WASHINGTON -- Ralph Reed sits on the couch in the holding room, glancing every now and then at a TV set, watching who is speaking at the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" conference.
Reed, the organization's executive director, is 33, but looks 15 years younger. He speaks in a quiet, straightforward and friendly manner.
Some say this is all an act. Reed is, they say, a religious bigot and dangerous zealot, leading an organization that has a secret agenda to establish a theocracy in the United States and enslave us all.
But Reed is not the first person I have talked to at this conference, he is one of the last. I have talked to the people in the crowd. And they seem shockingly ordinary and not scary at all.
They volunteer their time. They write letters. They give money to causes. They fax their legislators. They vote.
"Not only should we not be criticizing the members of the Christian Coalition for doing what they're doing," Reed told me, "we ought to be encouraging more citizens to do the same."
The people in this crowd are not the people who are bombing abortion clinics and shooting doctors. Those people are criminals who have abandoned society. These people are citizens who embrace society and wish to change it. Legally.
Don't be fooled, some say. Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson and the other people who run this organization are so deft they could run across the keyboard of a piano without sounding a note.
Well, maybe. But the people in the crowd I talked to wanted better schools and safer streets and more money in their pockets rather than in the pockets of the IRS.
These people sound like anybody you know?
Are they Christians? Sure they are. It says so in the title of their organization. And, I realize, that is very scary to some people. And maybe it should be scary to me.
But I remember when I was a child and John F. Kennedy was running for president. And my parents ended up voting for him, in part because someone had put a leaflet in our door saying that if Kennedy was elected, the pope would run America and the Catholics would kill us all with the guns they had hidden in their church basements.
Sure my parents were Democrats and probably would have voted for Kennedy anyway. But they were also Jews and they sympathized with anyone who was the subject of religious hatred.
But aren't the members of the Christian Coalition themselves haters? Some are. It is, after all, an organization with 1.7 million members. And some speakers gave speeches here that I found regrettable.
But I don't think as an organization the Christian Coalition has anything to do with hatred.
"I think that there are two things that make America great," Reed told me. "One is its Judeo-Christian heritage, but the other is that it's a melting pot and it is diverse. We have Roman Catholics, we have Jews, we have people with different racial backgrounds, we have people with different ethnic backgrounds, and that is our strength."
Does the Christian Coalition have an agenda? You bet. And included in it is an end to abortion.
Do you disagree? Do you, like President Clinton, want to keep abortion "safe, legal and rare"? Fine. Then do what the Christian Coalition is doing: Work for your agenda.
"All we are doing is the same kind of grass-roots, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust organizing that the labor unions did in the '30s and '40s, that the civil rights movement did in the '60s and '70s, and that the women's movement has done in the '70s and '80s," Reed said. "You identify your voters, you register them and you turn them out to the polls."
I could be wrong about Reed. It is possible he has insidious plans to seize power, impose his religious beliefs on all he can and lock up everyone else. And if I am wrong, I will not only have been a fool, but I also will be among those locked up.
But I don't think I am wrong. I don't think these people want to wreck the machinery of government. I think they want to use it.
Does that scare you? Fine. But let it scare you into action. Organize. Work. Create your own cloud of dust. Use the system the way it was meant to be used. Because if the only thing we have to fear in this country is democracy, then we have nothing to fear.