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Reed in the Wind

Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics by Ralph Reed (The Free Press, 311 pp., $25)

The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore (W.W. Norton, 191 pp., $22)

Ralph Reed is Pat Robertson's boy, but his new book contains not a trace of such Robertsonian concerns as Armageddon, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Warburgs and the Rothschilds, or, for that matter, God. Rather than propose that the United States become a theocracy, Reed heatedly renounces the idea. He also comes out against mandated school prayer, the abolition of welfare, the abolition of affirmative action, a constitutional amendment banning abortion ("for the near term") and the prohibition of pornography. He copiously criticizes prominent figures on the religious right, especially Jerry Falwell, and apologizes for the evangelical movement's "past insensitivities" to Catholics, Jews and African Americans.

Reed is often accused of disingenuously presenting himself as a safe character when in fact his views and his agenda are the same as Robertson's. He looks precisely like an Upper West Side liberal's idea of a religious zealot from the Bible Belt, with his vanilla pudding face and headlight eyes. Unless he has a rare ability to sustain a false presentation convincingly through an entire book, however, Active Faith suggests that he ought to be taken at his word when he says that he is a mainstream figure. What's on Ralph Reed's mind is politics first and religion distantly second.

Reed seems to be using this book to speak not to the foot soldiers of the Christian Coalition, but to the (supposedly) hated cultural elite and liberal news media. As he sets about justifying a position here, trimming a position there, his motive is obvious: it is not to sneak in the Christian-right agenda, it is to maximize the political significance of the Coalition and himself. This doesn't mean the irreligiousness of Active Faith ought to reassure people who are worried about the mixing of church and state. Reed's thinking about the issue has the expedient feeling of justification after the fact for a drive to power.

Most members of the Christian Coalition are Pentecostals (like Robertson) or Southern Baptists (like Falwell). Ralph Reed was raised a Methodist, in an atypical venue and class background for members of the religious right: he is the son of an eye surgeon and grew up mostly in Miami. He was born in 1962, and was a political whiz from an early age. In high school he was a Boys State representative, like Bill Clinton. He was chairman of the College Republicans club at the University of Georgia, in which position, he reports, he "built a formidable campus organization." He also founded a national conservative group called Students for America.

Since his book is more apologia than autobiography, it isn't clear from reading it exactly what Reed's moves were after college, but he calls himself a "Republican political operative." In 1983 he had a "faith experience" and began attending an evangelical church; and, in the late '80s, he got a Ph.D. in history from Emory University in Atlanta. (His dissertation topic, not mentioned in his book, was "Fortresses of Faith: Design and Experience at Southern Evangelical Colleges, 1830-1900".) His belief seems sincere, though his conversion to fundamentalism did occur after it had already emerged as a powerful force in the Republican Party. Why he temporarily withdrew from the political field to academia is a bit of a mystery.

In January, 1988, Reed had what he calls "an epiphany," not a religious one, at a Republican precinct caucus in his suburban Atlanta neighborhood. He and his wife had gone to the caucus as supporters of Jack Kemp for president: more than four years after his religious conversion, and only one year before the founding of the Christian Coalition, Reed was an enthusiast for the most economics-oriented, least moralizing candidate in the Republican presidential race. The Reeds "stepped into a hall packed with charismatic Christians and fundamentalist evangelists" who had been tightly organized to deliver the caucus for Pat Robertson. And then:

As I walked back to my car after the meeting, my head was swimming with ideas.... My candidate had been trounced, but I was nevertheless euphoric about the outcome. Why? Because my own dream of bringing religious values and conservative principles back into the political arena after two generations of liberal dominance seemed possible for the first time. I had seen the beginning of a new political era in that Georgia courthouse.... Millions of conservative religious people were coming of age politically, and all they needed was guidance and direction.

Soon afterward, Reed went to New Hampshire during the primary campaign, and there he met Pat Robertson. They met again at the Bush inauguration and had a long talk, during which Reed says that he suggested to Robertson that evangelicals take a more conciliatory approach toward the traditional elements in the Republican Party, "trying to gain influence without casting aside GOP officials and longtime activists." In September 1989, Robertson hired Reed to form the Christian Coalition. This entire history makes Reed look awfully like a non-evangelical Republican who saw in Robertson a good career opportunity, and took it.

