Rise and Fall of the Christian Coalition

Below is a transcript from a Georgene Rice KPDO FM interview with Joel Vaughan, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Christian Coalition:  The Inside Story”.   Vaughn worked with the Coalition for 10 years.

Georgene: It’s important to point out that most people who hear the title of the book might assume that this is one of those seething exposes that gives all of the sordid details of the inner workings of the organization, or this is a disgruntled former employee who is taking this opportunity to say everything he wishes to say to undermine everyone he once worked with.

Vaughan: You are correct that most people would likely assume that.  I have gone to great lengths to present a history of the Christian Coalition, ranging from day one when the idea first gleamed in founder Pat Robertson’s mind, right through the tremendous upswing in the early 1990s, the amazing crescendo with the 1994 election, and then the steady decline that started after the 1996 election and the steep falloff that happened in 1999 after a crisis in leadership developed there.  No one has ever written about the Christian Coalition from the inside.  I really endeavored to present the accuracy of the story as it happened.

Georgene: You write in the introduction that your purpose is two-fold.  One, you wanted to write an accurate history, and second, you wanted the reader to perceive what it was like to be in the Christian Coalition.  You wanted to not only provide an accurate history but also provide a sort of primer for those who are considering being active—non-profits that want to succeed without making some of the mistakes that you witnessed in the Christian Coalition.

Vaughan: Exactly.  There are organizations going through transition every day.  One thing you can learn from this is that if you are doing something at the top that virtually everyone disagrees with, you may want to rethink it because you are either going to lose all of them, or what you’re doing is wrong, or maybe both.  And that’s what happened in 1999.  Decisions were made at the top that virtually everyone disagreed with and it caused a mass exodus, some by choice and some by force.  Coupled with other problems—legal issues, financial crises, donor revolt in some cases—it was just too much for the organization to bear.

Georgene: I think a lot of people are familiar with the name Christian Coalition but don’t know much about how the organization began and who some of the key players were.

Vaughan: First, in 1988, Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network at the time, ran for president of the U.S.  He did not get the Republican nomination.  He came in third.  He had some astounding wins in the Iowa straw polls. He won in four states in the primaries.  He came in second in others.  He caused quite a stir.  After that year, Robertson felt that the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people he got involved in the process who hadn’t been involved before still needed a vehicle to stay involved.  He didn’t want his supporters to be a flash in the pan.  So he started the Christian Coalition as a way to keep them involved, to keep them motivated and to train them at the grass roots level to be even more effective than they ever had been.

He then met a young man named Ralph Reed at a political dinner, and Pat was big on first impressions, and he pulled Ralph aside and offered him the job of running the Christian Coalition.  Ralph turned him down because he was finishing his PhD.  Pat asked him to at least send him a memo as to what he thought this group should look like.  So Ralph sent the memo and didn’t hear anything for six to eight months.  Then one day, PhD in hand, he got a call from Robertson, and soon he was in Virginia starting the Christian Coalition.

Georgene: There were other luminaries that were part of the organization in the early days and then throughout much of its successful history.

When Reed resigned in 1997 to go into Republican political consulting full time, Robertson chose a man that he had wanted to work for him for about a decade named Don Hodel, a native of Portland.  Hodel had been Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Energy in the Reagan Administration.  Robertson had offered him several jobs before, but the time wasn’t right for Hodel………Then in 1997, when Reed left, Robertson approached Hodel, and the time was finally right for him, so he decided to answer that call and serve the grass roots.

Georgene: The rise of the Christian Coalition was nothing less than meteoric.  In fact, membership numbers were staggering in those early days.  Talk about how the organization began and its enormous growth.

Vaughan: It started literally with Ralph and I taking the donor list from the Robertson campaign and making phone calls at night to try to get people to support the Christian Coalition.  We had some pretty good success……………..Ralph was the guy most like Joshua and Caleb who looked in the land, saw the giants and said “I can take that land”.  He thought one day the giants would be working for him.  Ralph was nonplussed and went ahead and raised the money and helped pay down the Robertson campaign debt.  I went away at the time because he didn’t have enough money to hire a staff, but I came back in 1991, and I was amazed at how much the organization had grown in the few months I had been gone.  We had our first big national program with the Clarence Thomas nomination for the Supreme Court, and we also got very involved in the effort to defund the NEA because they were giving taxpayer money to support dirty art.  We got the head of the NEA to resign under pressure from President Bush.  But the real upswing came after the 1992 elections when Clinton defeated Bush. In 1993, when Clinton was inaugurated, we began getting new donors out of the woodwork—8,000 to 10,000 per week. That continued through most of 1993.  We were running three shifts in our office just opening the mail.  It was unbelievable.  Membership rolls did swell, and that provided the launch pad for us to participate in the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

Georgene: What was the primary goal of the Christian Coalition and what do you think they did exceptionally well during the heyday?

