Mixing religion with politics Conservatism: The strategist of the Christian Coalition reflects on his movement's progress in reaching out to African-Americans.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When religious conservatives in Congress introduced a "religious freedom" amendment to the Constitution this week, opponents attacked it as a blatant play for positive ratings in Christian Coalition voter guides.

To Ralph Reed, the baby-faced strategist who built the Christian Coalition out of the ruins of Pat Robertson's failed 1988 presidential campaign, such criticism is a backhanded compliment.

Under Reed's shrewd guidance, white evangelicals became a potent force within the Republican Party. They helped elect a Republican-controlled Congress and were courted by GOP presidential candidates.

But some Republicans believe that the religious conservatives have hurt the party as much as they've helped, frightening moderates and independents who equate the Christian Coalition with intolerance.

Now there are signs that the organization may have peaked.

At the local level, religious conservative officeholders have had trouble getting re-elected. And the Christian Coalition's efforts to be a player in national politics may be hampered by tougher enforcement of campaign laws. The Federal Election Commission is investigating whether the group violated its tax-exempt status by actively supporting Republican candidates.

Recently, Reed announced that he is stepping down as the group's executive director to open a campaign consulting business. One of his last major tasks in his current job is to address a Christian Coalition conference today in Baltimore, a meeting that is bringing together white and African-American evangelicals.

Reed was interviewed by Paul West of The Sun's Washington bureau. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

If you could do it over again, what would you do differently? Specifically, would you do anything different to address the anxieties of non-Christians, nonconservatives and nonwhites?

I think the only thing that we might have done, we might have started some of the broadening of the base and outreach a little sooner. But the main thing is that it happened.

Isn't there a built-in conflict between a religious movement and electoral politics? Or to put it another way, can you be a gradualist or a compromiser -- which is what politics is all about -- if those you are leading advocate moral absolutes?

I think so. Every movement that ultimately achieved its aims, whether it was the suffragists and the temperance movement or whether it was the civil rights movement or, in our own time, the pro-life and pro-family movement, the most successful formula has been to achieve dramatic change through incremental and gradual means.

But isn't there an inherent tension between the social movements you've described and the practical politics you like to engage in?

I certainly have not found it to be a tension beyond the obvious, which is that our constituency requires, and properly so, that even while we make progress incrementally, we never surrender the ultimate principle.

Does your decision to become a political hired gun prove that your critics were right when they said the Christian Coalition is really more about politics than religion?

No. First of all, I obviously wouldn't characterize my future endeavors in that way. I'm going to continue to reflect the passions of my heart and the burdens of my soul, which are to strengthen the family and protect innocent human life and to reduce the size and scope of government and to replace the welfare state with faith-based compassion.

What I've done by departing is make it clear that there is a significant institutional and occupational difference between being the head of a religious, faith-based political policy organization and what I'll be doing next, which is advocating the election and defeat of specific candidates.

In last year's election, President Clinton got the votes of about one of every three white evangelical Christians. At the same time, many moderate Republicans remain wary of the Christian Coalition's intentions, and the Republican Congress has failed to enact much of your agenda. Do you think the pro-family movement will have to change in order to grow?

I don't think beyond continuing to mature and evolve as an increasingly sophisticated and effective movement. I think that the general outline of where the movement needs to go has been charted, namely, a reaching out to previously unexplored constituencies -- Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Catholics -- a broadening of the issues agenda and a focus and emphasis on grass-roots organization and on being strong at the neighborhood and church and local level.

Let's talk about Saturday's conference in Baltimore. What does the Christian Coalition have to offer African-Americans?

An emphasis on the moral and family and common-sense values that are held so deeply by millions of African-Americans.

There is no community in America today that is more thoroughly religious and devout than the minority community -- higher levels of church attendance, higher levels of Bible reading and daily prayer and other outward evidence of religious devotion than anywhere in the white community.

The only difference, and the only thing that has divided us, is that many in the minority community have been suspicious of religious conservatives in the past because of their association with the Republican Party.

You've been reaching out to African-Americans for about three years. You've said that religious conservatives need to make amends for what you've called "a shameful legacy of racism" in the white evangelical church. How would you grade your progress?

We've made it our top priority. We were one of the first and most prominent organizations in the nation to get involved in the church-burnings issue last year [by pledging $1 million to rebuild churches]. We have a long way to go. We're not there yet. But we're moving in the right direction.

How many of the 1.9 million members of the Christian Coalition are black?

About 5 percent.

What do you say to those who contend that this outreach program is really about making the Christian Coalition more acceptable to suburban whites and others who share your political and social beliefs but are put off by the image of religious conservatives as intolerant?

What we were primarily motivated by was a concern that we not be seen as a purely and exclusively white and Republican phenomenon. The fact is God is not a Democrat or a Republican. And God is not black or white. He embraces all of our political affiliations and all of our races and colors. And if we were going to bear his name and if we were going to seek to glorify him, then we had to reflect his character.

If the Christian Coalition is successful in recruiting significant numbers of blacks, won't it have to change to reflect the different priorities of African-Americans on issues such as racial justice?

Yes. It will have to go through some changes, and I think we're already beginning to see some of those changes take place.

I don't know of any other time in recent history, if ever, that a religious conservative organization made one of its primary events of the year a conference on racial justice. And that is just the beginning of the many changes that will have to take place.

You're only 35. Will you be a candidate someday?

No, not anytime soon. I'm getting ready to start this new business, and that's going to occupy me for at least the next four or five years.

Pub Date: 5/10/97

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