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

Free Press, 312 pages, $25

Ralph Reed is frequently depicted as the innocent, and therefore deceptive, face of the religious right. Political opponents who are convinced that the Christian Coalition and its allies represent an invasion of the aliens taking over our public square will be further maddened by his new book, Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics. Aimed at the cultured despisers of religiously inspired conservatism, Active Faith is in tone so very reasonable, so very irenic, so very determined not to intimidate.

At the same time, Reed is preaching to his choir and cautioning them not to get carried away with their new-found political influence. While “changing the soul of American politics,” they must not lose their own souls to the lust for political power. In this connection, the book contains surprisingly candid revelations about tensions within the religious right, including sharp critiques of its earlier manifestations, such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. If religious conservatives do not learn from the past, warns Reed, they will yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Among the lessons to be learned is that action divorced from theory has a way of getting you where you never wanted to go. In this connection, Reed ponders the fact that the political influence of the religious right is all out of proportion to its paucity of theological understanding. Echoing Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind , Reed laments that evangelical Protestants have no real theology of politics. Moralistic passion is not enough.

Although he admits he is no theologian, Reed’s own reflections seem to track the lines proposed by thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray. Noll observes that the more thoughtful evangelicals today are taking their political philosophy and moral theology from Catholic social thought. Reed does not develop his theological ideas in the present book, but what he does say tends to confirm Noll’s observation. This may suggest fascinating possibilities for the future of the Christian Coalition as it develops the Catholic connection through its new affiliate, the Catholic Alliance. Some of those most closely connected with the Coalition, including Pat Robertson himself, are also strong supporters of the initiative “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (which appeared in First Things , May 1994).

Theology and political philosophy are not Mr. Reed’s strong suit. There are occasional howlers, such as his assertion that “the best standard for government is still John Stuart Mill’s principle of allowing the greatest liberty possible until someone else’s life or liberty is jeopardized.” Whatever else the religious right is about, it is surely not premised upon reestablishing Mill’s liberty principle as the norm of just governance. There are conceptual resources in the Protestant, especially Calvinist, tradition that Reed does not mention-for instance, Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch politician and theological thinker who gave birth to a school of political philosophy that accents “spheres of sovereignty” in a manner similar to the Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity.”

Reed rightly wants a theology and philosophy that will equip Christians for “governing.” Among the candidates for that role are Niebuhr, Murray, Kuyper, and Catholic social teaching, particularly as the last is articulated by John Paul II. The 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), to cite but one example, is a rich lode of Christian wisdom for what Reed wants to say about the connections between tolerance and truth, freedom and moral judgment. While Reed seems not to be versed in these more promising traditions, there are some ways of thinking he knows and rejects. He mentions very specifically the Reconstructionist movement promoted by R. J. Rushdoony and his associates.

Reconstructionism”sometimes called Theonomy or Dominion Theology”is a bastard form of Calvinism contending that the American constitutional order must be replaced by a new order based on “Bible Law.” Reed’s rejection of this school is notable because, rightly or wrongly, his boss Pat Robertson (to whom Reed evidences unwavering loyalty) has sometimes been accused of advocating a modified brand of Reconstructionism. Reed’s words are unequivocal and, given the diverse constituencies on which the Christian Coalition draws, bold: “Reconstructionism is an authoritarian ideology that threatens the most basic civil liberties of a free and democratic society. The pro-family movement [Reed’s standard term for the cause he champions] . . . must unequivocally dissociate itself from Reconstructionism and other efforts to use the government to impose biblical law through direct political action. It must firmly and openly exclude the triumphalist and authoritarian elements from the new theology of Christian political involvement.”

Among other lessons to be learned from the past is the need to present the agenda not as one of radical reaction but as an effort to reconstitute the “mainstream” of American political and social history. Active Faith is in largest part an effort to relocate the mainstream of American social and political history. For readers who have been miseducated to believe that ours is a “secular” society and that the current entanglement of politics and religion is something new and threatening, the most instructive chapter may be Reed’s marvelously compact historical updating of Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that religion is “the first political institution” of American democracy.

Reed, who earned his Ph.D. in American history at Emory University, provides a concise account of religion and politics from the First Great Awakening that made possible the American Revolution, through the abolition of slavery and prohibition of alcohol, up to the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. The new and threatening thing, according to Reed, is not religiously informed political action but what someone has called “the naked public square” in which politics is divorced from the moral convictions of the American people”convictions that are typically grounded in religion.

