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Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics.

Pat Buchanan posed a major problem for the Christian Coalition leadership in his primary campaign last winter. Here was a certified right-winger, revered by much of the Coalition's political base, who wasn't staying on the safe reservation of "family" issues. Instead, Buchanan was carrying crusade for traditional Christian values right into the corporate boardrooms.

Beneath the bumptious attacks on layoffs and trade deals were the echoes of a basic moral principle: The strong must choose between love of neighbor and love of lucre, just as the young must choose between abstinence and fleshly indulgence. This was dangerous.

The Republican coalition is built upon a gaping fault line - a central hypocrisy, some would say - between traditional moral values and libertarian market amorality. Reed has tried mightily to keep God and Mammon in separate closets. But now Buchanan was blowing the cover, and Reed's response is revealing.

In his new book, Active Faith, Reed does to Buchanan pretty much what The Washington Post does to him - and to Reed himself, for that matter: He marginalizes through epithet. Buchanan is an "economic nationalist," he says, which as Reed knows is Washington Post code for "belligerent ignoramus." Then, shifting into a squishy moral relativist mode, he says that a Christian can go either way: supply side or Buchananite "nationalist," it's just a matter of - yes, choice.

The important thing, Reed says, is to keep the Republican coalition together. No matters of principle are involved. The party can attract those blue-collar Reagan Democrats "with the magnet of social issues such as abortion and gay rights," he says, "whereas to draw them with anti-Wall Street and anti-big business rhetoric threatens to alienate the economic conservatives who comprise the other half of the party's base."

In other words, finesse the underlying issues and try to keep everybody happy. With one blase stroke, Reed has brushed aside the Master's warnings against acquisitiveness and greed - qualities upon which supply-side thinking is based. It's the kind of footwork which, if done by a certain Democratic president, the right would call a "Slick Willie." It's also Active Faith in a nutshell: Machiavelli with a pious face.

The book is Reed's attempt at a coming-of-age story, for the Christian Coalition and for himself. In particular, he is trying to soften the Coalition's harsh and rancorous image in a presidential election year. He declares the movement, and himself, ready to put off the childish things of inflammatory polemic and rancor. He is conciliatory and reasonable; although this manner is obviously for effect, I thought he meant it, up to a point.

Reed grew up in Miami and northern Georgia, son of an ophthalmologist and a homemaker. He was drawn to politics early; in high school, he ran for student council president on a platform of Coke machines in the locker rooms and greater student power. He was an active Young Republican in college, and after graduation he came to Washington to work as executive director of the National College Young Republicans. He skirts past his work there under Lee Atwater, his mentor, except to say that it was "political hardball." I wish he weren't such a chronic image-polisher. A few good Atwater stories would have given some life to a manuscript that often reads as though focus-grouped by Frank Luntz.

At any rate, Pat Robertson spotted Reed after his campaign for president in 1988 and made him head of the new Christian Coalition. Reed proceeded to build the organization from the ground up, out of the ashes of the Moral Majority. After the 1992 elections, his operatives fanned out across the country, encouraging simpaticos to run for local office, and developing a political base - just as he says young Democrats did after the McGovern campaign.

The left may be the demon that animates Reed's Manichean political universe. But he's also fascinated by it, the way a fundamentalist is by sin. (He complains about the stereotyping of the so-called Christian right, but his view of the left is no less cartoonish.) The environmental and civil rights movements are the tactical models he seeks to emulate. He set out early on, he says, to create a "mirror image of the New Left," and the Christian Coalition was the eventual result. Like any good political strategist, Reed lays claim to the moral high ground. FDR and Martin Luther King were really prophets of the Coalition's agenda, he says. If alive today they'd be working on issues like school vouchers and a ban on abortion for women.

This is a stretch. But Reed is right that liberals have drifted from the mainstream values from which their two icons spoke. Like Atwater, Reed is a cagey strategist with a natural instinct for polemical jujitsu. He understands that politics is not about talking at people, the way liberals tend to do, but rather about tapping into their inner conversations - talking to them the way they talk to themselves.

