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Fighting For God and the Right Wing: RALPH REED

11 minute read
Laurence I. Barrett

Redemption earns even more glory among evangelicals than consistent faith and virtue. And for Ralph Reed, sudden self-reform has always come easily. A heavy smoker as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, he pitched his pack of Marlboro Lights out a car window one day and never bought another. Booze was also a problem, so he went instantly dry during the summer after graduation. Weeks later, sipping soda in a Washington saloon as some pals drank harder stuff, he was seized by a thirst for “deeper spiritual meaning” in his life. Reed chose a church at random from the Yellow Pages, went there the next morning and soon became a born-again charismatic, abandoning the genteel Methodism in which he had been reared.

Acts of contrition followed. To a victim of one of his nasty ploys as a college Republican, he wrote, “I was the cause of all the dirty politics and unsavory behavior . . . Politics for me had degenerated into a cheap play for power. I now realize that politics is a noble calling to serve God and my fellow man.”

Today Reed strives, by his lights at least, to make politics serve those causes as executive director of Christian Coalition, the advocacy group founded by Pat Robertson four years ago. Reed’s organizational and strategic talents have made the coalition the most potent unit within what its leaders call the profamily movement. He is also becoming a prophet and a public promoter of the conservative Christian cause in general. When he experiences an epiphany these days, the event is complex and political rather than religious and personal. His changing visions become the subject of TV schmooze shows and Washington seminars, as Robertson gives him increasing license to preach as well as plan. With a choirboy’s serene phiz, and a resume that includes a doctorate in American history as well as many innings of political hardball, Reed, at 32, has made himself the model for the latest incarnation of the religious right.

This week Christian Coalition holds its annual Road to Victory conference. For the first time, the gathering of 2,000 cultural warriors will be in Washington rather than Virginia Beach, and will be open to press coverage. To overcome the group’s conspiratorial image, Reed decided on the motif of a coming-out party. In a bow to political ecumenism, he persuaded David Wilhelm, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to be the token liberal among dozens of conservative speakers. The movement remains overwhelmingly white and has roots in the backlash against the civil rights revolution; so Reed commissioned a national poll of minority churchgoers, hoping to find some unlikely constituency among their ranks. Sure enough, this week he will announce figures showing that on some social issues, devout blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans sympathize with religious-right views.

Reed’s goal is to give the movement a gentler, more catholic visage. He wants to make peace with mainstream Republicans while continuing the movement’s war with secular liberals. The religious right must broaden its agenda, he believes, because “we have allowed ourselves to be ghettoized by a narrow band of issues like abortion, homosexual rights and prayer in school.” Even the majority of Evangelicals, he argues, are more interested in taxes, crime and the quality of education. Becoming more ecumenical will entail making alliances of convenience with conventional conservatives who, for example, do not favor outlawing abortion. This strikes some followers as heresy. To Reed, it is necessary for the movement’s survival.

Last year the religious right suffered a fiasco because of George Bush’s defeat. Robertson and Reed had assumed early on that Bush would narrowly edge out Clinton. Thus, although they had little affection for Bush, they helped check the movement of social conservatives toward Pat Buchanan. Their expectation was that Christian Coalition would get credit, and legitimacy, for securing the critical margin of support. In exchange, Bush’s handlers accepted many of Reed’s choices for delegates to the convention and allowed the religious right to pack the platform committee. The upshot: Bush seemed a prisoner of his party’s extreme right, and the conservatives took a mostly bum rap for Bush’s defeat.

At the local level, Christian Coalition had pursued a combative strategy. It sought to take over G.O.P. committees, ousting complacent regulars indifferent to the coalition’s Bible-based agenda. In some intraparty contests, as well as races for public offices, the coalition’s candidates kept quiet about their affiliation. Close to Election Day, bursts of church-centered politicking showed what was going on. Reed made the mistake of bragging in a few interviews about what became known as “stealth tactics,” talking up the political benefits of guerrilla methods. “You don’t know it’s over,” he once said of unsuspecting opponents, “until you’re in a body bag.” That inflammatory language made its way into data bases, to be recycled frequently.

For mainstream Republicans seeking to put the Evangelicals back in their pews — from which they would supply votes but not leadership — the religious right’s image as sinister, rigid and exclusionary was excellent material. Ditto for liberal opponents like People for the American Way, which monitors the religious right and scores points from its every excess. After the election, Reed scurried to recoup. “This stealth thing is bad for the movement,” he announced. “It isn’t the future. It’s the past, if anything.” Reed struggled to practice diversity, conservative style. When he opened a Washington lobbying office, he appointed a Jew, Marshall Wittmann, to head it. In last spring’s New York City school board elections, Reed attracted some Hispanic and African-American activists and got cooperation from the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Christian Coalition also advertised its participation.

