Editor’s note: This piece by John J. Miller appeared in the May 28, 2001, issue of National Review.
Pat Robertson recently committed what may be the most startling gaffe of his career. It was a big belly flop of a blunder, one that might have finished off his reputation among conservatives. What’s truly amazing, though, is how little reputation he had left, even before this late offense.
During a CNN interview on April 16, Wolf Blitzer asked Robertson, chairman of the Christian Coalition, for an opinion on “the so-called forced abortions in China.” It wasn’t clear what Blitzer meant by “so-called” — either abortions are forced or they aren’t, and in China they are — but it was a high, hanging softball of a question for any pro-life spokesman. Robertson managed to whiff, somehow. He thought it was worth considering the matter from the perspective of the Chinese government: “They’ve got 1.2 billion people, and they don’t know what to do. If every family over there was allowed to have three or four children, the population would be completely unsustainable.” He went on to cite “the risk of a tremendous unemployment” and the tragic possibility that the Chinese people would become “too restive.” Robertson summed up: “So I think that right now they’re doing what they have to do. I don’t agree with the forced abortion, but I don’t think the United States needs to interfere with what they’re doing.”
They’re doing what they have to do. Now that’s a hard comment to live down. Any pro-life leader who defends China’s forced-abortion policy isn’t going to remain a pro-life leader for long. Robertson later released a statement saying that, come to think of it, “I am unalterably opposed to the policy which would result in forced abortions.” But the damage was done. “His comment went right to the heart of the organization’s issues,” says Chuck Cunningham, a former Christian Coalition lobbyist. “He stirred up a hornet’s nest with the state affiliates.”
Or at least what remains of them. There used to be one in every state, but today only a handful are still vigorous. The Christian Coalition, to tell the truth, has collapsed almost completely. The group’s clout on Capitol Hill barely registers. In April, it canceled its national convention. “The Christian Coalition is a hollow shell,” says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “There’s nothing left.”
It’s tempting to blame the whole mess on Robertson. He has, in fact, demonstrated a powerful penchant for goofiness. Appearing on his 700 Club television show three years ago, he made an apocalyptic prediction about “Gay Pride Day” at Disney World. “I would warn Orlando that you’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you,” he said. “A condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It’ll bring about terrorist bombs, it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”
Perhaps it’s possible to laugh off a couple of stray comments like that one-except that Robertson can’t seem to go more than a few weeks without delivering another head-spinner. He has also made this declaration: “Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians.” Robertson’s intemperate remarks have often galled conservatives. Shortly before the 1996 election, for instance, he declared that Bob Dole didn’t stand a chance. During Bill Clinton’s impeachment ordeal, he repeatedly urged Republicans to give up: “From a public-relations standpoint, [Clinton has] won. They might as well dismiss this impeachment hearing and get on with something else, because it’s over as far as I’m concerned.” Statements like that are helpful neither to the conservative cause nor to Robertson’s own. Such a proclivity for unmeasured rhetoric is a debilitating handicap-the sort of thing that can uproot and destroy whole organizations.
Nobody can deny that the Christian Coalition made a lasting imprint on American politics. Founded shortly after Robertson’s failed presidential bid in 1988, the group soared to great heights in a very short time. It fought a guerrilla war against the National Endowment for the Arts during the first Bush administration, and its dues-paying membership boomed after Clinton’s inauguration. The Christian Coalition was a major player in the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. This was no small feat, and while much of the credit should go to people other than Robertson — former executive director Ralph Reed arguably was more responsible — a good deal of it necessarily must reflect back on the fellow sitting atop the organizational chart.
But now there’s no organization left. Like an insect that takes wing, mates, and dies in a single day, the coalition accomplished quite a bit in a short period — and vanished. The group’s current leaders say they distributed 70 million voter guides last fall, but their impact was not nearly as great as in the past. “We can’t count on that line of communication anymore,” says Rep. Tom Reynolds, a New York Republican. Former Christian Coalition operative Marshall Wittmann puts it more bluntly: “The religious Right as a political institution doesn’t exist.”
Is this Robertson’s fault? It’s tempting to blame him, but a better question is why evangelical politics in general has failed to institutionalize itself. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority also saw some political success (Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election) and then fell off the map after about ten years. To be sure, there are plenty of groups that advance the interests of Christian conservatives, but these are typically small outfits that focus on discrete issues, such as abortion or home schooling. The evangelicals’ failure to sustain a broad-based national organization devoted to electing candidates is odd. Feminists and union members have done it; why not evangelicals?
The problem may be a fundamental one: Evangelicals live in the City of Man, but devote themselves to the City of God. Politics has its place, but that place is a low one. For the secular Left, of course, there is only the City of Man, and there may be no higher vocation than political activism. This puts Christian conservatives at a relative disadvantage when it comes to organization. To complicate matters, evangelical politics is much like evangelical churches: centered on individual, charismatic personalities who operate in highly entrepreneurial environments. These leaders are not held accountable to ecclesiastical bodies the way, for instance, priests must submit to the authority of the Catholic Church. Their autonomy may lead to innovation and astonishingly rapid success, but it also undercuts stability and sets the stage for spectacular crashes.
Even the most successful evangelical churches can disappear overnight, as when a popular pastor dies — or, in the case of Robertson, diminishes his standing by making a series of flaky statements. Yet Robertson’s influence may live on, and in this sense the Christian Coalition may matter even after it’s gone. “One of its primary goals was to create a distinctly evangelical voting bloc,” says University of Akron political scientist John Green. “And there’s no doubt this has happened.” In 1960, only 38 percent of active evangelical Protestants considered themselves Republican; by 1988, that had grown to 53 percent. Five years ago, 70 percent favored Dole; last fall, 84 percent voted for Bush. Much of this movement would have happened without the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition, but it’s hard to believe the shift would have been so complete without organizations devoted to bringing evangelicals into the GOP. “Today, when Republicans think about their base, they think about evangelical voters,” says Green. “This wasn’t true twenty-five years ago.”
The evangelicals may not have institutionalized themselves, but existing political institutions have absorbed them. That’s how movements work. If they succeed, they go out of business-but leave behind a landscape transformed by their labors. When 84 percent of the Christian Coalition’s target audience votes a single way, there’s arguably no need for voter guides to inform them of the difference between Republicans and Democrats. They already know. Whatever outreach needs to occur can be done through established groups, such as the GOP itself.
As for Pat Robertson, he won’t go quietly. He’ll continue to attract mainstream attention, but will have no authentic constituency. His supporters are already looking elsewhere for leadership.