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The political recession

National | Hard times-loss of membership, diffusion of focus-have plagued religious-right organizations

Issue: "Welfare to work," March 16, 2002

What's the most pressing issue pro-family activist groups are working on today? Partial-birth abortion? Stem-cell research? Prayer in schools?

Judging from the Christian Coalition website, nothing is more important right now than getting Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" designated as the National Hymn. A single link dominates almost one-quarter of the Coalition's homepage, featuring a bald eagle and an American flag surrounded by the words, "God Bless America Task Force." Following the link, concerned citizens can help start a "grassfire" by signing an e-petition and ordering a yard sign ($12 plus $2.95 postage and handling).

Other Christian organizations are busy fighting political brush fires of their own choosing. Recent press releases from the Traditional Values Coalition alerted members of the media that Kingdom Buy, an online shopping service for Christians, had been attacked by "porn addicts" and that movie critic Roger Ebert had panned a Christian movie review site.

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A national hymn? Christian shopping services? If those issues sound like something of a stretch for leading groups on the religious right, you're not the only one who's noticed. "On Capitol Hill, these groups are often regarded like a car alarm in a mall parking lot: You hear the noise, but you ignore it," sighs Erik Lokkesmoe, a longtime congressional staffer and chairman of The Voice Behind, a faith-based communications group.

"They do carry weight on certain issues," Mr. Lokkesmoe acknowledges. "Sort of the areas they started with." Specifically, he singles out pro-life, defense of marriage, and religious liberties as topics on which religious-right organizations can sometimes wield real influence.

Management experts would recognize the problem as mission creep-the tendency of successful organizations to try to extend their influence beyond the limits of their core expertise. Many longtime veterans of the culture wars see the creep as well underway.

"The fundamental problem has been a diffusion of focus," says Bob Morrison, who spent nearly a dozen years as a top manager at the Family Research Council. For parallels, he looks to the early days of the civil-rights movement. "For a self-conscious minority to go from the back of the bus to the Civil Rights Act in 10 years is nothing short of remarkable," he says. Black Americans earned that achievement thanks to the "tight focus and strong moral claims" of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Only later in his career, when Dr. King branched out into opposing the Vietnam War and backing other liberal causes, did the movement begin to founder.

By aggressively expanding their portfolios in the 1990s-many groups actively opposed the Clinton administration on just about every position it took-pro-family organizations found themselves with huge staffs and payrolls. Then, when contributions started to decline at the end of the decade, budget cutbacks and staff reductions took their toll on morale.

Sometimes the strain became very public. Membership in the Christian Coalition reportedly dropped by 25 percent or more in the late 1990s, and top executives seemed to come and go via a revolving door. Last year, Pat Robertson himself stepped aside, just as the organization he founded was reaching an out-of-court settlement in a racial discrimination suit filed by a dozen former employees.

In other cases, the tension remained mostly behind the scenes. The Family Research Council aggressively buffed up its mailing list and expanded its issues as Gary Bauer positioned himself for a presidential run. Since 1998, however, the organization has seen its budgets plunge by roughly one-third, and two rounds of layoffs in the past year have contributed to a turnover of about 30 percent of the staff, according to FRC.

Many of those employees find their way to other Christian organizations, of course. Concerned Women for America picked up several high-level FRC staffers, while others moved on to Culture of Life, a pro-life think tank. But Wendy Wright, a spokesperson at Concerned Women for America, says that despite the mission creep that makes many organizations appear interchangeable, each has a definite role to play in Washington.

"We can't take on everything at once. Each of the groups helps take up the slack." Of the Christian Coalition, for instance, she says: "Their grass-roots, get-out-the-vote effort-there's nothing else like it in our movement." Likewise, all the family groups depend on the top-notch research turned out by FRC. "I don't want to see them go away," she says. "They're invaluable to the movement."

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