At one level, Reed understands himself to be contending for a recovery of democratic self-governance. Here his argument is redolent of that advanced by the late Christopher Lasch in his final testament, The Revolt of the Elites . Lasch, once a champion of the 1960s “new left,” decried contemporary liberalism’s redefinition of democracy in terms of upward mobility rather than self-governance. The promise of democracy, in that view, is the opportunity to join the ruling elites who assume that “the people” are not competent to govern themselves. I have elsewhere described these elites as the “overclass” that, having despaired of democratic persuasion, employ the universities, philanthropies, media, and, above all, the courts to govern without the consent of the governed.

Directed as it is against that overclass, some might describe Active Faith as a kind of populist manifesto, and populist overtones are by no means absent. Reed, however, eschews populist stridency, claiming that he contends for the renewal of the American democratic experiment, and I expect Kit Lasch would agree. (William Jennings Bryan comes in for major, and critical, discussion. It is suggested that Pat Buchanan is repeating some of Bryan’s mistakes.) In any event, Reed’s morally substantive account of American democracy is necessary reading for those who have been exposed only to the procedural and radically secularized accounts that have in the last thirty years dominated teaching from the elementary grades through graduate school.

For most of the book, however, Ralph Reed the historian and political theorist gives way to Ralph Reed the political strategist and activizer of activists. Political junkies will find here a treasure trove of inside calculation about who is trying to use whom, what issues turn on what constituencies, how the Christian Coalition is projecting its fortunes far beyond the 1996 elections, and the ways in which its evangelical Protestant base is reaching out to Catholics and Jews. On the last score, his good intentions are beyond doubt. But, while he has learned the lyrics of respect and even deference, he has not yet picked up on the music of communicating with Catholics and Jews. That does not come easily to one so immersed in the worlds of evangelical Protestantism. Active Faith does not evidence an understanding of why so many Jews are so powerfully attached to the notion that, the more secular the society, the safer it is for Jews. As for Catholics, the author has not overcome entirely the habit of equating “Christians” with born-again evangelical Protestants.

Active Faith is a book of many fascinating parts. Especially intriguing, albeit not entirely convincing, is Reed’s argument that his movement does not aim to be a political party and is not simply an interest group within the Republican Party but is determinedly “nonpartisan.” One gets the impression that the Christian Coalition is nonpartisan in the sense that it would be glad to exercise the same influence in the Democratic Party and any other faction (including Ross Perot’s movement) as it does in the Republican. It is hard to know what he means when he says the Coalition is engaged in “post-partisan” politics. Perhaps that must be said for IRS purposes, but it is otherwise unhelpful. (The civil suit filed recently against the Coalition by the Federal Election Commission for pro-GOP partisan activity indicates that Reed has a lot of persuading to do.)

Describing his relationship with Ross Perot and the movement that he heads, Reed writes: “There was no discussion of a Perot-Christian alliance or of support for given candidates. But we both agreed that our respective supporters were engaged in rewriting the script of American politics, creating a kind of ‘post-partisan’ electoral environment in which almost anything could happen-and often did.” A little later, there is this: “We saw that our constituents shared many of the same goals: balanced budgets, lower taxes, choice in education, term limits, and political reform. If they could join forces, there would be no legislation that they advocated that could not pass in Congress or the state legislatures and no candidate they could not elect at any level of government.” One may wonder if “triumphalist elements” are only found among the Reconstructionists. Reed goes on to say that a union with the Perot movement is unlikely, “but our agendas are not as far apart as is commonly believed, and the future lies much more in our collective efforts than in the traditional two-party system.”

That seems a remarkably ahistorical observation for a student of American history to make. The two-party system has been around for a long time and has withstood”or, more accurately, has absorbed”many movements for social and political change. What kind of creature is the Christian Coalition? Reed’s efforts to respond to that question are among the least satisfactory parts of Active Faith . He says the Coalition “has 1.7 million members and supporters.” That’s impressive, of course, but one notes the significance of his adding “and supporters.” Reed is very modest. In terms of people who favor its basic program, one might claim that the Coalition has thirty million, or even more, “supporters.”

Perhaps the Coalition should be understood as a coalition of coalitions. After all, there are many other parts of the religious right: the Family Research Council, Concerned Women of America, Focus on the Family, the large array of pro-life organizations (most of which are religiously inspired), and on and on. It is by no means evident that the leaders of all these groups recognize Ralph Reed as the leader of leaders. On the contrary, and as his book does not disguise, there is considerable competition, distrust, and turf protection within the religious right. So the Coalition is not a coalition of coalitions. And we are assured that it is not a political party, for it does not nominate or elect candidates. Or does it?