What Reed had realized was that fundamentalist Christians were potentially the best constituency group in American politics. They were relatively easy to organize, since they already belonged to churches and other organizations; and they had a high level of discontent with the state of the country, which gave them a strong motivation to become involved in political activity. In particular, Reed writes, "the religious conservative movement was the only hope to build a Republican Party in the South." In his view, the reason the religious right had not yet achieved its political potential was that it had been run by clergymen rather than by experienced pros such as himself.

Falwell's Moral Majority, the precursor organization to the Christian Coalition, was a hollow shell, in Reed's account, with no real membership or organization, highly vulnerable to being unmasked by the press as an emperor with no clothes. It was also politically naive in the extreme, something that Ralph Reed is not. The Moral Majority put into office America's first divorced president, Ronald Reagan, and got nothing in return except friendly phone hookups at right-to-life rallies. Given the weaknesses to which big-time evangelists are notoriously prone, the movement was constantly at risk of being discredited by the sexual and financial excesses of some of its celebrated figures, such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Reed wanted to replace men of the cloth at the operational helm with "the very best legislative tacticians I could find, preferably with strong credentials outside the narrow confines of the religious conservative movement."

The Christian Coalition concentrated on creating the kind of network of local organizations that the Moral Majority never had. Reed says that the Coalition now has 1.7 million members in 2,000 local chapters--the long-term goal is to have a presence in every precinct in America--and that it is "the best organized constituency in American politics." Reed and his allies have been adept at the political uses of fax machines, telemarketing techniques, cable television, talk radio and computer bulletin boards. The Christian Coalition's signature tactic is unloosing an avalanche of grass-roots protest upon the offices of members of Congress. In 1994, for example, a congressman attached an amendment to an education bill requiring that all teachers be state-certified. This deeply alarmed the home-schooling movement, an important element of the Christian right. "Within seventy-two hours an estimated total of 200,000 activists had been notified," according to Reed, and "they lit up the Capitol switchboard like a pinball machine." The amendment failed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 424 to 1. This year, when Bob Dole was staggering after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the Christian Coalition was crucial in helping him beat Pat Buchanan in South Carolina. Now Reed has a big chit to call in.

The proper way to think of Reed is as the present-day equivalent of the boss of a political machine. He occupies a place in the Republican Party equivalent to the place that George Meany or Richard J. Daley occupied in the Democratic Party circa 1960--he's the guy who can deliver the most votes (40 percent of the base Republican vote, he says), and as a result no presidential candidate can afford to ignore him. Reed plainly loves this role. His prose hums with energy when he describes all the leading Republicans paying court to him, or the electrifying effect that he and his supporters have on big party gatherings, or his canny, high-status backroom dealings.

He calls on Ross Perot, whom he regards as a tempting ally because Perot controls the second-biggest voting bloc after Reed, and says, in the manner of a character in an Oliver Stone movie, "What is the endgame, Ross?" He is summoned to the House-Senate conference on the immense telecommunications bill because the Christian Coalition has been able to hold the whole thing up over its objections to immoral programming; he quickly gets the bill on track, and then "I thanked the members for their time, we shook hands, and I bolted for the door. I ran across the Capitol grounds at breakneck speed and jumped into a waiting car, which squealed out of the parking lot and headed for the television studio." He enjoys being paid the tribute of courtesy calls:

... one afternoon while I was getting my hair cut, my cellular phone rang. As the hairdresser snipped her stainless steel scissors around the phone that was glued to my ear, Scott [Reed--no relation] told me that he had just accepted the job as Dole's campaign manager. I congratulated him and hung up.

"Dole is halfway to the nomination. Anyone smart enough to hire Scott Reed could go all the way," I said to no one in particular.

What Reed fears most is being marginalized. He doesn't want to be taken for granted or regarded as someone who makes impractical, preening demands, in the manner of Jesse Jackson. Therefore he constantly emphasizes that he is an inside player who appreciates political realities and is willing to negotiate. (Hence the Christian Coalition's willingness to give ground on the "cyberporn" provisions of the telecommunications bill.) For the same reason he insists, implausibly, that the Coalition is nonpartisan, not Republican. His account of the Coalition's founding makes it clear that its purpose was precisely to be an interest group within the Republican Party, but Reed is trying to dispel the impression that his people are going to vote Republican no matter what. He does not want big-time Republican politicians to take his constituency, and therefore him, for granted.

