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To be sure, on the abortion issue many Catholic leaders are prepared, if they can prevail in the legislatures, to coerce people who do not agree with their moral stance. That, however, is not per se illegitimate as long as civil rights are protected and their moral arguments carry no privileged political authority. What is always unacceptable is for religious certainty to trump politics and for government policy to privilege or codify religious belief in ways that preempt a pluralist democratic process.
In politics, a religious lobbyist stands on the same footing as a lobbyist for General Motors.
Buttigieg Says God Not a Partisan, But Not Republican, Either
What they advocate may be good for the country, but that benefit has to be demonstrated. The pragmatic issue, from the standpoint of the churches and religious leaders, is the cost of their political involvement to the prestige and moral authority of religion. When religious leaders act in ways that render them indistinguishable from the Doles and the Clintons, they jeopardize the respect that they otherwise enjoy.
This is what the Christian Coalition and its leaders are risking. Installed as head of the Christian Coalition by Pat Robertson, who created it from the ruins of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Ralph Reed found himself in charge of a well-financed organization that had a deserved reputation for extreme statements.
People involved with the organization were continually saying that America was a Christian nation and the task of politics was to restore God to the center of American life. Pat Robertson was on record stating that separation of church and state was a lie of the left. Reed knew his American history well enough to recognize that such statements were not only wildly at odds with the Constitution but also an impediment to gaining national power. Stealth victories in local school board elections might be useful for organizing a grassroots movement.
But a seat at the table in Washington, which conservatives covet as much as liberals, was a far better thing. Reed's mission from the beginning was to clean up the coalition's act. And so he has, even if it has meant making some of the other leaders associated with conservative religious causes, especially Jerry Falwell, look inept.
Reed has proclaimed his respect for separation of church and state. He has muted claims in the coalition's publications about Christian nationhood and has invited Jews and Catholics into an organization whose base was, and remains, overwhelmingly Protestant and white. He has pulled the coalition away from the language of cultural warfare that sank Pat Buchanan as a national leader and has shown a willingness to put off moral issues that threaten to draw away too many votes from conservative Republican candidates.
He has denied that the faith claims of the Christian Coalition override the faith claims of other people. In steering this corrective course, however, Reed has stuck by the man who butters his bread, Pat Robertson.
god is not a republican or a democrat | Sojourners
Robertson's many blundering statements, according to Reed, never mean what they seem to mean. And in the end, Reed's efforts to arrange what he calls a "marriage of a sense of social justice with the practical world of modern politics" transform religious witness into a politics where nothing must get in the way of winning. Reed is not a spiritual leader, but, in his own phrase, a "political junkie. He claims that the Christian Coalition is a nonpartisan organization, but that is patent nonsense. We can think of no religious organization in American history that has so manifestly tied itself to one political party, indeed, to a particular wing within it.
Reed's recent book, Active Faith , is only sporadically about religion. In fact, it is hard sometimes to figure out whether his faith has anything to do with his politics "My religious beliefs never changed my views on the issues to any great degree" or whether it acts just as a sort of energizing bunny. In a disarmingly candid but unmistakably arrogant way, Active Faith is about one man's quest for influence, his thrill of traveling in police-escorted limousines that screech to stops and burn rubber on their way to rallies where audiences stomp their feet, wave banners, and blow horns when he appears.
Reed has won that influence for the moment. The media assiduously court him, and candidates line up to seek his advice and intervention. B ut there is a price.
Reed's influence depends on the outcome of elections and whether his movement appears to offer candidates more support than it costs. Our own guess is that Reed's influence will wane sooner rather than later because for all his cautious bargaining among leaders of the Republican Party he has yet to get his troops under control.
Reed may have tailored a moderate image for himself, but his followers too enthusiastically subscribe to Reed's view that people of faith have fled the Democratic Party; these followers often speak of their opponents as evil men and women whose moral positions reek of hellfire.
Christian Coalition conventions have nothing in common with the Social Gospel crusades that Reed wants to emulate. The delegates are too angry. Their televised images and their frankly smutty literature suggest neither piety nor political tolerance. That is among the reasons why many conservative Christians who vote Republican want no part of them. Media attention notwithstanding, the Christian Coalition has not spoken in this year for all of evangelical America.
There is still reason to regret and to worry about the retreat of Southern Baptists from their long-held belief that making or keeping people Christian is not a business best entrusted to politicians. Historically among the strictest Protestants, Baptists ought to recognize that a group of Christians who begin meetings with a cult-like version of the Pledge of Allegiance—"I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe"—have not only tainted politics but have pushed religion over the line into idolatry.
Reed says that government cannot make people moral. Nonetheless, a pledge that it can seems to be on every candidate's lips. Under pressure from the Christian Coalition, Republicans have tried to make character the issue of presidential politics in The result has too often been the worst sort of religious politics, a politics of moral name-calling that implicates many religious people in scurrilous attacks upon Bill Clinton as a moral leper.
The New England clergy who demonized Thomas Jefferson during the election campaign of followed a similar strategy. It proved to be a disastrous failure for the Federalist Party, and it all but destroyed the Congregational Church. History doesn't always repeat itself. But the thought that it might ought to give Reed some sleepless nights.
Isaac Kramnick teaches and writes about political thought at Cornell University. He co-authored The Godless Constitution with R. Laurence Moore. It allows our most engaged readers to debate the big issues, share their own experiences, discuss real-world solutions, and more. Our journalists will try to respond by joining the threads when they can to create a true meeting of independent minds. The most insightful comments on all subjects will be published daily in dedicated articles.
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