I think it accurate to say that the Christian Coalition is not a political party in any ordinary sense of the term. One can imagine how it may become a party at some point in the future, but it is not now. There are at least four factors, however, that distinguish it from other organizations of what is broadly called the religious right. First, it is not a special interest group with a tight focus on one or two issues. Active Faith details the ways in which the Coalition, like a political party, works hard to bridge interest groups and combine social and economic discontents that have a political potential. Second, the Coalition is closely coordinated with Pat Robertson’s communications empire, and has parlayed the political network built by Robertson’s 1988 presidential run. Third, the Coalition has devoted itself to grassroots political organizing within and, when possible, outside the Republican Party. That electoral activity, plus its claim to be the heir of earlier organizations such as the Moral Majority, has captured the media’s attention, making “Christian Coalition” and “religious right” almost interchangeable in the minds of many Americans. The fourth differentiating factor, in no way to be underestimated, is the political energy, determination, and intelligence of Ralph Reed.

Part of that intelligence”an intelligence that some will claim is too clever by half”is reflected in the claim that the Christian Coalition is nonpartisan. Like many on the left these days, Reed tends to suggest that his movement is “beyond” the tired old categories such as left and right, liberal and conservative. Thus, in one sense, he belongs to the camp of what David Frum calls the Beyondists. The difference is that he has millions of supporters, and an organization to give their support political effect. The Beyondists of the left, lacking both mass support and organization, are more accurately seen as the Behindists, vainly attempting to turn the clock back to the yesterday when they were tomorrow.

Certainly the religious right is not nonpartisan in the sense of not having a very specific political and social agenda. Some readers might go immediately to the chapter titled “No More Stealth: The Real Agenda.” In earlier days Reed compared his agenda to a stealth bomber that gets in under the radar screens of the political establishment. He now confesses that was a mistake and is at pains to lay out the Coalition’s short”and long”term goals in an utterly straightforward manner. In this he succeeds, discussing everything from abortion to welfare policy, and from euthanasia to tax credits for educational choice in education, all under the rubric of “pro-family policy.”

On abortion, undoubtedly the most fevered question in our public life, there was a notable brouhaha when word got out that Reed’s book proposed a weakening of the Republican platform’s commitment to the pro-life position. The book did nothing of the sort. The New York Times splashed the story of Reed’s “change” on the front page, and the next day had to run a front-page retraction (without calling it a retraction, of course). While the book suggests alternative language on abortion, Reed clearly supports the formulation of the goal as it is embraced by all the major anti-abortion groups: Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. He also knows that goal will never be achieved perfectly, and will only be achieved partially through democratic persuasion-including the persuasion necessary to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the unborn and others (the “useless” aged, the radically handicapped) who may be denied legal due process.

In candidly setting forth “the real agenda,” Reed insists there is no reason for other Americans to feel threatened by the religious right. Perhaps he is right about most Americans, but the irenic purpose of Active Faith tends to downplay the intensity of today’s conflict over the public definition of our culture. The term “culture war” is not hyperbole.

For instance, unionized teachers who insist that public schools should have a monopoly on state funding, those who believe that the unlimited right to abortion is essential to the flourishing of women, those who would establish homosexuality on a moral and social par with heterosexuality”all these will read Active Faith and know that they have met the enemy. It is the Christian Coalition and its director, Ralph Reed. They are not likely to be taken in by this bright, boyish, buoyant advocate of what George Bush might have called a kinder and gentler America.

In his politically astute desire not to frighten the horses, Reed does less than justice, indeed he almost ignores, what may become the most flammable issue in our public life, namely, the usurpation of power by the judiciary. From abortion to doctor-assisted suicide to same-sex marriage, the courts have increasingly arrogated to themselves the big decisions about the ordering of our life together, leaving to the people and their elected representatives the relatively trivial questions of raising or lowering the gasoline tax and balancing the budget. As Ralph Reed surely knows, the great task in the months and years ahead is, if one may be permitted the awful words, to de-legalize and re-politicize the great questions that are properly political. This will not happen without a very sharp challenge to business as usual”a challenge that some will no doubt condemn as an insurrectionary revolt against “the law of the land” (meaning the latest dumb decision of the courts).

The purpose of Faith Alive is less to raise alarms than to calm the alarmed. It is a perfectly honorable and understandable purpose. In setting forth “the real agenda,” Ralph Reed wants to assure Americans that this won’t hurt, or at least it won’t hurt very much. But for those with a vested interest in the way things are, and especially for the overclass that has long governed without the consent of the governed, it is going to hurt a great deal. Nonetheless”or precisely for that reason”they should read the book, as should everybody else who wants to understand what may be the most important sociopolitical movement of our time, as interpreted by one of the most thoughtful political players on the scene today.


Richard John Neuhaus
is Editor in Chief of First Things .