To Arthur Kropp, the liberal Republican who heads People for the American Way, Reed is a more dangerous adversary than earlier religious-right leaders precisely because he knows when to be flexible. “He shows good political sense,” Kropp says, “learning as he goes.” But Reed’s suppleness in strategy doesn’t mean that his or his movement’s basic goals have changed. Like other friends, Roberta Combs, the Christian Coalition leader in South Carolina, has no doubt of his constancy. “I consider him the Christian Lee Atwater,” she says — high praise in the home state of the late conservative G.O.P. leader. Like Atwater and other legendary Southern pols, Reed combines a bent for the long view with an intense desire to win the fracas de jour. But Reed, with his innocent good looks and radio announcer’s diction, is a much smoother article.

He attributes his ability to adapt to his upbringing. Ralph Eugene Reed Sr. was a Navy doctor training to be a surgeon when Ralph Jr. was born in Portsmouth, Virginia — a few blocks away from Pat Robertson’s first broadcast studio. When the boy entered high school in Toccoa, in northern Georgia, it was the seventh town (and fifth state) that the family had called home. By then little Buddy Reed had learned three things about himself: he could fit in quickly, loved history and had a gift for politics.

He liked people and books rather than sports and rock ‘n’ roll. He consumed biographies of Presidents and remembers being awed by William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “It showed me at an early age — I was about eight — the impact of politics,” Reed recalls. “I learned that politics had serious consequences for millions of people, a life-and-death business.” But it could also be fun. In junior high school, outside Miami, his posters when he ran for student council president read, ELECT RALPH REED, THE LITTLE GIANT. Most kids didn’t get the allusion to Stephen Douglas, but they liked the play on Reed’s slight stature. He won the election.

At the University of Georgia, Reed went out for the debating society, the College Republicans and the newspaper, the Red and Black, where he eventually had a weekly column. “He was a fire-eating Republican,” recalls Mike Tidwell, who worked on the paper, “on the far right of every issue. But he was provocative and entertaining, like Rush Limbaugh today.” Reed also rushed up the leadership ladder, winning the chairmanship of the College Republicans at his school, then of the statewide organization. In the summer of 1981, as Reaganomics was being enacted, he served as a Senate intern, then remained in the capital for a semester working with the National College Republicans. Returning to school in 1982, he felt imbued with “a mission, a purpose. I knew what I was about. There was no ambiguity.” The mission was to make campus conservatives as active and iconoclastic as liberals had been for years. The favored means was to mount demonstrations and petition drives that stimulated adrenaline, and Reed was a natural at that.

It was a frenetic time in his life. He was finishing his senior thesis and preparing to move to a new job with the National College Republicans. In between, he got himself fired from the Red and Black for plagiarism. At the College Republicans’ national convention, Reed helped defeat a moderate by targeting his preppy garb; Reed gave out hundreds of buttons showing a pink tie with a red line through it. Rebecca Hagelin, a protege then and still a friend, says Reed was considered “the best practitioner of kiddie politics” but was so “addicted to the excitement” that he frequently strayed across ethical boundaries.

After a successful stint as executive director of the College Republicans, Reed moved from Washington to Raleigh and set up a conservative organization with an evangelical tint, Students for America. In 1984 North Carolina offered the country’s hottest Senate race, Jesse Helms vs. Jim Hunt, and Reed wanted his new group to be in on the action. It was at the Helms victory party that a pretty 16-year-old Helms volunteer introduced herself to Reed. Jo Anne Young thought he was about 19 and “really cute.” It would be nearly two years before they had their first official date, on the occasion of her high school . graduation. By that time Ralph was taking a recess from politics, obtaining a Ph.D. at Emory University. “I had the feeling all along that I was going to marry him,” Jo Anne says, “and even announced that to friends. The idea scared him to death.” Two months ago, the Reeds celebrated their sixth anniversary, which fell on a Sunday, by taking their three tots to church.

Reed went to Emory on a scholarship, intending to switch to academic life for good because he had decided that politics was unstable as a career. His dissertation, on the early history of church-related colleges, is still remembered. “It was a first-rate piece of work,” says Professor James Roark, “but I’m not sure Ralph would want it published today.” The paper criticized some sectarian schools for trading off their religious heritage in exchange for endowments. In fact, Reed is proud of its argument: that traditional Christian values — as born-again conservatives define them — deserve to be protected.

The same cause lured Reed back to politics. In January 1989, when they met for the first time at a Washington banquet, Robertson told Reed of his plans for a new organization. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was about to collapse. George Bush’s accession threatened a return of country-club Republicanism. Reed had supported Jack Kemp rather than Robertson in the 1988 primaries, but no matter. Robertson knew of Reed’s religious conversion; Robertson’s cable show, The 700 Club, had done a piece on it. He also knew Reed’s reputation as a conservative organizer. Reed wrote a memorandum on how the new group should be run. Nine months later, he was putting that prospectus into practice as Christian Coalition’s executive director.

With four years on the job, Reed is still tinkering with the means of his mission but remains confident that he has his ends right. When addressing outsiders these days, he makes the reasonable proposition that the religious right merely wants a place at the table. To followers in Charleston, South Carolina, not long ago, he described the dimension of that place: “Our ambition is to be larger and more effective than both political parties combined.” That is no recent epiphany; to Reed, it is the gospel.

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