Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics
By Ralph Reed
Free Press, 281 pp., $25
The religious conservative movement, more than any other group, helped to sweep the Republicans into control of the US Congress in 1994, put Bob Dole out front in his presidential nomination bid, and turn the South towards the Republican Party.
"Active Faith," by Ralph Reed, offers an insider's look at this movement and suggests that perhaps it is the most vibrant force in American politics today.
Reed's purpose is to show in extensive detail that the religious conservative movement has been through the political wringer and has emerged in the past few years as a potent cultural force - well- educated, middle-class, actively doing something about widely perceived social decay in America.
The author is the executive director of the Christian Coalition, representing millions of religious activists. The movement was rebuilt from the ashes of the Moral Majority, disbanded in 1989 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell following televangelism scandals, political missteps, defeats, and a general pounding by the press.
Reed himself has been central to the rebuilding, which began in September 1989 when Pat Robertson of Club 700 fame called together leaders of the religious conservative movement to consider its future.
While finishing a PhD in history at Emory University in Atlanta, Reed planned an academic career. Robertson invited him to the strategy meeting. As "Active Faith" recounts, the decision was made at the meeting to build thousands of local, grass-roots organizations and not a centralized, top-heavy organization that would be a media target.
Reed soon produced a paper on how to proceed and then found himself with the arduous task of building the new movement. He argues that Democrats over the decades had gradually abandoned the linkage between religion and political reform. He provides, in a chapter called "Liberalism's Hollow Core," a look at what he calls "[t]he long and celebrated history of religiously inspired political activism in America...."
Reed asserts, as many others have, that Democrats are now left primarily with interest groups, from gays to pro-choice advocates, who only want their own purposes advanced, without focusing in any significant way on the necessary moral order that supports the larger society.
The members of this religious conservative movement are somewhat diverse: predominantly Protestant, many Roman Catholics and some conservative Jews. Reed refers often to members of the coalition as pro-family activists. Their argument, he states, angers secular interests fascinated with excitement and counterculture lifestyles. He taps an underlying and founding theme of America: the always-disputed place of religion in a democracy, where the people have the right to govern themselves.
Reed is not Jerry Falwell of 1980, nor is his message one of fundamentalism or denominationalism. It's an appeal for the right of spiritually minded people to fight politically for traditional values in their society.
He obviously combines many talents with natural political instincts. He is a committed Christian. He is a scholar and an excellent communicator. He makes a sincere study, based on the strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. not to be angry or unkind.
What is new about the Christian Coalition of the 1990s, as distinct from the Moral Majority of the '80s, says Reed, is the growing sophistication and savvy of millions of Americans, operating primarily at the grass-roots level, to bring moral solutions to social problems.
These activists, he says, are joining together to counter the effects on society of secularism, promiscuity, illegitimacy, drug dealing and addiction, gang wars, sometimes dangerous and often spiritually neutral schools, teen violence, and what its members view as the killing of innocents through abortion.
The Christian Coalition has managed to elect thousands of its candidates to school boards, city councils, and state legislatures. It has helped elect Republican governors and legislatures in many states. The national press was asleep to most of these changes while they were underway.
Because the Christian Coalition has been accused of stealth, Reed openly tells the whole story of the movement it represents. He also is unsparing in his criticism of the racist history of conservative Christians in the South.
This book also offers a fascinating look at Reed's personal efforts to build bridges to the "economic" wing of the Republican party and to Perot voters, whom he characterizes as essentially economic populists. It explains why Reed did not want conservative Republicans to fixate on social issues in the Republican platform at the San Diego GOP national convention last week at the expense of some form of party unity.
Bob Dole's recent effort to finesse the abortion issue by introducing a "tolerance" statement complements Reed's strategy.
The book is a long and gripping political yarn, not a religious dissertation. The been-there, done-that flavor of the writing is compelling and authentic. It's Reed's story as much as it is a movement's story.
*David Mutch is a Monitor staff writer.