Charleston-based Christian Coalition takes flak 

Former leader births next gen coalition

Conservative politico Ralph Reed, the former longtime leader of the Christian Coalition, has his sights set on a new 21st century endeavor, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution refers to as Christian Coalition 2.0.

But the lights are still on at 1.0, which has been based out of North Charleston for the past several years.

The Christian Coalition was formed in 1989 as a grassroots vehicle to get Christian voters on the same page. It's been credited for a conservative resurgence in the 1990s. In the past few years, other religious political groups have joined the Coalition at the trough, including Focus on the Family and now Reed's new venture.

"This is not going to be your daddy's Christian Coalition," Reed told the Atlanta paper.

And he's not the only one at the Coalition's wake. Longtime staff member Joel Vaughan, now with Focus on the Family, says the group is a shadow of itself. He recently wrote The Rise and Fall of the Christian Coalition: The Inside Story.

Vaughan says the group hit a wall during the Clinton impeachment and really never recovered.

"We stopped doing anything," he says. "The whole grassroots emphasis went away."

Charleston native Roberta Combs stepped in to lead in the late '90s, with Pat Robertson leaving the group a few years later. A large staff and large personalities was replaced with a tight ship and fewer talk show appearances.

"The Christian Coalition has never been about an individual," Combs says.

The group currently has about 20 employees split between offices in Charleston and Washington, as well as about 50 volunteers, she says.

Coalition partners in key states have left. Tax filings for 2007, the latest on record, show the national group headquartered in North Charleston had $75,000 in donations that year, though Combs says that should just be the group's South Carolina haul. She said the Coalition budget is several million dollars, but couldn't provide an exact figure.

Combs seems unaffected by Reed's latest venture.

"There are a lot of organizations out there," she says. "There's always room for more."

The Coalition may no longer have the ear of the administration, but Combs says the group is now focused on Capitol Hill, where she says the real decisions are made. They're now working to educate legislative leaders on family issues.

"Our job is to keep them informed," she says.

Press releases archived at the organization's website are not surprisingly centered on so-called family values issues like anti-gay and anti-abortion initiatives, as well as support for gun rights and conservative talk radio.

But Combs says the group has been expanding its reach to other issues, like proposed health-care and energy reforms

"We should work together on anything that has to do with the family," Combs says.

The group is also focused on voter registration efforts and its well-circulated voter guide. In the last election cycle, the group sent out 30 million voter guides. The Coalition claims two million supporters, Combs says, based not on membership, but volunteers and financial support.

The Coalition has gone through some changes over the past few years. A disagreement with the IRS over the voter guides led to a revocation of the group's tax exempt status from 2000 to 2005. The old voter guide would give one-word assessments of a candidate's stand on complicated, controversial issues. In an agreement with the IRS for re-establishing the Coalition's tax exempt status, the guide now offers candidates a few lines to summarize their position on issues.

Reed told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the new F&F Coalition will be focused on being "younger, hipper, less strident, and more inclusive."

Noting the work the Christian Coalition did pushing back the last Democratic effort toward health care reform, Vaughan seems to speak of the group in the past tense.

"It's really unfortunate, because it's needed now more than ever," he says.

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