The Christian Right reaches for power, not influence Guerrilla politics: Ralph Reed and his allies have changed appearances but not their mission.

The Argument

July 14, 1996|By Robert Orsi | Robert Orsi,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Political activists of the Christian Right complain that they are disallowed from full participation in the public sphere as Christians by the pervasive authority of liberalism in the media, schools, universities and courtrooms. Do Christians not have the same democratic rights as others? They do, of course, but from this source the complaint is disingenuous, for the aim of the Christian right is "power," not "influence," as the first members of the Christian Coalition were explicitly told at the organization's founding conference in 1989.

New Christian Right theorist Franky Schaeffer puts it bluntly: "The party that wins gets to drink the champagne and is then in a position to try to impose its views on the rest of society."

The ambition of the Christian Coalition's executive director, Ralph Reed, is a familiar one in right-wing American Protestant history: to transmute anger generated and sustained against a hated Other into power at the center. In the tumultuous years before the Civil War the necessary Other was Roman Catholic; in the 1920s, immigrant and African-American; now homosexual.

Where would Ralph Reed be without fetuses and homosexuals? We certainly know where he is because of them. The liveliest passages in "Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics" (New York: The Free Press, 311 pages) are those in which Reed describes the thrill of power.

The cars that take him from airports "scream off the tarmac" and "careen" through the streets behind police escorts "with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing." Powerful men rush up to him in halls filled with "clapping, foot-stomping Christian activists" to beg his indulgence. His hairdresser "snip[s] her stainless steel scissors" carefully around his cellular telephone while he takes a call from Bob Dole's new campaign manager. ("Dole is halfway to the nomination," Reed muses knowledgeably to the hairdresser, and "anyone smart enough to hire Scott Reed [Dole's campaign manager] could go all the way." "Active Faith" is full of such carefully placed sycophancy.)

Power has its moments of calm, too: "I sat on the balcony of my hotel room in Montego Bay, staring out over the blue ocean glistening in the sunset, contemplating the presidency of Bill Clinton." The little that Reed has to say about his Christianity is pallid in comparison.

"Active Faith" recounts Reed's conversion from the "high-octane," take-no-prisoners Christian Right politics of the 1980s and early 1990s to a pragmatic course more open to the give and take of democratic contest. The religious logic of conversion proposes a sharp break between the sinful past and the redeemed present, the old self and the new.

This is not an organic development, a maturation process over time; it is a grace-made rupture - once I was lost, but now I'm found, once blind, but now I see. On this side of the rupture, the past holds no clues anymore to the present; history serves only to mark how far the redeemed has come.

Reed confesses the sins of the Reagan-era Christian Right, its "arrogance and self-righteousness," "triumphalism," racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. He is less forthcoming about his own involvement in this political culture. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, in their invaluable study, "Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics" (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 285 pages), quote the pre-pragmatic Reed: "I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag." Campaigning in Iowa in 1992, Reed associated a proposed equal rights amendment with witchcraft and sexual perversion. But that was then, when Reed was blind; now, he sees.

Specifically, he sees that the vast majority of voters find such language and tactics repellent. So, quoting St. Paul - "I am a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, I have become all things to all men that I might lead all to Christ" - Reed finds it expedient to become a democrat to Americans. Conceding that "many Americans lack [a] biblical worldview," he hired pollsters to craft a neutral language for the Christian Coalition's campaigns.

The old Christian Right was mainly fundamentalist; Reed has reached out to evangelicals, pentecostals, even to "ethnic Catholics" (as he always calls Roman Catholics). He encouraged lay leadership in place of the unpredictable and irrepressible preachers of the old Christian Right, and has taken steps to discipline his troops and to purge the ranks of extremists.

Tactical duplicity

But Reed's conversion has a feel about it that is distinctly inside-the-Beltway, where the politicians he so admires confuse the avoidance of the appearance of impropriety with doing the right thing. With Pauline frankness, Reed acknowledges a dual strategy. The appearance of conversion is for outsiders; for insiders there is still the old "red-hot rhetoric" so effective in reaching people's checkbooks and moving them to action.

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