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Christian Coalition builds on GOP ties Reagan official, ex-congressman named as new leaders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- In a move that highlights the Christian Coalition's close ties to the Republican majority in Congress, former Reagan Cabinet member Donald P. Hodel and former Rep. Randy Tate were named yesterday to run the nation's most powerful conservative religious organization.

They will take over the duties of Executive Director Ralph Reed, who is leaving this summer to open a political consulting firm. The group's founder, evangelist Pat Robertson, announced the appointments in a ceremonial room at the Capitol, a few steps from the Senate floor.

Hodel, whose selection was a surprise, told reporters that he was returning to politics because of his concern about the "increasing coarseness" of American culture "and a gnawing sense that America's spiritual greatness has been dimmed."

"I believe that the moral and cultural problems that we face as a nation are as serious as any that this country has faced in the past," said Hodel, 62, who became a born-again Christian after the suicide of his teen-age son in the 1970s.

A Colorado energy consultant who was interior secretary and energy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, Hodel will oversee the organization's day-to-day operations as its new president, Robertson said.

Tate, 31, who was defeated in November after one term as a congressman from Washington state, will serve as executive director. A Robertson delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention, Tate was not particularly seen in Congress as a Christian Coalition supporter. But he said yesterday that he agrees "150 percent" with the group's agenda, which is centered on a host of conservative social and economic issues, including strong opposition to abortion.

"I'm convinced now, more than ever, that the real answers to America's problems are not found in this building or in this city," Tate said. "The real answers to America's problems are found in the homes, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues that are the core of this nation."

Robertson, whose unsuccessful 1988 Republican presidential candidacy was the genesis of the Christian Coalition, becomes chairman, a new position. In announcing the new managerial structure, Robertson mistakenly referred to the Christian Coalition as the Christian Broadcasting Network, the religious television network that is the source of much of his wealth and influence.

Confusion about the intermingled roles of various Robertson entities -- and, in particular, about the relationship between the Christian Coalition and the Republican Party -- have been the source of controversy for years.

Last year, the Federal Election Commission sued the Christian Coalition, accusing it of illegally promoting Republican candidates. Officials of the organization, which says it is nonpartisan, have denied the charges. The civil suit is pending in federal court.

For Hodel and Tate, a major challenge will be to sustain the influence of the Christian Coalition, which Reed guided to a position of power in mainstream politics.

Under Reed's leadership, the group drew thousands of religious conservatives into politics and made them an integral part of the Republican Party. Today, religious conservatives effectively control the Republican Party in a number of states.

This week, state Sen. Mark L. Earley, a leading anti-abortion legislator from the Christian Coalition's home base of Chesapeake, Va., won the Republican nomination for attorney general. Robertson credited Earley's victory to what he called a record number of religious conservative votes in the low-turnout primary.

In a brief question-and-answer session with reporters, Hodel and Tate said they had a "very cordial" relationship with the Republican leadership in Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in a statement praising Reed's replacements, likened the Christian Coalition to "a baseball team that just lost Cal Ripken announcing that it picked up Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds to take his place."

Hodel and Tate aren't well-known outside conservative circles. Both have ties to the West, while the Christian Coalition's grass-roots strength has been in the South and Midwest.

"When I founded the Christian Coalition in 1989, I could scarcely have imagined the enormous success that we have had in mobilizing conservatives and people of faith into the public arena," said Robertson, whose group claims nearly 2 million members.

Critics say the membership figures are vastly inflated and insist that the Christian Coalition's influence has peaked.

Pub Date: 6/12/97

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