ATLANTA — When the Christian Coalition gathers this weekend for its annual conference, Ralph Reed, the boyish-looking darling of the Christian right, will address the masses as he has at each of the powerful organization's previous five meetings.
But this year, instead of speaking about the coalition's future, Mr. Reed will say farewell - ushering in an era of uncertainty for a group he took over in its infancy and transformed into a major political player during his eight-year leadership.
"The organization's definitely at a crossroads," says John Green, a scholar at the University of Akron in Ohio who follows the religious right.
Since the Republicans swept into the majority in Congress in 1994, the coalition has done a remarkable job of putting its stamp on Congress's agenda. Indeed, the coalition counts the balanced-budget deal and the family tax credit - both approved by Congress this summer - among its legislative successes.
But in recent years, some members have grown disillusioned by the group's inability to reach its final goals on the core issues of school prayer and abortion. And as the new leadership takes control, observers ask if it will be able to keep the coalition's grass-roots activists active.
"The question is whether the Christian Coalition's influence is going to get bigger or smaller under their new leadership," says Joe Conn at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a civil liberties group in Washington. "We're watching for that."
Even Reed sees this as a time of transition for the organization. "I don't want to see the Christian Coalition ... become a parochial or irrelevant force, as it was in danger of becoming a few years ago," he says. "But even as [the coalition] continues to institutionalize and become a fixture on the American political landscape, we must not become our own version of an establishment. That's the tension and that's the balance."
Reed expanded the group's outreach earlier this year when he announced that the group would take on inner-city poverty and race relations. This followed on efforts to attract members from the black, Jewish, and Roman Catholic communities - typically beyond the realm of the largely white Protestant group.
Many expect those efforts at broadening the Christian right's influence and membership will continue. In June, when the new president and executive director were named to replace Reed, the Christian Coalition also announced plans to double in size and influence.
But expanding brings its own set of problems, coalition watchers say. "If the coalition's going to become more inclusive, it's going to have to downplay some of the things it stands for. And that's going to alienate some," says Mr. Green.
Last month's press conference also may signal a shift away from politics and toward the religious, experts say. New president Don Hodel - a former Reagan Cabinet member - announced that the coalition's No. 1 priority was to get a law passed that would make sure countries that persecuted Christians were monitored and punished.
"A lot will depend on how they pursue that issue," Green says. "We'll have to see if this is just an ordinary issue of foreign policy for [the coalition] or if this will be an issue that they pursue with unusual fervency."
Many, though, say it's too early to divine too much about any new direction for the Christian Coalition. Monitors of the religious right say the group is in a rebuilding stage and clear indications of a changed coalition may not appear until the 2000 political campaigns get under way.
The fact that this year's convention is being held in Atlanta instead of Washington provides some evidence that the group is in a bit of a holding pattern. Experts say the group is downplaying this year's meeting a little to give the new leadership time to learn the ropes. This year's gathering is also shorter than usual, with only one full day of information sessions.
The convention's slate of speakers, however, offers no hint of a waning influence. Conservative Republicans like House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 1996 presidential candidates Alan Keyes and Lamar Alexander will be present as expected. But others, such as Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio and '96 presidential hopeful Steve Forbes - who have focused more on budget than Bible - will also speak.
As long as the group has the ability to pull in Republicans of all stripes, it's showing its influence, says Mr. Conn. "The new leaders would have to do a really, really bad job to let the thing plummet very far."