Group to Rally Evangelical Voters

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Conservative Christian radio host James C. Dobson's national organization, Focus on the Family, said yesterday that it will work with affiliated groups in eight battleground states to mobilize evangelical voters in the November elections.

In targeting individual churches the way political organizers traditionally pinpointed certain wards, Focus on the Family is filling a void left by the near-collapse of the Christian Coalition and stepping into an area where recent Republican Party efforts have created resentment among evangelicals.

As a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, Focus on the Family is barred from endorsing candidates. Tom Minnery, vice president of the Colorado-based group, said its efforts would be nonpartisan.

During the 1990s, the Christian Coalition distributed millions of voter guides through churches and played a major role in mobilizing evangelicals. After the Christian Coalition suffered financial and management problems, the Republican Party directly organized conservative Christian congregations in key states in the 2004 presidential race.

When memos leaked about the Bush-Cheney campaign's effort to collect church membership directories, however, the GOP came under sharp criticism from some evangelical leaders. Neither the Federal Election Commission nor the Internal Revenue Service charged Republican officials with any violation, and the GOP never backed away from the tactic. But political strategists came to view church-based organizing as both effective and controversial.

In an e-mail message to supporters last week, Focus on the Family said it would partner with its state-level "family policy councils" to "combat voter apathy and encourage Christians to go to the polls" in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota, Montana and Tennessee. Minnery, in a telephone interview, said those states were chosen for their "live, hotly contested races."

The e-mail said Focus on the Family is looking for volunteer county coordinators whose duties would include "recruiting key evangelical churches." It also is seeking "church coordinators" who would encourage pastors to "speak about Christian citizenship," conduct voter-registration drives, distribute voter guides and run get-out-the-vote efforts.

In mid-September, Focus on the Family and other conservative groups are planning to hold a "Value Voters Summit" in Washington.

Phil Burress, president of Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values, one of the state-level groups working with Dobson, said the summit will be a "pep rally" similar to the "Road to Victory" conferences that the Christian Coalition used to run in election years.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, charged that "Dobson's drive to build a church-based political machine will jeopardize the tax exemption of participating congregations."

Minnery, in response, called Lynn "a bully who wants to clear the field of conservative voices" in politics. "Doing nonpartisan voter registration is perfectly acceptable and legitimate and legal -- and matches what has been done in liberal churches for years," Minnery said.

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