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Ralph Reed and American politics: casting shadows.

When the U.S. Senate voted May 20 on a measure banning one form of late-term abortion, the tally -- 64 to 36 for the restriction -- was lopsided, but it fell short of the two-thirds needed to override an anticipated veto by president Bill Clinton. Clinton has said he will not sign any such measure unless it contains an exemption for cases involving women's health.

In an interview with The New York Times, Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed gave his take on the impact of the likely outcome. "We'll get another recorded vote," he said. "We'll get Clinton on the record, and we'll either have the first abortion ban signed by a Democratic president or a winning, gold-plated issue going into the 1998 elections."

That comment pretty much sums up Reed's approach to politics. Others may see an emotion-laden congressional vote about abortion in terms of deep moral, legal and religious concerns. Reed sees it as an opportunity -- a "winning, gold-plated issue" -- for the next round of elections.

Two months ago when Reed announced his plans to resign this September as Christian Coalition executive director, many church-state separationists probably breathed a sigh of relief. In the ongoing struggle to preserve our First Amendment freedom of conscience, there would be one less foe on the field of battle.

That optimistic assessment is probably wrong, however. In addition to announcing his resignation, Reed revealed two other things: he plans to remain on the Coalition's board and he intends to start Century Strategies, a political consulting firm.

Reed said he would work with "pro-family, pro-life and pro-free enterprise candidates at every level of government .... Century Strategies' primary focus will be on building a `farm team' of hundreds of state legislative, school board and local candidates across the country."

In other words, Reed won't be lowering his political profile, he'll just be expanding it -- and making a fortune in the process. That's bad news for church-state separation.

Serving as religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's front man, Reed has built a remarkably influential political machine by callously exploiting the passions of fundamentalist Christians.

Although media-savvy, Reed's words sometimes border on the audacious. At his April 23 press conference, Reed said, "It has always been the burden of my heart and the yearning of my soul that the Christian Coalition would be the lengthened shadow of only one person, and that's my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Even by Ralph's rhetorical standards, that's quite a leap.

Is this the same Ralph Reed, who early in his Christian Coalition career, boasted of working under cover of darkness and leaving opposition candidates in body bags on the day after election?

Is this the same Ralph Reed who professed support for a "complete and inviolable" separation of church and state, while his boss Pat Robertson went on television to call separation a Soviet concept?

Is this the same Ralph Reed who suggested watered-down anti-abortion language for the Republican Party platform, then switched sides and took credit for keeping the old plank intact?

Surely, it isn't the Ralph Reed who criticized other Religious Right leaders for gay-bashing while his own organization was selling a Christian Reconstructionist book that says God requires the death penalty for unrepentant homosexuals.

Is this the same Ralph Reed who designed and distributed millions of supposedly objective "voter guides" that scholar Larry Sabato and Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson described as "manipulations, distortions and outright falsehoods?"

Is this the Christian Coalition that was sued by the Federal Election Commission -- after a bipartisan vote of its board -- for spending millions of dollars illegally in conjunction with Republican candidates for public office?

Is this the same Ralph Reed who regularly reported huge Coalition growth, even in a year when the group's dues-paying membership actually dropped? At his April press conference, Reed boasted of 1.9 million members and supporters, when postal records filed by the Coalition last fall showed only 341,000 individuals. (Funny, we don't remember Jesus claiming hundreds of apostles, when he only had 12.)

The Christian Coalition is the lengthened shadow of one man all right, but that man is power-hungry TV preacher Pat Robertson, not Jesus.

In short, Ralph Reed has established an undeniable pattern of deception and chicanery that would make the ward heelers and precinct bosses of yesteryear blush. Far from bringing greater integrity and ethics into politics -- as one would expect from a "Christian" organization -- Reed and company have taken the worst tactics from the seamy side of American electioneering and raised them to an art form.

As Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn put it, Reed has taken Christian participation in politics not toward heaven, but toward the gutter.

At one point, Ralph Reed told reporters that he aspires to be the "Christian Lee Atwater." Many observers think he is making steady progress toward that goal. His take-no-prisoners, "end justifies the means" approach to elections is strikingly reminiscent of the late GOP mastermind. It's a little harder, however, to find a reason to call that kind of politics "Christian."

Those of us who believe in a religiously pluralistic America where the institutions of faith and government are kept at a healthy distance have our work cut out for us.
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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