A Weak Reed

Why Christian conservatives are souring on the GOP.

Because I believe in the vengeful God of the Old Testament (and Monty Python sketches), I assume that Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, is probably telling the truth about his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. If Reed did all the things that investigators hint that he did, the Creator would surely have zapped him already. According to a recent report by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Abramoff paid Reed $5.3 million to tap his network of pastors and parishioners to wage a grass-roots war against gambling. What Abramoff perhaps didn’t tell Reed is that Indian tribes who ran casinos were funding the effort in order to scare away new competition. Reed, a longtime Abramoff friend from their early days in GOP politics, says he didn’t know about the plot. Any devout evangelical who cons co-religionists without begging forgiveness is either innocent or risking a divine lightning bolt to the head.

It’s hard to believe that Reed, whose skill at mixing religion and politics made him a Time cover-boy 11 years ago at age 33, could have been duped by Abramoff. Reed’s campaign to become lieutenant governor of Georgia is still thriving, but let’s see what happens when the evangelicals he once served absorb the evidence in the Senate report. It’s damning. It depicts an enterprise that used religious voters as marks: Lobbyists effortlessly twisted them to achieve goals sometimes directly at odds with their beliefs. They were punk’d.

The Reed story confirms what many devout Christians have argued since conservative social activists became a force in national politics in the 1970s: Engaging in worldly political maneuvering is ultimately debasing. Promises made at election time go unfulfilled until four months before the next election, and then suddenly Republicans are talking about gay marriage again. Hearts are better changed one at a time in the churches than through elections or legislation. Having spent 40 years building a powerful political machine, conservative Protestants are not likely to abandon it, but perhaps evangelical Christians, who make up about 23 percent of the electorate, should start considering whether they’ve gotten too cozy in their relationship with the politically powerful.

There’s some evidence a shift is already taking place as some of the most vocal social conservatives are losing standing. The fastest way to fill up your in box is to suggest Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, or James Dobson speak for evangelicals. Robertson and Falwell seem engaged in a battle over who can better promote the stereotype of the wacky intolerant evangelical. Dr. James Dobson hurt his reputation during the battle over Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court when he seemed to act as a shill for the White House. Evangelicals were offended that Bush administration officials presented Miers’ faith as the only proof necessary that she was a qualified candidate. Dobson’s public approval of her nomination suggested he bought that line of reasoning and thought everyone else should, too. The founder of Focus on the Family also seems poised to use marital behavior as a litmus-test issue for 2008 presidential candidates, which will no doubt alienate some religious conservatives who are concerned with bigger issues in the post-9/11 world.

The conservative Protestants with whom I have had political conversations prefer to talk about leaders like John Stott, Joel Osteen, and T.D. Jakes, who seem more interested in solving problems than in getting tangled in Washington. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback, the megachurch in Southern California, and author of The Purpose Driven Life, is mentioned most frequently. He’s not rallying against gay marriage but working to diminish poverty, treat AIDS in Africa, and stop global warming. When he flirts with politics, Warren does it discreetly.

A portion of the evangelical movement is also broadening the traditional political agenda beyond abortion, gays, and school prayer. Richard Cizik, in charge of governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents churches with 30 million members, has been a leader in making environmental stewardship a central element of the Christian political mission. His efforts have won him an epistolary spat over political priorities with James Dobson. “The gospel has priority over our politics,” he toldSpeaking of Faith’s Krista Tippett. “Sometimes that means to be Biblically consistent you have to be politically inconsistent. You can’t simply become a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP.”

The greatest re-ordering in evangelical politics may come in the 2008 presidential race. George Bush’s policies, personal conversion, and political acumen won him 78 percent of the evangelical vote in 2004. There is no current candidate who can match that, and none have a strategist like Karl Rove, who fixated on building the evangelical vote.

Evangelicals are wary about GOP front-runners John McCain and Mitt Romney. Though much was made of McCain’s retro embrace of Jerry Falwell, his aides know that at best the senator is going to make a truce with evangelicals. He is not at ease talking about his Christian faith, and he’s going to disappoint them on issues like gay marriage. Romney makes a show of having read The Purpose Driven Life and has met with Warren. He has also voiced strong opposition to Roev.Wade, gay marriage, and Hillary Clinton—all popular stands with Christian conservatives. But that may not be enough for those evangelicals adamantly opposed to his Mormon faith.

In 2008, religious purists will either rally around long-shot candidates like Sen. George Allen or Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, or they’ll sit out the election. More pragmatic conservative Christians may lend their support to a compromised front-runner like McCain or Romney with a lower expectation of what they might receive from him once in office.

The inevitable shift in evangelical politics does not change the fact that a majority of evangelicals will remain conservative and vote for the GOP. But the fears of a Republican party dominated by monolithic religious zealots are as overblown now as they were when Reed was on the cover of Time. The mid-’90s were a high-water mark for the Christian Coalition, just as the last few years have been great for evangelicals aligned with the Bush administration. But remember that in the elections of 1998, candidates backed by Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition did poorly. This may be why Reed sent Abramoff a letter days after the election saying he needed the lobbyist’s help making contacts because he was “done with electoral politics” and “I need to start humping in corporate accounts!” That was not a quote from scripture.