An early test of presidential appeal indicates no consensus among Christians.

Last month’s Republican primary in Michigan gave three potential presidential candidates their first opportunity to test voter preference. All three—Vice President George Bush, Congressman Jack Kemp, and Christian Broadcasting Network President Pat Robertson—sought the support of conservative Christians.

Bush has retained Christian author and speaker Doug Wead as his liaison to the religious community, and Kemp hired two former White House staff members with ties to the evangelical community. For his part, Robertson denied he was positioning himself as the Christian candidate, but that perception has stayed with him and is suggested even by some of his supporters. Robertson has not said he is God’s man for the office of president; he has said only that he is seeking God’s will before he makes a decision to run.

As the results trickled in last month, backers of Robertson, Kemp, and Bush scrambled to count the number of precinct delegates they could claim. Polling by NBC News indicated 52 percent remain uncommitted, 26 percent support Bush, 12 percent Kemp, and 9 percent Robertson. Among voters who cast ballots for delegates, exit polls conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed Bush attracting 40 percent support, while Kemp and Robertson tied at 9 percent.

Exit polls also indicated that Robertson did not attract the support of even one-quarter of the voters who identified themselves as being “born again.” The delegates are instrumental in choosing their party’s candidates for office. Republican delegates elected on August 5 attended county conventions later last month to choose delegates to the state party convention. In January 1988, at the state party convention, they will select Michigan’s delegation to the national Republican convention.

Muddied Waters

Robertson’s efforts in Michigan further blurred the distinction between the actions of his tax-exempt, educational organization, Freedom Council, and his effort to test the waters for a possible presidential bid.

Robertson created Freedom Council in 1981 in the aftermath of the 1980 Washington for Jesus rally in the nation’s capital. Freedom Council’s stated goals were to organize members to pray for national leaders and to educate Christians about religious freedom and get them involved in politics at all levels. The organization is bound by laws governing tax-exempt charitable, educational groups. The law states that such organizations may not “participate in or intervene in … any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for office.”

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Before Robertson’s appearance at a rally on the Lansing capitol steps, the Freedom Council office hosted a brunch to give its volunteers a chance to meet him. In addition, Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network makes substantial donations of money to Freedom Council, according to Freedom Council spokesman Alan Harkey. And Bob Slosser, president of Robertson’s CBN University, serves as Freedom Council’s president. Freedom Council executive director Greg Jackson said the organization has spent $400,000 in Michigan and has had 12 field workers there since December.

Jackson denies that Freedom Council is enlisting political support for Robertson. He says he views the Michigan activities not as political opportunism but rather as a “field trip” in which Freedom Council staff can “develop information for educating our members.” Freedom Council has also targeted Florida and North Carolina, in which the group will spend approximately $150,000 each this year.

“We in fact do a lot of the same things that a campaign organization does,” Jackson said. “The difference is, we don’t have a candidate. We’re not a campaign for an individual. We have led [Christians] into the political process and said, ‘Here it is, take advantage of it.’ After that, it’s left up to them.”

The Michigan Committee for Freedom, another organization linked to Robertson, has worked closely with Freedom Council. As a state political action committee, the Committee for Freedom is prohibited by law from involvement in national politics.

It donated $10,000 to the successful bid by William Lucas to become the Republican nominee for governor. Lucas was endorsed by Robertson. And another $10,000 of the committee’s funds paid for nine appearances by Robertson during a three-day blitz in Michigan just before the August primary. In Michigan, the Committee for Freedom retains three of Freedom Council’s top employees as consultants, including state director Marlene Elwell. And until mid-July, the committee’s offices were located in the Michigan Freedom Council’s Lansing headquarters.

Groups like Freedom Council are the result of changes in election procedure. Reforms in the 1970s spawned a proliferation of presidential preference contests. Both Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 benefited enormously from a system that encourages early delegate recruitment in key states.

To do this within the limitations of campaign finance regulations requires a serious candidate to use professional consultants and ideologically like-minded organizations to build a base of support. Three years before the Iowa caucuses for the 1980 election, Reagan established Citizens for the Republic with $1 million and himself as chairman. The organization was chartered to “give financial and other support to selected conservative Republicans.” However, columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote, “The organization was immediately seen for what it was: a vehicle for encouraging [some said ‘buying’] support.…” As a result of early organizing, Reagan gathered nearly as many votes as front-runner George Bush, and the field of Republican candidates for 1980 was effectively narrowed to two.

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Church Reaction

This year, early political efforts by Bush, Kemp, and Robertson have met with mixed reactions among Michigan Christians. Michigan churches tend to be highly independent, with a number of very large fundamentalist congregations. Robertson’s Freedom Council was most successful in recruiting delegate candidates from the state’s independent charismatic churches and Christians tied to groups that emphasize political involvement.

Freedom Council precinct organizer James Muffett is an associate minister with Maranatha Campus Ministries at Michigan State University. Working full-time for Freedom Council from April through August, he said he recruited delegate candidates by “just contacting everybody I knew.” When he joined the Freedom Council effort, 25 people were running for precinct delegates from Michigan’s sixth congressional district. Muffett’s efforts raised the total to 250, including more than two dozen from his own congregation.

Walter Huss is typical of the people Freedom Council has recruited. “A year ago, the last thing I wanted to do was to be involved in politics,” he said. “And now just by one step at a time we’re in it and it’s quite exciting.”

Huss, president of the Lansing area’s Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, said he is enthusiastic about a Robertson run for office. “I believe in his theology: I believe in his patriotism,” Huss said. “He’s multiple-issue oriented, and he’s not up there just to espouse his Christianity. Whether he gets elected is not all that important, but he’s forcing other [candidates] to take a stand.”

Michigan church leaders who do not share Robertson’s theological views but are sympathetic with his politics are more ambivalent about the organizing he has done. Errol Jameson, pastor of Lansing’s Calvary Baptist Church, said some of his church members have become involved in local politics, but without establishing formal ties to Freedom Council. “To be honest, we wouldn’t be in the delegate business if Freedom Council hadn’t approached us.” But at the same time, he said, “I don’t think there is strong backing for Robertson himself.”

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Other Christians are particularly uncomfortable with the blurred distinction between Robertson’s apparent 1988 ambitions and the Freedom Council. Quentin Schultze, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, said, “Freedom Council was very clearly set up in part to put in place an organization which would, at the appropriate time, help Robertson with his bid for the presidency. The notion that it was set up to form a nonpartisan grassroots organization is naïve.”

Truman Dollar, pastor of Detroit’s 10,000-member Temple Baptist Church, is a leading fundamentalist who opposes Robertson’s tactics. “He is politicizing the church,” Dollar said. “There is no question about it. He is using the church to round up delegates.”

Freedom Council officials, who say it is not the organization’s fault that some recruits are zealous Robertson backers, insist their nonpartisanship is firmly intact. David Walters, director of the Michigan Committee for Freedom (Robertson’s state political action committee), is a former Freedom Council employee. “The press has forced us into the position [of appearing to be tied to Robertson] by assuming that Freedom Council recruits are Robertson backers,” he said. “We don’t condone people going around saying that.”

It is too early to predict how much of Freedom Council’s efforts will translate into solid support for a Robertson candidacy. But if he decides to run, Robertson will have in place the elements of a volunteer organization that is essential to any national candidate.

By Beth Spring in Michigan.

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