The Right Stuff
Christian Coalition's new strategy banks on recruiting minorities
BY MATTHEW FREEMAN
It's sad but true that politics is often a brutal business, one in which deceit often triumphs over sincerity, where fear prevails over hope. That's precisely what Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition seems to be relying on with its most recent repackaging of its political agenda and its Samaritan Project, created for minority outreach.
Ralph Reed, the group's soon-to-be-departing executive director, introduced the project at a Washington, D.C., press conference in January, calling it a "bold and compassionate agenda to combat poverty and restore hope."
is the audacity it must have required
of the Christian Coalition to construct
such a transparent artifice.
But what's bold about the project is the audacity it must have required of the Christian Coalition to construct such a transparent artifice.
At the heart of the new agenda are the same basic proposals that the group has been promoting for years. Repackaged, to be sure, a few twists here and there, but the same goals. Consider the project's legislative components:
Item one: What the Coalition describes as legislation to promote "strong families" is an effort to pressure states to provide abstinence-only sex education in the schools, and to require a waiting period for divorce.
Item two: What the Coalition describes as a program for "hope and opportunity scholarships" is another push for private school, including sectarian school vouchers. Even dressed up with concerns about the challenges of urban schools, the beneficiaries of a widespread voucher program would be those with kids already in such schools -- many of the Christian Coalition's members, for example.
Item three: The Coalition proposes something described vaguely as a "safe neighborhood" plan. Ironically, these opponents of federal remedies are pushing a plan to give federal dollars to states that reduce gang-related crimes. It's a new item on the Coalition's agenda. It also has the fingerprints of their pollsters all over it, and precious little in the way of specifics.
Item four: There is a proposal for a $500 credit for charitable organizations, including churches, that serve the poor. Not a deduction but a credit, so that it hits the federal budget harder, and provides entirely unaccountable funding to all manner of institutions, including churches. The notion that public monies should be accountable to the public seems lost on the Christian Coalition, so eager is it to create a stream of taxpayer funding for religious institutions.
Item five: Empowerment Zones for urban areas. Not much new here.
Item six: The Christian Coalition calls on government to "remove the obstacles that keep faith-based drug treatment programs from ministering to soul as well as body by allowing states to use private drug rehabilitation programs."
Read closely, and it is clear that the Christian Coalition is calling for taxpayer funding for religious institutions. (Federal dollars can already flow to charities associated with churches. Catholic Charities is an enormous recipient, for example.) What those dollars can't be used to support, under current law, is religious instruction or proselytization. And a religious test cannot be applied by the charity in providing its services. That's what the Christian Coalition is trying to change.
Other items: That's the end of the legislative components of the Samaritan Project, but in the same publication the Christian Coalition promotes still more of the same old thing: a "Christian Nation amendment" to the U.S. Constitution, to permit state-sponsored prayer in schools, and to allow states to declare official religions; more restrictions on family planning and on abortion rights; abolition of the Legal Services Corporation -- which helps provide funding to poor people in civil matters before the courts; and the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts, a longstanding agenda item.
In short, there's not much new. So, why such a show?
In January, two prominent white Americans offered decidedly different visions of how to address racial tensions in America. Bill Clinton, in his inaugural address, offered a challenge, urging Americans to look within their hearts for the answers to the persistent plague of discrimination. Haley Barbour, the departing head of the Republican National Committee, urged party members to develop new ways to talk about the party's agenda so that it would appeal to minorities. No mention of reforming the party leadership's sometimes harsh stands on matters of civil rights and affirmative action; rather, Barbour called for a new vocabulary.
Exit polls from 1996 indicate that 85 percent of the African-American vote went to Clinton, making African Americans the single most cohesive voting bloc. African Americans were more likely to vote for Clinton than Republicans were to vote for Bob Dole. It's a simple matter of mathematics: if the Republican presidential nominee in the year 2000 can lose the African-American vote by a three-to-one margin, he or she will still gain ground by comparison to Dole.
If the nominee goes so far as to split the African-American vote evenly, it would translate to a four percentage point or greater pickup in the total vote. That could be devastating for Democrats, and that's exactly what the Christian Coalition is working toward.
Truth is, Robertson and the Christian Coalition's record of hostility to minorities couldn't be any more clear. Robertson, for one, has opposed every civil rights bill in memory. In 1991, the Coalition gave its highest award to North Carolina's Sen. Jesse Helms, the man who led the campaign against a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and did so by impugning the slain leader's honor.
Last year, the Coalition invested vast resources into supporting efforts to slash welfare, food stamps, Head Start and school lunches -- programs addressing some of the particular challenges confronting minorities in this country. By using the language of racial reconciliation for political gain, the Coalition does more than distort the political process; it cheapens genuine efforts by others to mend old wounds and build real trust.
Matthew Freeman is a senior vice president at People for the American Way. This article appeared in the May/June issue of Freedom Writer (PO Box 589, Great Barrington, Mass. 01230) the newsletter of the Institute for First Amendment Studies, a nonprofit educational and research organization. It is reprinted with permission.
For a copy of a new report on the Christian Coalition's and the religious right's record on issues of concern to minorities and the poor, send $5 to The Religious Right on Civil Rights Report, People For the American Way, 2000 M Street, NVV, #400, Washington, DC 20036.