ACTIVE FAITH: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics
By Ralph Reed
Free Press. 311 pp. $25

Go to Chapter One

Read the first chapter of ACTIVE FAITH

In The Kingdom of This World

By Andrew Delbanco
The Washington Post, Book World
Sunday, July 7, 1996

One of the livliest moments in Ralph Reed's book about the history and future of the Christian Coalition is his account of a speech Dan Quayle delivered in a jammed hotel ballroom during the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. " `Do we trust Bill Clinton?' " asked Quayle as he tried to whip the crowd into a hear-and-answer frenzy.

" `No!' the crowd shouted.

" `Do we trust the media?'

" `No,' they bellowed, now getting into the rhythm of Quayle's cadence.

" `Who do we trust?'

" `Jesus!' came back the response. The answer clearly caught Quayle off guard, and for a split second he got a deer-in-the-headlights look. The answer he had clearly expected was `George Bush.' "

Borrowing the stunned-deer analogy from Quayle's liberal detractors, Reed pokes fun not only at the grammatically challenged Quayle (ask Johnny Carson, Dan -- it's whom do you trust), but also at former president Bush. By 1992, Bush had angered many on the Christian right who had supported him four years earlier but who had never quite believed that he walked with Jesus. At a White House gathering in November 1989, Pat Robertson (Reed's mentor) stood up and taunted the White House director of personnel: "Isn't it interesting that you have no difficulty identifying evangelicals and their allies during the campaign, but you cannot find them after the election." Not yet 30 years old at the time, Reed remembers that "the room exploded with laughter and applause." His guffaws were, no doubt, among the loudest.

Now that he has become a political power ("he looks like a choirboy," says U.S. News and World Report, "but acts like a ward boss"), Reed's new book is no joke. It tells the story of how the "Moral Majority" movement, which never got much beyond televangelical appeals, became a disciplined grassroots political organization called the Christian Coalition -- of which Reed is now executive director. Timed to appear just as the presidential campaign gets under way, Active Faith is an implied warning that, if the Republicans under Bob Dole drift back to the "dry, austere language of accountants" -- from which, according to Reed, evangelicals rescued them in 1980 -- the Coalition might focus on local and congressional races and leave the contenders for the White House to their own devices.

In this sense, publication of this book is a political event. But it also purports to be an intellectual event -- a serious essay about the relation between religion and politics in American history.

Although Reed holds a Ph.D. from Emory University, some of the history in this book is very strange. For example, in counseling today's "pro-life" activists against pushing for an immediate constitutional amendment banning abortion, Reed finds a lesson in the long crusade against alcohol. "The key to prohibition's ultimate triumph," he writes, "was the prohibitionists' willingness to move their agenda gradually and incrementally." But is prohibition really a good precedent for those who want to criminalize abortion? Can a constitutional amendment that unleashed a wave of organized crime and lasted only 14 years before it was repealed be described as an "ultimate triumph"?

Reed is on stronger ground when examining the American past as a series of revivals beginning with the first Great Awakening of the 1740s, which fed the fires of revolution, to the abolitionist crusade that helped end slavery, to the Social Gospel movement that attacked urban poverty and vice. He proclaims his own "pro-family movement" to be nothing less than a fourth Great Awakening, led by true believers who are "people of faith first, Americans second, and Republicans or Democrats third."

Lest he seem just another pulpit-thumping fanatic who wants to smoke out heretics and restore the nation to Christian orthodoxy, Reed defines "people of faith" broadly to include "pro-family" Catholics and observant Jews. He's careful to say that during childhood he "attended more bar mitzvahs than baptisms." But I wonder how far his tolerance goes. Why, in his pantheon of dissidents, is there no place for Walt Whitman, who said 125 years ago just what Reed says today -- that "at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element"? Could it be that Whitman, if he were alive today, would be denounced by the Christian Coalition as a homosexual enemy of family values?

And why no mention of the Berrigans or William Sloane Coffin as believers who turned faith into political activism during the Vietnam era? Reed is right, I think, that liberals tend to be selectively indignant when public figures mix religion with politics (Martin Luther King Jr. is fine, Jerry Falwell is odious). But he is selective, too.

In the end, the question of whether a political movement is led by "people of faith" or by non-believers matters less than whether it promotes a free and fair society. It's easy to invoke heroes from the past as spiritual allies ("I draw much of my own inspiration" from King, Reed claims) and to rail against past evils like slavery and legal segregation. As for today's issues, what does Reed's fourth Great Awakening have to offer for dealing with persistent poverty, with our grotesque and growing income disparity, or with the whole looming question of how, in a global economy, American capitalism can remain both competitive and humane?

Active Faith is finally a collection of feel-good slogans -- "pro-life," "pro-family," "Judeo-Christian values." It is unworthy of the Christian activists whom it invokes as forerunners, including Theodore Parker, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, not to mention King, for whom being "pro-life" and "pro-family" entailed the radical reconstruction of an unjust society. It is the work of neither a thinker nor a zealot but of a media-adept child of the video age. (Reed likes to describe himself on the run with his cellular phone at his ear or pounding away on his laptop at 30,000 feet.) "The biggest downside in the Buchanan speech," he writes about Pat Buchanan's notorious address at the 1992 Republican convention, one of the ugliest speeches by a presidential candidate in recent memory, "had nothing to do with its content." The real problem, apparently, was the fact that Buchanan's long-windedness bumped Ronald Reagan past prime time.

Since some on the right have lately identified problems about which the left has been reticent -- the loss of manufacturing jobs (Buchanan), the modishness of illegitimacy (Quayle), the acceptance of violence as a norm in mass entertainment (Dole) -- it's disappointing that Reed, rather than offer a thoughtful program, simply echoes them with more sound-bite-sized phrases. With alarming plausibility, he says of liberalism that "as a wellspring of ideas for the nation's future, or as a source of intellectual energy and vitality, its glory days are over." But on the evidence of Active Faith, the same must be said of conservatism.

Where does this leave the great majority of Americans who have little interest in ideology and who keep their religious convictions private and out of the public sphere? It leaves them, I fear, without a party, and without much sense of hope.

Andrew Delbanco is the author of "The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil."

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