Vaughan: Our mission was to give Christians a voice in their government again.  Christians had gotten out, sat on their laurels and let the country go to Hades for a while.  We hoped to get Christians and other religious conservatives back involved in the process in sounding their voices and voting and running for office, and I think we did a very good job of that.  Our original goal was to have ten pro-life, pro-family activists in every precinct in America…….We hit that many times over in some precincts.  Of course there were some that we didn’t hit.  We ended up with about 2,000 county chapters, some very active, some less active.  We had activity in all 50 states.  We had state offices in 49 states.  We had people who could meet with their congressman in D.C. or back home, which we now know is important in the case of those town hall meetings.

Georgene: We know that the Christian Coalition was a bi-word to the media that tended toward the left, and that anything that was accomplished there was lauded as not positive. But let’s talk about the fall of the Christian Coalition and what ultimately left the organization in utter obscurity.  Talk about the high point and then the slide downward.

Vaughan: There were three main things:  finances, mission and staffing.  The high point was after the 1994 elections, all through 1995 and leading up to 1996.  But when Dole lost to Clinton in 1996, we immediately began experiencing a cash crunch.  When it didn’t pick back up in 1997, we started to accumulate debt.  Making matters worse, we were being hounded by the IRS and the Federal Elections Commission.  And we were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on those defenses.  In April, Reed announced he was leaving to go into consulting full time, and his successors, Hodel and Randy Tate, weren’t announced until June.  And during that period, money went into the tank, and the debt increased.  Therefore, the debt was unmanageable by the first two or three months of the new administration. After about a year, they had kind of gotten things back on an even keel.  Hodel and Robertson both put in their own money to keep the Coalition afloat and to help meet payroll.  Direct mail was getting back up.  Things were on a good line until the Clinton impeachment in 1998 over his then alleged affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.

All the conservative groups were fighting hard to get Clinton impeached, and he was impeached, and his trial was set for January, 1999.  Then Clinton made his State of the Union address right before the trial.  He did such a good job.  It was a true Clintonian performance.  There is no one better before a camera.  He doesn’t even need the teleprompters that our current President needs.  He did such a good job that Robertson went on the 700 Club the next day and said Clinton did such a great job, and this impeachment thing is over, and as far as he was concerned, we should get on with something else.  Well the Christian Coalition supporters across America didn’t agree.  They thought we should keep fighting and keep working and, even if we were going to lose the impeachment trial, we should still hold Clinton’s feet to the fire and stay based on the matter of fighting for principal……Robertson thought it was more expedient to get on with a battle we could win……Finally, Hodel told Robertson that we needed to apologize to the grass roots.  Pat didn’t feel like that was something he wanted to do…So Hodel decided to leave and return to Colorado where he could return to his private pursuits.

Robertson made a decision to bring in one of the state directors from South Carolina to take over the organization.  She did a good job running the Coalition in South Carolina, but bless her heart, she wasn’t ready to run a national organization. She was in over her head from day one.  The staff didn’t want her there.  She didn’t want any of the staff there. She questioned their loyalty.  People started leaving in mass.  She started firing a few people.  Before you know it, the thing was just gone.  By the end of the year, it was only a vapor. They moved it to D.C. in early 2000 from Suburban Virginia to try to re-invigorate, but it never happened.  Once they got to D.C., troubles just got worse.  Things that wouldn’t have been challenged in a small Virginia city were looked at differently in cosmopolitan D.C.

Georgene: The Christian Coalition began with the goal of helping to engage Christians in the public square and to influence public policy.  Would you say, overall, the work of the Christian Coalition has a legacy that has continued, or how would you describe the legacy that the Christian Coalition has left in the wake of its now virtual non-existence?

Vaughan: There is a definite legacy.  There are multiple people who have been elected to office at the state legislative level.  One of our board members in a Southern state was elected to Congress.  We have numerous State Chairmen of the Republican Party who have been elected from the Christian Coalition ranks.  People have gone on to great things.  Even staff members have gone on.  We have a staff member who went on to a very high position at the Department of Homeland Security.  We had a staff member who went on to run the media campaign for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.  We had a staff member who went on to be the Legislative Affairs Director for the NRA.  And I myself have been focused on the family for the last six years in Colorado…We have had people who have gone on to have greater impact in larger arenas.

Georgene: Does the Christian Coalition exist in any form in states across the country,  and what do you think is the most profound lesson that we can learn from this organization—the impact  it once had and its current status?

Vaughan: The old Christian Coalition chapters broke off in 2002 and 2003.  They changed their names because they didn’t want to have anything to do with the national Christian Coalition…But Roberta Combs, who has led the Coalition since 1999, has come back in those states and has found new people to start new state Christian Coalitions, and some of them are doing great work…So, in some states there are two groups working, in some states there is one group, and sadly, in some states there are none.  The main lesson is that when you’re involved in any endeavor, you have to focus on the main thing…At the Christian Coalition, we got so sidetracked, we got away from grass roots organizing, we started focusing on events, we started focusing on internal strife, and once that happened, it was just beyond repair.

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