If access equals power and power equals money (A=P=M), then Monday's Washington Post article on the near demise of the Christian Coalition left an unanswered question that probes deep into the true influence of evangelicals on the Bush Administration. Or perhaps it's the connection of access and influence? But first let me take issue with the story's lead:
In an era when conservative Christians enjoy access and influence throughout the federal government, the organization that fueled their rise has fallen on hard times.
I know most liberals view the evangelical influence on the current White House as driven by the often idiotic comments of Pat Robertson, but please, how was the Christian Coalition the organization behind the rise of evangelicals in politics and the supposed grip the group has on national politics? How about not?
Founded 17 years ago by former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the organization is mired in debt and internal conflict. Part of the article's hypothesis is that the coalition is on hard times due to its success. As an opposition group, the coalition thrived on raising money against President Clinton and a Democrat-dominated Washington. But since the Republicans ascended to power in at least two of the three branches of federal power (who controls the Supreme Court is difficult to determine conclusively), what is the coalition supposed to rally against? So the theory goes.
All that said, Robertson and the group he founded are made out to be a force that remains to be reckoned with, despite poor finances:
The Christian Coalition is still routinely included in meetings with White House officials and conservative leaders, and is still a household name. But financial problems and a long battle over its tax status have sapped its strength, allowing it to be eclipsed by other Christian groups, such as the Family Research Council and the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Although some of those groups have begun moving into the coalition's specialty -- grass-roots voter education and get-out-the-vote drives -- none is poised to distribute 70 million voter guides through churches, as the Christian Coalition did in 2000.
The coalition's decline is a story that can perhaps best be told along biblical lines: It is the narrative of a group that wandered after the departure of its early leaders, lost faith in some of its guiding principles and struggled to keep its identity after entering the Promised Land -- in this case, the land of political influence.
From its inception, the coalition was built around two individuals, Robertson and Ralph Reed. Both were big personalities with big followings.
So a group that is routinely included in White House meetings can't stay afloat financially? Most groups will do anything for that kind of access, and I have trouble believing that the coalition's big asset at this point -- its 70 million church-distributed voter guides -- is all that precious, valuable or much of a bargaining chip when it comes to influencing key Bush administration officials. What real influence does the Christian Coalition -- or Pat Robertson for that matter -- have on George W. Bush and the people around him?
The closest thing I can come up with is two Supreme Court nominations that seem to have somewhat placated the 4 million evangelical voters that, yes, allegedly put Bush back in the White House. A key factor that many miss is that both nominations came after the last election Bush will ever face.
The Christian Coalition's financial hard times have little to do with a decline in power and influence in Washington, because I don't believe the coalition was ever that influential. I think a more likely culprit is a bit of good old American competition from similar groups. These groups have crowded out the financial support for the coalition, which has a founder many believe is frighteningly unfit as a spokesman for evangelical Christians.