Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics, by Ralph Reed, New York: The Free Press, 311 pages, $25.00
When I was in college back in the early 1980s, there was a bumper sticker that read, "The Moral Majority Is Neither." I saw it on quite a few cars in the parking lots used by the English professors and their graduate students.
Today, driving around Santa Monica and the Westside of Los Angeles, I still see plenty of trendy leftist stickers. I see slogans for unions and for Greenpeace. I see denunciations of racism and guns. But I've never spotted an anti-Christian Coalition bumper sticker.
That says quite a bit about the coalition and its executive director, Ralph Reed. Liberals have tried to tar the group with the same brush they used so effectively against the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell. And they've made some mud stick to the coalition's founder, televangelist Pat Robertson. But by and large, the Christian Coalition just doesn't seem to arouse the same sort of passionate opposition that the Moral Majority did.
Active Faith provides some clues as to why. This book chronicles the Christian Coalition's founding and its activities up to the present. It shows how Reed and his colleagues deliberately sought to avoid many of the mistakes the Moral Majority made. There's much in here that will cheer those who still distrust the authoritarian leanings of the religious right. But it won't quiet all their fears. Not by a long shot.
Following his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination, Pat Robertson formed the Christian Coalition in 1989. He chose as its director Ralph Reed, a 28-year-old graduate of the University of Georgia (where I knew him vaguely). Reed had actually worked for Jack Kemp in the 1988 campaign, but he was a born-again Christian who had spent most of his young life in politics.
The Christian Coalition was supposed to fill the vacuum left by the demise a few years earlier of the Moral Majority. But from the beginning, Robertson and Reed were determined that the coalition would differ in some important ways from its predecessor. For one, most of the group's leaders are lay people, not ministers. Reed and Robertson decided to focus their energy on building a true grassroots organization, something they felt the Moral Majority had never really been. To this end, they started programs to train conservative Christians to run for office and to manage other people's campaigns. These trainees became active in state and local Republican parties throughout the nation. They ran for municipal offices and school boards. Within a short time, the Christian Coalition became a big force in politics.
Reed and Robertson have also tried to avoid the mistakes made by labor unions and other special-interest groups linked to the Democratic Party. The Christian Coalition doesn't formally endorse candidates. This helps it keep its tax-exempt status. It also helps Reed, Robertson, et al. avoid looking as if they try to dictate the nominees of the Republican Party.
The coalition's efforts paid off pretty quickly. It was an important part of the effort that led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But the coalition wasn't the only group involved in those elections. Property rights organizations, gun owners, taxpayers' groups, and others got their people to the polls and helped the Republicans win. And that demonstrates an important truth: Conservative evangelicals account for only 10 percent to 15 percent of the electorate. If they are going to reach their goals, they will have to work with others.
Reed and the Christian Coalition have consciously tried to reach out to the so-called economic conservatives and the more libertarian elements of the Republican Party. "We believed that most of the tension between moralists and libertarians was overstated," Reed writes. "In general, social conservatism led naturally to libertarian views on the size and scope of government. Our purpose was not to gloss over differences on the so-called 'hot button' issues that divided us, but to put those differences into context by emphasizing the large area of agreement."
He goes on to note: "When we took our first tentative steps on the political battlefield, we religious conservatives combined the skill of a novice with the temperament of a zealot. But times have changed. We now know that politics is not the sole or even the primary answer to our nation's moral decay, and that the best standard of government is still John Stuart Mill's principle of allowing the greatest liberty possible until someone else's life or liberty is jeopardized."
Reed also calls upon his fellow religious conservatives to avoid harsh language against their foes. He says the spirit of Christian love demands charity toward opponents. That doesn't mean Christians shouldn't speak out against that which they feel is wrong. "But we must always speak and move in love," he says, "seeking redemption rather than condemnation." Although Reed doesn't acknowledge it, the mere fact that he must repudiate harsh language, together with the examples of such rhetoric that he cites, shows that the popular image of the religious right as a bunch of intolerant, self-righteous busybodies has at least some basis in truth. It isn't, as some Christian conservatives maintain, just the creation of a hostile press.
Ralph Reed talks a good libertarian game, but following through is another matter. For instance, he says censorship "is ultimately destructive to the body politic and to our society." Yet he hedges that by adding, "But the exploitation of women and children by hard-core and child pornography, its proven tendency to lead to rape and other sexual crimes, and the exposure to children to it on the Internet invades the rights of others." Note the lack of distinction between child and "hard-core" pornography. Note also his assertion that hard-core porn has been proven to cause rape, a claim that most social scientists would find laughable. As one of the Christian Coalition's biggest accomplishments, Reed cites passage of the Communications Decency Act (since overturned in federal court), which criminalized Internet publication of "indecent" material, a much broader category than "hard-core pornography." To get this bill passed, the Christian Coalition sideswiped Republicans who had introduced alternative legislation that would have promoted technology allowing parents greater control over what their children access, without violating the First Amendment rights of Internet users.
Even if Reed is serious about emulating John Stuart Mill, it's not clear how many members of the religious right he speaks for. The Christian Coalition, after all, has only a few hundred thousand members. The Christian conservative movement is much larger than that. Reed argues that calling gays "perverts" is inconsistent with the Christian virtue of mercy. In direct response, Jerry Falwell has said, "I think that a person who is practicing moral perversions is a moral pervert." So much for Christian mercy. Reed denounces the protectionist, anti-business rhetoric of Pat Buchanan. But exit polls from this year's Republican primaries show Buchanan's message resonated with quite a few members of the religious right.
In truth, conservative evangelicals are a diverse lot. Some are true libertarians. Some want nothing less than to rule America according to biblical law, complete with the death penalty for adulterers, homosexuals, and disobedient children. Most fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Ultimately, the defining political characteristic of the religious right is its concern with moral issues. Economic conservatives can and should work with the religious right to achieve common aims. But libertarians should never fool themselves. There remain profound disagreements between the two groups. It isn't clear yet whether Reed's book will help bridge those differences or simply gloss them over.
Contributing Editor Charles Oliver is a staff writer for Investor's Business Daily.