"Religious right at political crossroads; Coral Ridge Ministries' decision to disband its political arm has raised questions about how the conservative Christian movement will define its national agenda in the coming years.
Source: The Miami Herald 05/08/2007
When nearly 1,000 Christian activists gathered in Fort Lauderdale two years ago for the Center for Reclaiming America's annual political conference, the mood was triumphant. Speakers hailed President Bush's reelection and the leaders rolled out ambitious plans: launching a Capitol Hill lobbying arm, opening a dozen regional offices and recruiting activists in all 435 congressional districts.
No more. The center -- one of the country's leading Christian grass-roots political organizations -- closed its Fort Lauderdale doors last month, sparking speculation about what its sudden demise means for the future of the religious right.
''It's a big loss,'' said the Florida Prayer Network's Pam Olsen, who led a prayer rally Thursday to mark the National Day of Prayer at the state Capitol. Olsen, who served as the state chairwoman for social conservative outreach for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, vowed a comeback: ``You will see the Christian-values voters rise again.''
Others, however, see a crumbling conservative Christian base deflated by ethical scandals in the Republican Party, the Democratic victory in the 2006 congressional elections and -- perhaps most significantly -- a split between the old guard and new leaders over where to go from here. An increasingly vocal branch has called for expanding the platform to include global warming, HIV/AIDS and poverty.
`BROADEN OUR AGENDA'
''There's a growing constituency in the evangelical movement that says we really do need to broaden our agenda,'' said the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, who last year stepped down as president-elect of the Christian Coalition after the group refused to include climate change and poverty on its agenda. ``We need to be not so narrow and combative.''
The Center for Reclaiming America, founded in 1996 as the political-action arm of the Rev. D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, once stood at the forefront of the fight to ban same-sex marriage, outlaw abortion and promote religion in schools and public life.
The center helped rally Christian activists during the Terri Schiavo controversy, gathered thousands of signatures for a statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and sent 196,422 signatures to the U.S. Supreme Court urging the justices to uphold the ban on what is known as partial-birth abortion, which they did last month.
Advancing a conservative Christian agenda remains central to the ministry's mission, but the organization will deliver its message through its media channels rather than lobbying, said John Aman, a spokesman for Coral Ridge Ministries, which had $38 million in revenue in 2005.
''It is a shift in means but not ends,'' he said. ``It's going back to doing what we're best at, which is creating media.''
Coral Ridge officials say they hope to extend the ministry's television, radio and Internet outreach to 30 million by 2012, up from three million today.
Kennedy, 76, who suffered a heart attack last December, was recuperating in a Michigan hospital when the center shuttered its operations. Some have speculated that the closings came about as a result of Kennedy's prolonged absence, although Coral Ridge officials maintained that the two were unrelated.
Kennedy, who founded Coral Ridge in 1974, later emerged as an internationally known evangelist whose Coral Ridge Hour became synonymous with the preacher's slate gray hair, dark suits and robes and commanding voice.
John Green, a senior fellow in religion and politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said the longevity of conservative Christian organizations is often tied to their leaders.
''Many of them are based around strong personalities, and many of them grew out of the individual ministries of televangelists,'' he said. ``It's quite plausible and quite likely that these closings have something to do with Rev. Kennedy's illness.''
The closings come at a challenging moment for the religious right.
The Christian Coalition -- founded in 1989 by televangelist Pat Robertson and credited with helping Republicans seize control of Congress in 1994 -- has dwindled financially and politically. It boasted a budget of $26 million in the late 1990s. By last year, the group was $2 million in debt, fighting off creditors and facing defections from some of its strongest state chapters, including those of Iowa, Ohio and Alabama.
Not all religious right groups are struggling. Focus on the Family, James Dobson's Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group, commanded a formidable budget of more than $140 million in 2005, according to GuideStar.org, which monitors nonprofits' tax returns. Tony Perkins' Family Research Council still has considerable influence in Washington. And Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries' budget was $38 million in 2005, according to GuideStar's latest records.
But groups that are flourishing may face problems as their base ages, particularly if they fail to court younger evangelicals, said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has studied the religious right.
Some evangelicals are tiring of electoral politics in the wake of ethical scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Christian conservative poster boy Ralph Reed. 'Some of them are beginning to say, `Maybe we've been had in the electoral arena,' '' Wilcox said.
The next generation will likely be less easily swayed by the right's mobilization efforts, he added. ''Younger evangelicals are slightly less partisan, and they tend to be less scared by secularism,'' Wilcox said. ``They're engaging a broader social agenda.''
Last year, pastor Rick Warren, the author of the popular book The Purpose-Driven Life, drew the ire of some conservative Christians for inviting Democratic Sen. Barack Obama to an AIDS conference at his Saddleback Church in California.
And 86 evangelicals, including Warren and Florida's Hunter, backed an initiative on climate change, drawing criticism from James Dobson and other conservatives who oppose Christian involvement on climate issues. Last week, a coalition of evangelical leaders launched an initiative to lobby Congress for immigration reform.
Many Christian conservatives disagree with such efforts, arguing that the Bible speaks more directly on pro-life and marriage issues.
Aman of Coral Ridge said the ministry remains committed to its original moral vision. Other Florida groups -- including the Florida Prayer Network and the Florida Family Policy Council, an affiliate of Focus on the Family -- also say they will stick to their core issues: same-sex marriage and abortion.
''The social conservative movement should not change its agenda,'' said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. ``While the scripture speaks to all areas, it speaks with more clarity to some areas than others.''
But Northland Church's Hunter, who was among the evangelical leaders who signed the recent statement on immigration reform, said Christian activists must diversify their platform to remain relevant.
''A lot of these religious right organizations are kind of trapped within their original visions right now,'' he said.
''Most movements start off being against something. In order to mature, you have to figure out what you're for,'' Hunter said."