Magazine article The Christian Century

Religiopolitical Operative

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religiopolitical Operative

Article excerpt

IT MAY BE a bit of a stretch to point to one man who can remove Bill Clinton from the White House in 1996, but bear with me. I am not talking about the Republican nominee. I am not even referring to Clinton himself I am talking about Ralph Reed, a 33-year-old political operative who runs the Christian Coalition, the chief political arm of the Religious Right. How did so much potential power fall into his hands? It all started when Reed, as a 27-year-old doctoral student in American history at Emory University, was in Washington for George Bush's inauguration and "was coincidentally seated next to Pat Robertson." (It is a measure of Reed's desire to reach beyond his core Religious Right constituency that he describes that encounter as a "coincidence," rather than the work of the Holy Spirit. After that chance encounter, which Reed describes in his book Mainstream Values Are No Longer Politically Incorrect: The Emerging Faith Factor in American Politics, he wrote a memo at Robertson's request "sketching out the broad outlines of a grass-roots political organization" that would mobilize and educate evangelicals and their Roman Catholic allies.

By the end of 1989, Reed was director of the Christian Coalition, tapping into Robertson's mailing list for money and local organizers and, more important, taking advantage of "a broader spiritual ferment in the land." Reed built upon the energies generated by Robertson's presidential campaign and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, efforts fueled by "marginalized" Christians who want to "take back" their country.

Reed, who had planned on an academic career before he sat down next to Robertson, appears to have been a shrewd choice to head the Christian Coalition. He has earned positive coverage even from secular reporters who admire his political savvy. Reed has combined religiously charged sentiments on abortion, homosexuality and family stability with conservative political beliefs on health care, term limits, downsizing the federal government and balancing the budget. None of the latter tenets have specific religious underpinnings, but they all resonate with the conservative national mood.

Reed offers an inspired team of workers, fueled primarily by religious stands centered on the family, who are willing to work on behalf of the rest of the conservative agenda. Reed doesn't argue for a religious justification of the secular parts of the conservative agenda; he simply assumes it. (In this he is not dissimilar from many mainline Christians who would advocate liberal policies, assuming a religious underpinning loosely based on the Sermon on the Mount.

The coalition's first campaigns were local, out of sight of national media, involving what have been described as "stealth" candidates, who slip into politics undercover. By the 1994 congressional elections, however, the coalition was a major player on the national scene. As many as 50 new members of Congress are said to owe their election to the coalition, and they remain attentive to its agenda.

Many mainline Christians would agree with Reed that our culture makes it difficult for people to "sustain their faith and their values." Reed cites such mainline thinkers as Stephen L. Carter to make the case that religious faith in our culture is held in low regard. Reed also quotes an observation by George Weigel that a "new ecumenism" has arisen "almost by accident," the result of "a shared perception that the systematic effort to strip American public policy discourse of any relationship to the religiously based values of the American people portends disaster for the American experiment. …

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