The Christian Rights

Article excerpt

Theology, said the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, teaches people what social goals and ends are desirable; politics, the most effective way to achieve those ends.

An organization that attempts to combine the two, say in the form of an explicitly Christian party, may find itself in a politically awkward and even morally dangerous position. "By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party," warned Mr. Lewis, "it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to the temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time - the temptation of claiming for our favorite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith."

Like the Moral Majority before it, the entrance of the conservative Christian Coalition into politics in the late 1980s has generated as much hostility and resentment as Mr. Lewis predicted. The liberal activist group, People for the American Way, claimed the group backed laws "that will prohibit everything that goes against their narrow interpretation of the will of God." The religious right makes conservatives uncomfortable too. Republicans, who count on its support for "mainstream" candidates, suddenly find the alliance inconvenient when it comes time to support one of their candidates.

The press routinely demonizes the Christian right, most famously in the case of The Washington Post's Michael Weisskopf, who referred to the followers of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." The Associated Press Stylebook prohibition on pejorative references to Christians as "fundamentalists" unless they so identify themselves must be violated more than any other media rule.

What could the Christian right want so badly that it would endure such treatment? In "The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition," Justin Watson argues that at least nominally, the coalition was out to make government more responsive to the concerns of Evangelical Christians and pro-family Catholics. That means articulating Christian views in dealings with government and media, keeping Christians informed about current political issues, protesting anti-Christian bias and more.

Mr. Watson, an instructor at Florida State University, traces the development of the organization as it set out to fulfill that self-imposed mandate, from Pat Robertson's "conversion experience" in the 1950s, his work as a religious broadcaster and his run for the presidency in 1988 to his hiring of Ralph Reed as the coalition's executive director in 1989 and on up to the present.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book have to do with the glimpses into the heart of the Coalition's principals. Mr. Reed, who has since left the organization to go into political consulting, underwent a conversion of his own in, of all places, Bullfeathers restaurant just off Capitol Hill. There, feeling a "gentle tug" on his conscience, he picked up a phone book and found a listing for a Camp Springs, Md., church. The next day he answered an altar call and commenced a "new life of faith. …