Purely in practical terms, there are two potential difficulties facing Reed, both of which can be made vivid by thinking of the example of Meany's successor at the afl-cio, Lane Kirkland. First, Reed's power is a function of the size and the efficiency of his organization. It is hard work to maintain a national network of precinct organizations, and if the Christian Coalition begins losing members Reed will begin losing influence, no matter how much it appears that everyone really values his advice. Second, there is a mismatch between the natural agenda of the membership and the issues on which its leader can be most influential in Washington. Kirkland was more interested in foreign policy than in lunch-bucket economic issues, which gained status for him in Washington and lost status for him in Sandusky.

For Reed, the problem is even more delicate. Although he insists that his members are mostly middle-class and college-educated, not "bigoted hillbillies and anti-Semitic rednecks rising from the swamps and backwoods," it is still the case that they are people who feel that a profound moral rot is eating away at American society. The political issues that address this conviction aren't the ones that rivet the attention of cloakroom Washington. The Christian Coalition's inaugural cause was the National Endowment for the Arts's funding of a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. For Reed to push the likes of this and home schooling would make him, in the mind of Washington, a crank--an important crank, but a crank. Thus he has consistently moderated his stands on the social issues and gotten the Coalition involved in matters that fall within the purview of the Ways and Means and Finance and Budget Committees, the consequential people in town.

When Newt Gingrich was drawing up the Contract with America, Reed agreed to put his organization strongly behind it, even though there was no mention of abortion or other social issues. In the short run, this was a smart decision--the impression that Reed was the man responsible for the Republicans' getting control of Congress in 1994 was what made him a magazine-cover celebrity--but one wonders how long the Coalition's members, who have been pumped up with the social-issue message in church, on television and through the mail for years, will accept the trade of no action on the causes they care about most in exchange for more influence generally.

Given Reed's personal history, the suspicion arises that while he may be sincerely conservative and religious, he isn't a leader mystically at one with his flock. It is an expedient relationship on both sides. At one point Reed, by way of demonstrating independence and toughness under fire, quotes a former Moral Majority official accusing the Christian Coalition of being "a slave to public opinion polls." The accusation has a sting to it, since Reed, by his own admission, conducts polls and focus groups that help to determine his political strategy. A poll of evangelical voters that the Christian Coalition commissioned in 1993 produced the "startling revelation" that they cared more about economic issues than social issues; this finding provided the backdrop to Reed's decision in 1994 to drop the social issues temporarily in favor of "a deep tax cut for families."

During the tax-cut campaign, Reed ran afoul of Representative John Kasich, a deficit hawk, who told him, "All you want is goodies for your constituency just like everybody else around here!" (Reed adds this hilarious foray into ethnic humor: "In a later meeting, he turned to Marshall, our Jewish lobbyist, and tongue-in-cheek called us `greedy Christians' for pushing a tax cut.") Reed, in turn, portrays Kasich as being overly influenced by "propeller-heads and policy wonks." These words appear on page 167 of Active Faith. By page 171, however, Reed is not only supporting deficit reduction, he is claiming divine justification for it: "The biblical principle of chronic debt leading to financial bondage ... led us to favor a balanced budget and lower deficits." And soon he is trying to forge a strategic alliance with Ross Perot, even though "Perot supporters are secular, attend church infrequently, and care little about abortion and school prayer." Why? "When the Perot and religious conservative constituencies back the same candidates ... the result is a tidal wave of historic proportions."

Reed refers often enough to the "radical left," the "cultural elite" and "special interests" to demonstrate that whatever convenient adaptation of positions supposedly derived from moral absolutes he may engage in, he's on the Right side. He is intensely sensitive, surely more sensitive than Robertson, to criticism from the liberal press, and he's quite good at spotting the sanctimoniousness in the condemnations of him and the condescension in discussions of his membership. (Reed puts a lot of effort into a conciliatory speech before the Anti-Defamation League and then reports that "Frank Rich, former theater critic for The New York Times, dismissively snarled, 'Add five words ('Today I am a man'), and Mr. Reed's oration would be a credit to any bar mitzvah.'") In the daily press of business, he must tell himself that whatever he does is merely in the service of toppling the hated liberal establishment; but in Active Faith he's up to something much more ambitious. He wants to provide a fully thought-out historical and intellectual justification of the Christian Coalition's strategy.