This is the gift of both demagogue and saint; one speaks to our darkness, the other our light. In Active Faith, Reed works hard to sound like the latter. When he started going to church again, in 1983, he says, he felt compelled to reassess his hardball tactics. There is sincerity in his voice when he describes how he began to apologize to people he had maligned along the way - "to break bread with them or pray for them." Even if most of these former "enemies" were in the Republican camp (he doesn't say), and even if the self-congratulation is a bit unseemly, this is the one moment in Active Faith that comes close to justifying the title.

Reed is relatively gracious to Clinton. Although he repeats some of the charges that he himself, of course, isn't going make, he does add that "[w]hatever one thinks of Clinton's politics, there is no denying his interest in spiritual matters." In fact, Reed and Clinton are a lot alike: natural politicians who can charm their way through expediencies and transgressions. I wonder if Reed realizes that, in talking about the President, he is talking about a version of himself - and maybe of what he aspires to attain.

The Money Changer

But this is a campaign document - an apology, not a confession. Despite the tone of candor, Reed reveals little that doesn't serve his political ends, and in this calculated quality he reveals much. I'd trust him more, for example, if he at least admitted the temptations of power, instead of denying any such thoughts with mock choirboy hurt. "Our critics do not believe me when I say we desire a place at the table," he says. "The truth is, we eschew political power." Well, you could have fooled me. He can brown-nose with the best. Elizabeth Dole holds forth at the Florida straw polls "looking poised and attractive as always." It's one of the few physical details in the book. Give him this: He knows his mark.

Reed says that politics are not enough, that "no man-made law can substitute for the higher law that transforms the human heart." Like Clinton, a part of him truly seems to believe such sentiments. But it's not the dominant part. His chapter on how the Christian Coalition has learned from its mistakes deals almost entirely with tactics and public relations. It discovered, for example, that the paranoid hysterics that work in direct mail don't play so well on the larger national stage. Such a strategy may "drive your supporters to their checkbooks," Reed observes, "but it ultimately limits one's effectiveness in the broader society."

Yes, but is it wrong? Reed was embarrassed when hecklers at a right-wing convention called Nina Totenberg, the NPR reporter, a "whore" while she was interviewing him. It was "incredibly juvenile and politically suicidal," he says, adding that you "never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel." Again, he doesn't punctuate the anecdote with a point about right and wrong.

There are other omissions. Reed does not discuss his political deal with the gun lobby. His only comment on the environment is a jab at President Bush for signing the Clean Air Act, a "liberal" machination. Why is the purity of the air, which sustains life, not of concern to those who profess to believe in the right to life? Reed doesn't say.

The reason, of course, is money: Polluters contribute a lot of it to Republican campaigns. For right-wingers, this is where the footsteps bleed, or ought to. It's easy for them to attack teachers' unions and welfare recipients, just as it's easy (or used to be) for liberals to attack corporations and Wall Street. Republicans rail against lust; Democrats, greed. The other guy's sins are always a convenient target. The test of principle is when you have to cause displeasure to your own, and that's the one that Reed has trouble passing.

Instead, he hauls out that tired partisan warhorse, Dan Quayle's Murphy Brown speech, with its righteous chest-thumping about the media. But Quayle was hardly the first to figure out that television is doing terrible things to our kids. And, whereas Murphy Brown may fall short as a role model, the way corporations assault little children with the most sophisticated propaganda techniques to turn them into product-crazed consumers is utterly despicable.

But for Reed, advertising doesn't exist - even though it's why commercial TV exists. The heroic Quayle couldn't muster the gumption to mention corporate sponsors such as Chevrolet or IBM, for whom "Murphy Brown" delivers a target audience. The business interests that people like Quayle and Reed support so loyally are behind much of the cultural erosion they deplore. But they refuse to make the connection, blaming liberals instead.

Such skewed logic may be good politics. But Christianity? We expect evasions from people who hold themselves out as politicians and nothing more. But Reed tries to have it both ways, and his unwillingness to confront the money changers in the temple - those who would debase spiritual values with material ones - is hard to take. In Active Faith, Reed shows some good qualities that his critics often miss. But his continual cloaking of political expediency in the garments of holy purpose gives off - I must say this - a slightly putrid smell.
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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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