Altar Call: Christian Coalition's 'Families 2000' Project Seeks to Enroll 100,000 Churches in Pat Robertson's Partisan Political Machine

Article excerpt

On the Sunday before Election Day, Republican legislative candidate Dick Black visited the 11:15 worship service at the Christian Fellowship Church in Ashburn, Va. He wasn't there just to pray.

Black, a Religious Right activist, was making one of several last-minute stops in his religiously grounded campaign for the 32nd District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. He found a warm welcome at the 2,500-member congregation.

According to the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Senior Pastor James Ahlemann advised his flock, "I do not have to tell you how to vote this morning. You know what is right. You can make your decision based on the information that you have."

And what information would that be? That same Sunday morning, voter guides from the Christian Coalition were tucked inside church bulletins and distributed to all churchgoers. Those fliers carefully steered the conservative evangelical congregants toward Black. He was depicted as standing against abortion and homosexuality and for parental rights and lower taxes, all positions likely to resonate with the faithful.

In the low-turnout special election Feb. 3, Black's church-based strategy -- and help from 20,000 Christian Coalition voter guides -- paid off. He won the election with 57 percent of the vote.

At the victory party at Glory Days restaurant in Sterling, Black illustrated theatrically how he won. Relying on a well-known children's nursery rhyme and hand game, he said, "Here's the church, here's the steeple. Open the doors and out come the people." His supporters cheered.

If the Christian Coalition has its way, the Virginia scenario will be repeated in hundreds of elections across America. In February, TV preacher Pat Robertson's political group announced plans to recruit 100,000 Christian churches into its operation by November 2000.

Touting its new "Families 2000" approach, a press release from CC Executive Director Randy Tate said the program "is a strategy for grassroots activism focused on churches as the Coalition's organizational base."

Relying on "church liaisons" appointed for each congregation, Tate's release said, "Church congregations will now serve as the primary source of people interested in participating in citizenship ministries, the nonpartisan voter registration and education efforts of the Coalition."

Tate also announced a renewed emphasis on controversial social issues, indicating that the Coalition will focus much more heavily on abortion restrictions, anti-gay lobbying, religious school vouchers and passage of a constitutional amendment eviscerating the church-state separation provisions of the First Amendment. He cited the Coalition's active role in the defeat of a Feb. 10 Maine gay rights referendum as an example of future endeavors.

The Christian Coalition's escalated drive to enlist churches drew sharp fire from church-state separationists. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said, "This is a deplorable misuse of houses of worship for partisan political ends."

In a Feb. 18 statement to the news media, Lynn warned that churches' participation in the Coalition's voter guide distribution and other politicking could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

The Coalition operates under a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt category that allows some campaign activity, including candidate endorsements. Churches, however, are categorized as 501(c)(3), a status that forbids any work for or against candidates for office.

Lynn reminded reporters that Robertson himself boasted of the Coalition's Republican electoral successes in a closed-door speech last September, urging his lieutenants to emulate Tammany Hall and other notorious political machines of American history.

Said Lynn, "I don't know why any church would want to be associated with a Tammany Hall-style political machine. The Christian Coalition voter guides are legal, political and ethical poison. …