Support for Israel was the major theme of the 2002 Road to Victory conference held by the Christian Coalition in Washington, D.C. October 11-12.
Long known as a major source of troops for the right-wing of the Republican Party, the CC has undergone a lot of changes in the last few years. It has always advocated Christian support for the Israeli state, but never so thoroughly and vociferously as this year. At the conference and in the exhibit area there were more Israeli flags than American flags and Stars of David vastly outnumbered Crucifixes.
At a solidarity rally scheduled for the Ellipse in front of the White House, but moved to the convention center due to rain, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert thanked the “lovers of Zion” for their help and support. His Christian audience gave him a standing ovation while waving a sea of Israeli flags. In the meantime, about 300 Jews who had not learned that the rally had relocated, heard their own speakers on the Ellipse.
Israel and groups supporting Israel were major financial backers of the 2002 conference. The Israel Ministry of Tourism contributed over $10,000, and cognate organizations gave many thousands more.
Another big change was in the Coalition’s leadership. Roberta Combs took over as President last December, after Pat Robertson resigned to return to “spiritual ministry”. Robertson founded the Christian Coalition in 1989 with a $64,000 grant from the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the wake of his 1988 Presidential campaign. From its founding until 1997, executive director Ralph Reed ran the CC, while Robertson made occasional speeches. Combs organized and led the South Carolina CC until Robertson brought her into the national leadership as Executive Vice President. She had previously managed his Presidential campaign in that state.
Under Reed’s leadership, the CC became a political power in the 1990s, mobilizing its adherents to vote for conservative candidates who opposed abortion for any reason, promoted prayer in public schools, and were intolerant of feminists, liberals and homosexuals. The voter guides it passed out in churches told conservative Christians how to vote on election day, helping Republicans gain control of Congress in 1994. Its aggressive campaigning also led to loss of the CC’s tax exemption in 1999, compelling a significant reorganization.
This plus the departure of its top leadership left the CC in debt and under attack. Its mixture of fundamentalist religion and politics motivated followers to defeat many moderate Republicans, but made it difficult for the Republicans who took their place to defeat Democrats or to pass their own bills if elected. Robertson’s provocative statements stirred his fundamentalist followers to action but alienated political leaders even when they agreed with him on issues.
The CC often finds itself torn between its values and the real world of politics. It supported the election of George W. Bush, who acknowledged the CC’s importance with a videotaped recording to the 2002 conference, but doesn’t agree with many of his policies, especially those on the middle-east. Bush supports the creation of a Palestinian state; the CC does not. It wants the U.S. to recognize an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving the U.S. embassy there.
After September 11, Bush told Americans not to blame Moslems, because Islam was a religion of peace. Combs believes it is a religion of conquest. “So many Moslems hate us [because] their religion commands it,” she told the magazine Israel Today. “The terrorist war on Israel of the last two years is the direct result of appeasement.” She admonished Jews and Christians to unite for mutual defense.
The CC doesn’t really believe in the separation of church and state. It believes that this country was founded as a Christian republic and should stay a Christian republic. That is why it is so deeply offended at court decisions prohibiting prayer in public schools, the removal of the Ten Commandments from public buildings and proposals to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. It believes that Christianity is what makes America good. “If you take ‘God’ out of ‘good’, you have ‘0’,” one speaker told the 500 devotees who came to the first plenary.
The CC lobbied heavily for a bill that would have allowed churches and other nonprofit religious organizations to endorse political candidates and spend money to help elect them. It was recently defeated in the House by 239 to 178.
Under Combs leadership, the “new” Christian Coalition is returning to its “spiritual foundations,” with more emphasis on “prayer and Christian fellowship.” Whereas Ralph Reed was a political pragmatist who submerged religion to the necessities of a broad public appeal, Combs wants to do the reverse. She quotes Scripture to explain her every action. Political strategy sessions at CC’s headquarters south of the Capitol resemble prayer meetings and revivals. Pastors and church officials have become partners in politics.
Partially to reflect its revived religious orientation and partially offset the cost, Combs brought in Joyce Meyer Ministries as a co-sponsor of the 2002 conference. From her home in St. Louis, Meyer and her husband produce TV programs, radio broadcasts, tape recordings and books teaching that the Bible is the Word of God. She preached a lengthy sermon at each of the four main sessions. But she spent the first one praising her husband and explaining why he was the business manager and not the one behind the podium. It’s not his calling she said. God called me to preach. Otherwise, she stuck to religion, extolling the Bible as the answer to all problems. “It helps you when your husband tells you to do something you don’t want to do,” was one example.
Despite the religious emphasis, the convention still had a panoply of political speakers, but not the “big names” it has had in the past. Apart from Bush’s videotaped welcome, no one from the Administration spoke. The highest elected official was House Majority Whip Tom Delay (TX). The other non-elected political speakers were from the fringes of the right–Phyllis Schlafly, Alan Keyes, Oliver North–not its intellectual center where conservative policies are debated and written. There were several African Americans among the speakers and more in the audience. Although basically white and fundamentalist, the CC has always reached out to Catholics, Jews and African-Americans, but with mostly token success. For those who agree with its conservative values, its public face is inclusive — more so than most conservative organizations. However, until recently, the annual Road to Victory conference was held over the Jewish High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur). Last February, several black employees filed a discrimination lawsuit.
JO FREEMAN is feminist scholar and civil rights organizer. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org