The explosive growth of the Christian conservative movement is one of the most important developments of late twentieth century American politics. Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, claims that his organization has grown from fewer than five thousand members to more than 1.7 million in just seven years. This phenomenal growth has sparked much concern in the liberal media and political establishment. They have reacted to the growing political clout of religious conservatives with a mixture of puzzlement, anger, and mistrust, and have disdainfully referred to Reed’s followers as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”
In Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics, Reed attempts to reshape the public perception of Christian conservatives by candidly presenting the motivations, methods, and goals of those he calls “people of faith.” In this readable, informative book, he recounts his personal story, the history of religious influence in American social causes, the rise and fall of religious conservative political organizations during the 1980’s, and the subsequent formation and development of the Christian Coalition. Finally, he proposes a “new theology of political activism for religious conservatives” that focuses not only on the hot-button issues of legalized abortion and homosexual rights but also on problems that affect the majority of Americans, such as balancing the national budget and offering tax relief to families.
As an experienced political activist, Reed is acutely sensitive to the unflattering redneck stereotype traditionally associated with the Religious Right. In an effort to abolish that image from the public consciousness, he offers himself as a prime example of the typical Christian conservative. Intelligent, polished, and well educated, Reed is a product of middle-class America. The son of a Miami eye surgeon, Reed was student-council president of his junior high school class, senior-class president and founder of a conservative club in high school, and executive director of the national College Republicans.
Although Reed earned a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University, his passion for politics led him away from academia into the world of political activism. When he experienced a religious awakening in 1983, Reed was an established Republican operative who enjoyed the rough-and-tumble game of hardball politics. He maintains that although his conversion to evangelical Christianity precipitated a change in his tactics, his “political philosophy was already well developed.” Therefore, his newfound faith had little impact on his conservative views. When Reed met former presidential candidate and televangelist Pat Robertson at George Bush’s inauguration in 1989, Robertson offered him the opportunity to launch a new conservative organization. This momentous meeting marked the birth of the Christian Coalition.
Traditionally, the American public has been suspicious of any group or organization which has attempted to wed religion with politics. Yet Reed’s extensive background as a historian serves him well in demonstrating that, in the annals of American history, religion and politics are not such strange bedfellows. He persuasively argues that “Whether the issue was slavery and racism, the plight of labor and the poor, or the right to life for the unborn and aged, the faith community has always been the most vibrant and effective political force in the electorate.” His painstaking analysis of the great social movements of the twentieth century—temperance reform, women’s suffrage, the Social Gospel, the antiwar movement, the struggles of organized labor, and the Civil Rights movement—not only showcases his impressive historical knowledge but also shows how Christian activists’ fight for justice has changed the face of American society. Reed’s historical overview is more than an attempt to establish the important influence that religious conservatives have had on American politics. His survey examines the strengths and weaknesses of each movement in an attempt to discover which organizations were the most successful and why, to avoid repeating the mistakes made in the past by religious activists, and to apply his findings to the development of the Christian Coalition.
The Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., provides Reed with a blueprint for success in merging religion, politics, and social reform. Beginning in the churches and gaining momentum at the grassroots level, the Civil Rights movement became a national power that transformed American culture. “Grassroots” is a word that is peppered throughout the pages ofActive Faith. It is clear that Reed believes there is a great untapped political resource hidden within the suburbs and small towns of...
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