It is noteworthy and admirable that Reed would undertake this. Most political pros at his level couldn't, and wouldn't want to. His thesis is this: the Christian Coalition, rather than representing a threatening and unprecedented incursion of religious people into politics, is part of a long, honorable tradition of "religious impulses borne out in practical politics." Reed provides lots of examples of religious movements that became politically involved and political leaders who expressed religious sentiments. Four precedents seem to be most on his mind: the temperance movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc), William Jennings Bryan and the emergence of the Catholic vote as the base of the Democratic Party during the 1920s and 1930s. The drys and Bryan he admires but regards as negative role models--they lost, Bryan because he had an "inwardturning, backward-looking economic agenda," the prohibitionists because they were "dogmatic" and thought government could effectively regulate private morality. It is Martin Luther King Jr. and the Democratic-Catholic nexus, both successes, with whom Reed would most like to identify himself.

Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore's useful book, The Godless Constitution, was written precisely to refute Reed's and Robertson's view of the history of religion and politics in America. Reed has outrun the posse, to some extent, by backing away from some of his earlier statements about Christians taking back America that Kramnick and Moore have put their effort into disproving. Kramnick and Moore remind us that it took a great struggle for the framers of the Constitution and other early American figures to create a nation in which there was no religious test for office-holding. Pre-constitutional America, especially the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was meant to be a "Christian Commonwealth," in which only Christians could vote and ministers' salaries were paid out of tax revenue. The "religious liberty" that the Puritans came here to find really meant, as Kramnick and Moore remind us, "the liberty to practice religion as they saw fit and to penalize anyone who disagreed with them." For the Constitution not to mention religion at all represented a rejection of this tradition--an extremely controversial decision not to make the United States a Christian nation. It wasn't contemporary liberals who upset the founders' religious ideas about the United States, it was the founders who upset the Puritans' ideas.

Kramnick and Moore realize that Reed hasn't made any public statements of the Christian-nation variety lately. (The same cannot be said about Robertson.) Instead they criticize him for the degree to which he has secularized the Christian Coalition's operations:

If restrictions on abortion won't fly, then attack welfare spending. If prayer in the school doesn't appeal to enough conservative voters, then argue that increased spending for the military is Christian. If you sense that no one will vote for legislation to make divorce more difficult, and certainly not leading Republican men, then link high taxes to moral decline.

Religious fundamentalists are not necessarily happy with this sort of politics. Many of them suspect that Ralph Reed's leadership of the Christian Coalition has let the organization become the tool of the conservative wing of the Republican Party that has no burning interest in its moral agenda.

Reed would like to use the example of his chosen forebears to defend such activities, but the comparisons aren't nearly as precise as he'd like them to be. (Reed's intellectualism is generally more showy than deep; he calls a Hobson's choice a "Hobbesian choice.") King's movement, like the Christian Coalition, was based in churches, was explicitly Christian, and actively sought changes in government policy. In its heyday, however, almost all of its members weren't permitted to vote, so the Christian Coalition's main techniques, turning out the troops in elections and flooding Congress with constituent protests, were unavailable to it. The sclc was founded to push through a single goal, civil rights for blacks. The Christian Coalition, by Reed's account, was founded to maximize the broad political power of fundamentalist Christians. The sclc won on its main issue; the Christian Coalition has traded away action on its most useful causes, such as abortion, school prayer and pornography, for more influence generally. When King's interests broadened, he lost political importance--just the opposite of the situation with Reed. King followed his convictions and became a socialist, but Reed has moderated himself to gain power.

