Ralph Reed’s Creed

It’s politics, not religion.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. Ralph Reed generally prefers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King Jr., our secular saints. But the Christian Coalition’s executive director makes an exception for one biblical passage, a verse from Paul. It appears in his book Active Faith, in his op-eds, in interviews: “I have become all things to all people that I may by all means win some.” It is an apt motto for Reed, a thoroughly political statement that defines a thoroughly political man. Critics on the left blame Reed for infecting politics with religious fanaticism. In fact, Reed’s achievement is exactly the opposite: He’s turned religious fanaticism into mere politics.

So it’s fitting that Reed is embarking on a career as a political consultant, a profession where everything is mere politics. Last week Reed announced his resignation from Pat Robertson’s organization, which Reed has built into the Republican Party’s most powerful interest group. When he steps down Sept. 1, the 35-year-old Reed will move to Atlanta and open Century Strategies, which will advise “pro-family, pro-life, and pro-free-enterprise candidates.”

The liberal view of Reed is that he’s the Christian right’s zealot in chief, a devil with a cherub’s face. This is a misreading. Reed’s Christian faith is undoubtedly sincere, but his real creed is Republican politics. He’s a political junkie who models himself after Lee Atwater. As a teen-ager, he ran a direct-mail campaign for student council. As an undergraduate in the early ‘80s, he became the College Republicans’ master strategist. (According to his pal Grover Norquist, the president of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform, Reed once instructed young Republicans about the correct way to burn a Soviet flag during a pro-Solidarity protest.) His tactical ruthlessness has defined the Christian Coalition. “I paint my face and travel at night,” he once said of his work at the coalition. “You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.” His books, Active Faith and After the Revolution, read as much like primers on power politics as religious-right manifestos. The strategy, not the scripture, thrills him.

And his strategy, not his scripture, revived the religious right. In 1989, Robertson invited Reed to start an organization to expand the grassroots network from Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Reed was an inspired choice: He had enough principles to win religious conservatives’ trust, but not enough to scare everyone else. Reed recognized that the religious right had staggered in the mid-’80s because it had 1) depended too much on national leaders and 2) alienated America with its red-hot rhetoric. To remedy the first problem, Reed established hundreds of local chapters. Slowly, that network of activists took over school boards, county commissions, and state political parties.

Reed’s more important contribution was to abandon the clear, if ferocious, principles that defined the ‘80s Moral Majority and replace them with a comforting fog of “family values.” (Reed hardly ever calls the movement “religious.” He labels it “pro-family”–as if anyone is “anti-family.”) He dumped the “sodomite” rhetoric and distanced himself from the religious right’s loonies (including his own boss, Robertson, prone to anti-Semitic ravings and one-world-government paranoia). He presented himself as the religious right’s new face–smiling, civil, conciliatory. He ripped off Newt Gingrich’s manifesto idea, preparing a “Contract With the American Family” whose 10 points were poll-tested to draw 60-percent-plus approval ratings.

Reed continued to push the old standbys–defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and stopping gay marriage. But he added a classic right-wing economic agenda: an endorsement of free enterprise (God’s own economic policy, apparently), opposition to President Clinton’s 1993 stimulus package, and fervent support for tax cuts. He even tried to quell the GOP’s abortion controversy, seeking to moderate (if only a tiny bit) the language of the 1996 GOP platform. In short, he’s flattened the evangelical crusade of the old religious right into mainstream conservative politics.

(Reed has also made overtures toward black churches, home to America’s most committed social conservatives. The coalition raised $750,000 to rebuild burned black churches and is hosting a conference on racial reconciliation in Baltimore next week. Reed feels passionately that white evangelicals must atone for their opposition to the civil-rights movement.)

Reed’s political tactics occasionally annoy the ideologues of the religious right. The Family Research Council’s Gary Bauer and Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly criticized him when he suggested softening the GOP platform. Some evangelicals view Reed as a compromiser who’ll bend a principle for a tactical victory. Which, of course, he is.

Not that Christian conservatives have cause to complain. Thanks to Reed, the Christian Coalition now claims 1.9 million members, 2,000 chapters nationwide, and a $27 million-a-year budget. The 33 million “nonpartisan” voter guides the coalition distributed in churches before Election Day in 1994 are credited with electing more than half of the freshman Republicans, securing the GOP’s congressional majority. The coalition distributed 45 million guides in 1996. Christian-right activists now exercise significant control over 31 state Republican parties; they are estimated to comprise one-fourth to one-third of the GOP primary vote and to swing 5-10 points to Republicans in general elections.

Reed’s departure will diminish the movement’s influence. The Federal Election Committee investigation of allegations of partisan campaigning by the coalition endangers its tax-exempt status. Robertson, who has kept in Reed’s shadow, may emerge to embarrass the coalition. (He’s well on his way: The Associated Press reported this week that two airplanes bought by his “Operation Blessing” to fly aid to impoverished Zairians were used instead to service Robertson’s Zairian diamond mines.) The Family Research Council’s Bauer seems most likely to replace Reed as the religious right’s spokesperson. But he’s much less politically savvy, much less telegenic, and much more ideological–qualities that won’t help the movement’s reputation.

Reed, on the other hand, will see his credibility increase. He no longer has to answer for the erratic Robertson. He can drop the pretense that he’s nonpartisan. He stands to become the right’s hottest consultant, the GOP’s answer to James Carville. Republican consultants agree that conservative candidates in the South, Southwest, Midwest, and Rocky Mountains will beg for Reed’s talents and connections. Reed will make a killing. He earned about $200,000 from the Christian Coalition. His future colleagues estimate that as a consultant, he’ll earn at least half a million dollars a year, and perhaps as much as $3 million.

But consulting is a self-effacing business, and self-effacement is one thing that Ralph Reed has shown no aptitude for. (He quotes himself in his books, the sure sign of a towering ego.) He is relocating to his home state of Georgia. He’s got plenty of name recognition. Democratic Sen. Max Cleland barely won his 1996 election. Don’t be surprised if Sen. Reed takes his place in 2002. God knows he’s prepared for it.