiana Christian Coalition director. When the national Christian Coalition got wind of the ad, she was forced to pull it.

To get around the national Coalition's ban on straight endorsements, Campbell recommended that Christian Coalition activists and officials go ahead and endorse but make certain every time an endorsement of a candidate appears in print, the line "Affiliation given for identification purposes only" is included.

At the Wisconsin caucus of CC convention goers, Scott West of Stevens Point, Wisc., stood up to thank the Coalition for supporting his unsuccessful congressional campaign against Democratic Rep. David Obey last year. Carol Simmons, director of the Minnesota Christian Coalition, quickly interjected that what West "means to say" is that some Coalition members worked on his campaign as individuals, insisting that the organization does not endorse candidates. West wryly added that Coalition members are committed to the group's agenda 24 hours a day, but that some of them aided his campaign when they were not working for the CC.

A meeting of North Carolina Coalition members featured State Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican who discussed his religious beliefs, outlined a conservative legislative agenda and asked for the support of individual Coalition members as he runs for governor.

During the Texas CC caucus, "Christian nation" advocate and Coalition activist David Barton crowed that three-fourths of the 74 candidates for public office "we supported" last year won. Barton said Religious Right activists in Texas are targeting the state Board of Education in 1996 and hope to win three seats.

Participants were schooled in the art of concealing their ties to the Christian Coalition

Leaders of the Arizona caucus seemed especially concerned about media scrutiny. Guards were posted at the door with orders to remove anyone not personally approved by the caucus leader. During the session, Nathan Sproul, Arizona CC field director, urged attendees to become precinct committee chairs in the Republican Party but not to let anyone know the Christian Coalition was behind the move. Sproul told the audience that the Coalition needs precinct committee chairs so they can elect delegates to attend the GOP National Convention and chose the presidential nominee.

At breakout sessions, conference participants were schooled in the art of concealing their ties to the Christian Coalition, in a continuing pattern of "stealth politics." During a session titled "Religious Conservatives in the Republican Party," Bernice Roberts, chair of the Maricopa County, Ariz., Republican Party, urged Coalition supporters to work within the GOP with the goal of being appointed a precinct committeeman but recommended keeping a low profile at the beginning.

"I want to give you some dont's to do when you decide to go to your first Republican meeting," Roberts told the crowd. "Do not go with your Bible in your hand. Some would say to me, 'Does that mean you're ashamed of the Gospel?' No. Christian Coalition has a statement, 'We're involved in the party, but we don't seek to become a party.' A political party is not a church. Its job is not to propagate a doctrine of faith and save souls. Its job is to fill candidates and win elections."

Continued Roberts, "Do not attend your first Republican function with a pro-life sticker on your lapel." She also recommended against "passing out leaflets inviting people to your church" and cautioned attendees not to sit with "others whom you know to be the outspoken right wing of the Republican Party. That's a sure way not to get appointed." She also warned, "Do not pass out Gospel tracts."

After becoming a precinct committeeman, Roberts said, "Then you begin to recruit other Christians and before long, when you attend a Republican meeting you'll look around and realize, 'There's a whole lot of Christians here.' After that, the legislators in your state will take on a new face. The more Christians that are involved, the more you change the course of how your state runs.

"You can help keep the Republican Party on the right track by your involvement," Roberts continued. "The only way for the Republican platform to become liberal is for good people to not be involved in the process. When there are enough Christians involved in the party, we won't have to worry about the platform changing, because we'll be the ones writing the platform."

Closing, Roberts told a story of how she once joined forces with an "ungodly, liberal legislator" to oust a GOP district chairman who had alienated many party activists. Once Roberts took the slot, she was attacked by religious conservatives who accused her of working with liberals.

"You know what I said?" she asked. "I said, 'You better get on your knees and thank God that it was me and not some liberal that took over the district.' All I said was, 'smart politics.' As a Christian, we're smarter really, but we have to remember we can't take the whole thing at one time. Just be kind, good, loving. My prayer when I became district chairman was, I want to be that Christian in politics that no one has ever seen."

(The session on working within the GOP drew a big crowd, leading to a packed room. By contrast, a similar workshop on working within the Democratic Party attracted only a handful of people.)

Door-to-door visits are essential for identifying "pro-family" voters who will later be added to Christian Coalition voter lists

At a session titled "Building a Neighborhood Organization," the first thing that was made clear was that "neighborhood" is really a euphemism for "political precinct." John Dowless, director of the Florida Christian Coalition, said the word "neighborhood" sounds "less threatening and not as quite as out there or quite as difficult" when trying to rally Coalition sympathizers.

In fact, the session had little to do with neighborhood activism; it was devoted to explaining how to get at least one Christian Coalition operative in every county precinct and how to compile information on voters, with an eye toward turning out those who are likely to support Christian Coalition candidates on election day.

Speaker Cathe Halford, training director for the Texas Christian Coalition, told attendees that door-to-door visits are essential for identifying "pro-family" voters who will later be added to Christian Coalition voter lists. However, she cautioned against mentioning the Coalition while canvassing and recommended couching the visit as a social call.

"Don't go up there and say, 'Hey, I'm an organizer from the local Christian Coalition....' Just go up and say, 'Hi, my name is Cathe, and I'm your neighbor. I live right over here down the street. My kids go to school over here; I know you have kids who go there. I just want to get acquainted with you,'" she told the crowd.

However, while "just getting acquainted" with the neighbors, Halford recommended that activists always be armed with a map of the precinct and a voter list. Once back at home, she said, the CC activist should compile a list of voters, including personal information, on computer or on note cards. People who express hostility toward the Coalition's agenda, however, can be discarded.

"Put on there the things you learn about that person, if it's someone you're going to work with," Halford said. "Now, if you call up and find out that you all have nothing in common, they're not going to vote the way you do, you're not going to be responsible for getting them out to the polls. You don't need to make a card."

Declaring, "You all know we're in a war, we're in a spiritual war, a war for our culture, however you want to say it," Halford urged activists "to step back from thinking about your precinct because that sounds real political and that can be kind of intimidating in real life. We're talking about the people who live in your neighborhood....Don't get intimidated that this is a big political machine you're part of. Just try to focus on those people as your neighbors."

Halford also urged Coalition activists to avoid starting confrontations with voters who identify themselves as pro-choice on abortion. Noting that she was once pro-choice, Halford said, "I was just a person in the dark waiting for the light. And you are not going to be the light if you get mad at that person...That person will wake up when the Lord deals with them, as He dealt with me."

About five years ago, the Christian Coalition and other far-right groups were accused of urging candidates to run for local office while concealing their ties to the Religious Right, a tactic that was dubbed "stealth politics." Reed and other Coalition leaders publicly disavowed the strategy, but only after exposure resulted in a series of defeats for these candidates. Based on the recent "Road to Victory" conference, however, it would appear that "stealth tactics" are making a comeback if they ever left at all.

This article first appeared in Church & State, and is copyrighted by that publication.

Albion Monitor December 21, 1995 (

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