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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 America. Enlisting people in the conservative cause at the grassroots level is a key tactic in furthering the growth and influence of the Christian Coalition, as well as a way to move Christian conservatives into mainstream American political life.

Reed’s “fusionist” strategy is a new approach for Christian conservatives who have been typecast in the minds of the American public as fire-breathing religious zealots. In contrast, Reed adopts a conciliatory tone throughout his book in order to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals. He castigates the Religious Right for promoting anti-Semitism, racism, gay-bashing, and anti-Catholicism and calls on them to right past wrongs. He even gives the liberals their due when he discusses their active role in causes relating to social concerns, such as the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement. He notes, “Liberals have been correct throughout history on issues of social injustice while we have been neglectful or derelict in applying the principles of our faith to establishing justice in a fallen world.”

Apologizing for the past and present transgressions of religious conservatives is only part of Reed’s strategy for “casting a wider net.” His organization has allied itself with a number of ethnic and religious groups which Christian conservatives have formerly perceived as adversaries. For example, in an effort to close the rift between evangelicals and Jews, Reed tells of his repeated efforts to reach out to the Jewish community in an ongoing dialogue. In some areas of the country, the Christian Coalition has formed alliances with Catholic organizations to fight against pro-choice advocates. In another instance, when a bill was pending before the Virginia legislature to legalize riverboat gambling, the coalition joined with African Americans (who along with other minorities, Reed maintains, are most susceptible to the lure of gambling) to defeat the bill.

Reed’s outreach efforts are not limited to past antagonists. He has also endeavored to find common ground with other political groups, most notably Ross Perot and his Reform Party. Because the coalition and the Reform Party share many of the same goals, such as balanced budgets, lower taxes, choice in education, term limits, and political reform, Reed views Perot’s organization as a secular analog to the pro-family movement. His account of the spirited but friendly conversations with Perot is one of the most engaging narratives in the book and gives the reader a brief glimpse of two shrewd political bosses at work.

Reed also offers an insider’s view of the backroom deals and compromises that are so much a part of the fabric of Washington politics. In a revealing account of the passage of the 1995 telecommunications bill, Reed tells of how the Christian Coalition fought for an amendment to restrict cyberporn on the Internet. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, usually a friend of the coalition, opposed the cyberporn restrictions. In an effort to avoid a confrontation with Gingrich and keep the cyberporn amendment in the bill, Reed worked out an eleventh-hour deal with one of Gingrich’s allies. This is one of many examples that Reed offers of his willingness to make concessions in order to further the agenda of the coalition.

Reed’s penchant for compromise is also evident in the way he and his followers choose to present their program to the American public. In Reed’s view, “The pro-family movement has limited its effectiveness by concentrating disproportionately on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. . . . To win in the ballot box and in the court of public opinion, however, the pro-family movement must speak to the average voters.” To this end, Reed promotes issues such as welfare reform and a balanced budget and, in the opinion of some pro-family advocates, allows his moderate agenda to eclipse causes conservatives hold dear.

Reed’s decision to involve his organization in broad-based issues may make the conservative agenda more palatable to the liberal public, but Reed has provoked the ire of some of his well- known conservative compatriots. Reed’s story about his conflict with James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a Christian pro-life organization, is a case in point. When Reed declined to speak out against presidential hopeful Colin Powell for his pro-choice stance, Dobson accused Reed of hypocritically “skirting the great moral issues of the day.” Reed replies that he did not publicly censure Powell because Powell would have viewed such an attack as a challenge and, as a result, might have decided to seek the nomination. Reed maintains that he did not want to sacrifice the long-term goals of the coalition by focusing on the position of a noncandidate.

In spite of Reed’s willingness to take the heat from prominent Christian conservatives such as Dobson, and his repeated assertion that the Christian Coalition has no hidden agenda, his facile use of language often entraps him in political doublespeak that leaves the reader wondering about the ultimate goals of his fusionist strategy. In the last chapter, when Reed discusses the theology that drives the agenda of the coalition, he frequently contradicts himself thereby undermining his argument that people of faith are tolerant of views and lifestyles different from their own. For example, Reed claims that “The truth is that we eschew political power.” Yet several pages earlier he says of the pro-family movement, “They must do more than send a message’ to the elites and party leaders. They must win elections. They must govern. They must pull the levers of government and turn the wheels of the larger society for the good of the nation.” Winning elections is certainly a way to boost the “effectiveness” and influence of religious conservatives, but to what end?

When Reed focuses on combustible issues such as homosexuality, he continues to contradict himself, but ironically, the contradictions that could muddy his message sometimes actually clarify it. For example, Reed eloquently and convincingly argues that the government should “tolerate” but not sanction homosexual behavior. He in no way sees his view as an attempt to “impose Judeo-Christian theology through the power of the state.” Yet one of the goals of his “new theology of political activism for religious conservatives” is to “restore the culture’s Judeo-Christian principles.” Since, in the view of many religious conservatives, homosexuality is a sin, one wonders how homosexuals would fit into a society governed solely by Judeo-Christian principles.

Reed’s primary objective in Active Faith is to demonstrate that the Christian Coalition is not a fringe political group seeking to impose its conservative religious convictions on society. His intent is to persuade the American public that the views of Christian conservatives are in line with those of mainstream America. When Reed discusses the history of religious activism in the United States, as well as the birth and growth of the coalition, he supports his thesis well. When he addresses abstract principles about the relationship between political power and religious belief, however, the internal contradictions in his argument undermine his attempt to appear tolerant and moderate. Regardless of the weaknesses in Active Faith, it offers fascinating and compelling insight into one of the most dynamic forces in American politics.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Century. CXIII, August 28, 1996, p. 812.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 19, 1996, p. 15.

Commentary. CII, July, 1996, p. 70.

Commonweal. CXXIII, September 27, 1996, p. 23.

Los Angeles Times. June 17, 1996, p. B5.

National Review. XLVIII, October 14, 1996, p. 85.

The New Republic. CCXV, July 8, 1996, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, July 28, 1996, p. 14.

Vital Speeches. LXII, March 15, 1996, p. 329.