In the case of the Democrats and the Catholics, Reed comes very close to presenting Franklin Roosevelt as an essentially religious leader, in a way that's almost comically tendentious:

On the day he boarded the train that would take him to Washington for his inaugural, he requested the company of James A. Farley, a man known to him as having "a great and simple religious faith," who would soon be considered one of the country's most skillful political forecasters. The two men talked not of the grave economic crisis that threatened to rend the nation, but of the determinative effect of faith in God. More important than any planned political approach to the solution of the present political crisis was a great people's religious faith, Roosevelt said ... he would launch the New Deal with a prayer.

This makes it look as if the Democrats achieved their success by making themselves into a religious party: "Without the treatment of labor politics as part of one's religion, the Democratic Party could never have gained the votes of millions of Catholics, which made it a majority party." More recently, according to Reed, the Democrats turned against religion and thereby lost their power--but this, too, is a stretch. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all did the things that Reed uses as evidence for Franklin Roosevelt's allegedly unique religiosity, such as attend church before being sworn in and invoke God in their inaugural addresses. (As Kramnick and Moore observe, it remains inconceivable that anyone but a professing Christian could be elected president of the United States.)

Reed does have a valid historical argument about the legitimacy of political involvement by religious groups, but there is a disjunction between the logic of his position and what the Christian Coalition really does. The tradition to which the Christian Coalition plausibly belongs is one of church-based citizens' groups pressuring the political system, from the outside, for reforms that arise from their religious beliefs. That's what the sclc did: it was always a group lobbying government, never an inside player within government. In the case of the Christian Coalition, the inside-outside distinction is particularly important, for what seems to be its members' true cause is a profound objection to the state of American culture, and there is a limit to what government can do to correct this problem.

In Active Faith, Reed repeatedly says that cultural issues are more important to the Christian Coalition than economic issues, and that moral reform is more important than political reform. "[T]hough it may come as a surprise to some," he writes, "I believe there are strict limits to what politics can accomplish. In many cases our best agenda may not be a political agenda at all." And: "What America needs is not political revolution but spiritual renewal." And: " ... cultural change is more important than political victory in changing behavior in a free and democratic society." If that is the case, then the Coalition might plausibly push the government for certain highly particular reforms, along the lines of its original agenda of de-funding Robert Mapplethorpe exhibits, and put its main energies into non-political activity aimed at influencing the culture, such as Christian broadcasting. This would be consistent with the tradition of religious activism that Reed lays out and wants to be considered a part of. (Indeed, with evangelical church membership skyrocketing as voter participation declines, the Coalition ought to be happier with the state of America.)

Instead the Coalition is behaving like a political machine or even a political party--something the sclc and the temperance movement never did. In one of his moments of intellectual consistency and attunement to his membership, Reed writes that "there is no economic solution to this moral chaos-- it is a collection of moral problems that require moral solutions," but in his Washington-pol mode Reed has shifted the Coalition's focus to economic issues and to exercising as much influence as possible on government across a wide range of issues. This really is new territory for a religious organization, and what is disturbing about Reed is that the allure of his role seems to have obliterated any awareness he may have of the distinction between religious reformism and religious governance.

In his eagerness to justify what he loves doing, Reed sometimes misrepresents political phenomena of the past, such as Bryan populism and the New Deal, as having been essentially religious when they were not. At other times he blithely contradicts himself. On page 279 he writes, reassuringly, "The truth is that we eschew political power." But on page 249 there is this:

[Religious conservatives] must do more than "send a message" to the elites and party leaders. They must win elections. They must govern. They must pull the levers of government and turn the wheels of the larger society for the good of the nation. Politically, people of faith have come of age. They must act the part.

Reed's objective in Active Faith is to be comforting, by showing how moderate his positions are, how willing to compromise he is. In fact, his book is alarming, since it demonstrates that in his mind there is no bright-line difference between church-based groups seeking political redress of grievances and the operating of the government along religious lines. Ralph Reed is very good at exercising political power and he is likely to do whatever he can to exercise as much of it as possible. Abstract principles about the proper relation of religion and government are obviously not his uppermost concern, or he wouldn't be so muddled and contradictory in discussing them. The lesson to be drawn from his book is that Reed can be counted on to try to increase his influence, but society should by no means entrust him with the task of determining how much influence he ought to have.

Nicholas Lemann is national correspondent of The Atlantic Monthly.

This article originally ran in the July 8, 1996, issue of the magazine.