Commentary Magazine


Active Faith by Ralph Reed

God and Country

Active Faith: How Christians are Changing the Soul of American Politics
by Ralph Reed
Free Press. 311 pp. $25.00

There can be little doubt that Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, is a brilliant tactician and strategist who has molded the inchoate sentiments of millions of religious Americans into a formidable political force. His new book describes how he accomplished this feat and confronts many if not most of the hard questions about the movement he heads.

Active Faith recounts Reed’s personal story, surveys the place occupied by religion in two centuries of American politics, explores the recent fortunes of the Democratic and Republican parties, tells of his own stewardship of the Christian Coalition, and sets forth “a new theology of political activism for religious conservatives.” Though the historical chapters tend toward the dull side, on the whole this is an immensely readable and informative book that deserves a wide audience.

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Is Reed’s political outlook guided, as is commonly assumed, by a religious impulse? While the answer in part is yes, Reed’s biography suggests that his political or ideological baptism took place long before his religious one; and, moreover, that the latter baptism did not substantially affect his politics. As he puts it, “My religious beliefs never changed my views on the issues to any great degree, because my political philosophy was already well developed.”

Reed was student-council president of his junior high school, founder of a conservative club and senior-class president in high school, and executive director of the national College Republicans. In the meantime, throughout the 1970′s and early 80′s, he had, by his own account, drifted away from his church (Methodist), and prior to his association with the Christian Coalition he did not consider himself a “Christian activist.” He was, rather, a Republican activist by instinct, and by schooling a Ph.D. in American history.

What, then, is a nice Methodist boy doing at the head of the Christian Coalition and of a veritable Fourth Great Awakening? The simple view of the matter would be that serendipity put him there. At George Bush’s inaugural in 1989, Reed, a political operative on the rise, “bumped into” the televangelist Pat Robertson, who asked him to draw up a memorandum on “how to organize a grass-roots organization.” From this chance encounter the Christian Coalition sprang forth, created from scratch by Reed and Robertson and still led by them.

But there is more to the story than fortune meeting ambition. For, as Reed notes, his political views, which he attributes to his upbringing, had long mirrored those of the emerging Christian Right: government is too big, taxes are too high, and the culture and the family are in trouble. In 1983, moreover, he experienced what he describes as a “religious awakening.” Thus, by the time he met Pat Robertson he “shared many of the values of the [Christian Right] movement and wanted to see religion play a more vital role in the public life of the nation.”

This, however, was a goal that could be pursued in different ways, and to different ends. The path chosen by Reed was to lead the Christian Right away from zealous excess, and toward ecumenism.

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As Reed explains in some detail, the religious Right had not hitherto had a happy history of involvement in 20th-century American politics. Ever since the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which Clarence Darrow (representing science and progress) destroyed William Jennings Bryan (representing religion and morality), the popular media had portrayed Christian fundamentalists as a collection of yahoos. Whenever these yahoos attempted to engage in the political arena—over abortion, pornography, prayer in the schools—they tended to lose badly. Even in the 1970′s, when various efforts were made to recapture lost cultural ground—Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority is perhaps the best-known phenomenon here—they always came up short.

Reed characterizes these earlier forays into politics as full of “sound and fury,” signifying little. In his view, if religion were ever to gain its rightful place in American public life, new tactics would have to be adopted. Reed’s own considerable accomplishment is, indeed, to have cajoled the religious Right into exchanging the theological politics of fire and brimstone for the role, in his words, “of a responsible player within the democratic polity.”

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The preponderance of Active Faith is devoted to describing this “new approach.” The Christian Coalition has already adopted what Reed calls a “fusionist strategy,” whereby Christian conservatives have come to appreciate that the health of the larger society depends not only on their winning what to them is the most urgent item on their agenda—ending legalized abortion—but also on a sound economy, good schools, and a functioning social-welfare system.

The “new tactics” also emphasize the power of moral suasion and gradual, incremental reform. In this book, for example, Reed offers an alternative to that plank of the Republican-party platform which calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. It may, however, be indicative of Reed’s less than fully secure position within the larger Christian Right that no sooner did advance word of his proposal appear in the New York Times than he was accused by rivals of turning soft on abortion, and had to backpedal.

Another imperative of Reed’s “new tactics” is to be open about previous lapses on the part of the movement he represents, for moral suasion works only on those convinced of the good faith of their interlocutors. It is here that Reed distinguishes himself most clearly from the religious crusaders of yesteryear, for he has extended an astonishingly far-reaching mea culpa to those on the other side of the political fence:

The painful truth that religious conservatives must confront in their general disdain of modern liberalism is this: liberals have been correct throughout history on issues of social justice.

Nor does he shrink from citing specifics. To black Americans, he says:

The white evangelical church carries a shameful legacy of racism and the historical baggage of indifference to the most central struggle for social justice in this century, a legacy that is only now being wiped clean by the sanctifying work of repentance and racial reconciliation.

In particular, Reed singles out the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who in the 1960′s sided with segregationists against civil-rights protesters, and the Reverend Billy Graham, who failed to use his great moral authority to condemn the system of Jim Crow. With respect to homosexuality, Reed again points to Falwell, along with others, for “spite-filled intolerance.” And addressing himself to Jews and Catholics, Reed acknowledges fully and in a spirit of contrition that the Christian Right has in the past nurtured anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic bigots.

Reed’s new tactics of friendship and persuasion are not mere artifices. In his vision of things, they are in the service of a corresponding new end: not the salvation of souls, as in days of yore, but good citizenship. Thus, the core of the Christian Coalition’s political agenda—that part which, according to Reed, is nonnegotiable—concerns

the sanctity of life, the importance of the marriage-based two-parent family, reversing moral decay, stopping the cultural pollution of sexually explicit films and television programs directed at children, and religious freedom for all Americans, including the right to voluntary prayer.

What is particularly notable about this program is its nonsectarian, even, to some extent, its secular, character. The fundamental demands of the Christian Coalition are not so much distinctively Christian, though they certainly draw sustenance from the Christian theological tradition, as distinctively bourgeois. And, as such, they are certainly to be welcomed.

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Still, serious problems remain. On Reed’s right flank, for example, though not within his organization, there are types like R.J. Rushdoony, a radical theocrat whom Reed has reproved for believing that “the purpose of Christian political involvement should be to legislate biblical law,” but who definitely has his supporters.

Then there is the figure of Reed’s own boss, Pat Robertson, some of whose writings and utterances Reed is at pains to explain away in this book, not altogether successfully. Thus he sidesteps the question of whether Robertson’s 1991 book, The New World Order, contains material recycled from 19th-century anti-Semitic tracts, which it indisputably does. Nor does he forthrightly deal with the dilemmas posed by the “other Pat,” Patrick J. Buchanan: many Christian Right voters, after all, consider Buchanan their strongest advocate, and pulled the lever for him in the early presidential primaries. Here, Reed lamely defends Buchanan from the charge of anti-Semitism, saying only that “he has at times made statements that could be interpreted as insensitive to the past sufferings of Jews.” And in the face of Buchanan’s success with an anti-free-trade, anti-corporate message, Reed drops the core element of free-market liberalism from his “fusionist strategy,” allowing that the Christian Coalition has no particular economic agenda after all.

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Whatever the lapses and contradictions in Reed’s account here, in his career he has on the whole avoided the faults of the old religious reformers. In the process, as this fascinating book makes clear, he has built and set into motion a powerful political machine in support of moral reform and republican governance. The difficulties he still faces from those within or close to his own ranks make his achievement all the more impressive, and all the more to be valued by democrats of any faith or party.

About the Author

Adam Wolfson is editor of the Public Interest