Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Active Faith
How Christians Are Changing The Soul of American Politics
By Ralph Reed

Chapter One: How We Got There

The sun was setting over central Florida as the plane carrying me and my colleagues banked right and descended toward Orlando International Airport. It was November 17, 1995, the day before the Republican party straw poll in Florida known as Presidency III. It was the last preliminary bout in the "long primary" that stretched from the announcements of the presidential candidates earlier in the year until the Iowa caucuses in February 1996. Ronald Reagan had won it in 1980, and George Bush won it in 1988, so the press corps and party professionals looked to the straw poll as an early barometer of organizational muscle and a reliable predictor of the eventual presidential nominee.

With me in the plane were Duane Ward, a former aide to Jerry Falwell and Oliver North, and the Texas-based religious broadcaster John Hagee, who had come along just to see the Christian Coalition at work up close. Beneath us rushed the pine trees, occasional palms, and expansive flatness that I remembered from time spent growing up in Florida. As the plane landed and came to a stop on the runway, I glanced at my watch. We had exactly fifteen minutes to make it to the junior high school where nearly two thousand clapping, foot-stomping Christian activists were packed into a gymnasium, awaiting the start of our presidential candidate forum and rally.

I jumped into a waiting van driven by one of our county coordinators, and we screamed off the tarmac behind a police escort. The van careened through the streets of Orlando as two motorcycles with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing cut their way through the night. As the minutes ticked by, our driver reported the startling fact that more than two-thirds of the delegates attending the straw poll from her county were members of the Christian Coalition.

"When we first showed up at the local meeting of the Republican party, we were treated like pariahs," she said. "It was almost like we had leprosy. That was two years ago. Last week we went to a meeting and were surrounded by candidates and legislators seeking our help. We're no longer outside looking in. We're on the inside looking out." As the van screeched to a stop, its burning tires lifting a cloud of blue smoke in the air, we scrambled through a back door of the junior high school, where the rally was just beginning. Greeting my entrance were the animated faces of Pat and Bay Buchanan, who were upset about his spot in the lineup of speakers.

"A candidate trumps a spouse," Bay screamed over the noise. "A candidate always trumps a spouse."

"I have to get ready for the debate tonight," exclaimed Pat. Because Bob Dole and Phil Gramm were stranded in Washington for a budget vote, they had sent their wives--Elizabeth and Wendy--to fill in for them. Pat was upset because the spouses were ahead of him on the program.

"I just walked in the door," I protested. "I don't have anything to do with the order of the speakers. Why don't you take it up with our Florida people?"

"They've already said no," laughed Pat. "That's why I'm coming to you." Pat was a no-holds-barred street fighter who had won a large grassroots following from his perch on CNN's Crossfire program. We had teamed up many times against liberal opponents on television, and I was happy to help him, even if it only meant juggling the schedule. But his request to speak first probably had less to do with debate preparation and more to do with outmaneuvering his opponents.

Rather than argue, we agreed to let Buchanan go first, which sent the other campaign staffs into an apoplectic fit. As the screaming and finger-pointing continued backstage, a singer belted out "The Star-Spangled Banner." On cue, I stepped to the podium to deliver preliminary remarks. A large gold Christian Coalition logo sparkled beneath hot klieg lights behind me while the audience spread out before me like a human blanket in the darkened auditorium.

"If the Republican party wants to retain the majority it won in 1994 and add to it in 1996," I predicted, "it should not, cannot, and must not retreat from the pro-life and pro-family agenda that made it a majority party." The auditorium erupted in applause as those in the bleachers stomped their feet, waved banners, and blew horns.

"In politics, as in romance," I continued, "you dance with the one who brung you. And the Republican party has reached majority status with the votes of evangelicals, pro-family Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and their allies."

As I stepped from the stage, I couldn't help but reflect on how far we had come since we had held the very first meeting of the Christian Coalition in Orlando in late 1989. At that time we had fewer than five thousand members, and our first rally drew only six hundred supporters. Now, less than six years later, we had 1.7 million members and supporters, more than a third of the delegates to Presidency III, and almost two thousand local chapters influencing legislation from school boards to the halls of Congress. In political terms, we had arrived.

Backstage, Lamar Alexander greeted me, minus his trademark red-and-black checkered flannel shirt. He wore a conventional blue suit and tie, the official uniform of presidential candidates. Lamar was flanked by Mike Murphy, his media guru, and Dan Casse, his chief policy wonk. We had talked on the phone earlier in the week, and Lamar expressed his desire to make a strong run at the pro-family delegates in spite of his moderate views on abortion. I suggested that he stress his opposition to federal funding of abortion. That night, Lamar cut the air with his fist and pledged to a rising crescendo of applause that under an Alexander administration Planned Parenthood would not receive a dime in federal grants.

"Have you ever met Naomi Judd?" Lamar asked. I replied that I had not. My wife was a big country music fan; she would just die if she knew I had met one of her favorite stars.

"Well, she would like to meet you," Lamar said. I was led into a small holding room, where Naomi sat on a bench. Her hair was fiery red, her eyes deep blue, and she looked like a little China doll in an Oriental tunic and yellow silk pants complemented by sparkling white-and-gold sequined shoes. We could hear the crowd roaring in the auditorium behind us. It was almost surreal, as though someone had parachuted a geisha girl into the middle of a battlefield.

"I don't care much for politics," Naomi said, "but I do believe in what the Christian Coalition is doing. So even though I don't normally go to political rallies, I wanted to be here."

I thanked Naomi for coming and then headed to the back of the hall as Elizabeth Dole, looking poised and attractive as always, held forth from the podium. As a committed Christian who spoke openly about her faith, Elizabeth was one of Bob Dole's greatest assets. The Dole campaign often sent her to address pro-family audiences, where she pledged her husband's fidelity to the conservative cause and spoke movingly about her own religious beliefs. Particularly given the contrast with Hillary Rodham Clinton, many at the grassroots hungered for a conservative, pro-family First Lady who would be a symbol for their values the way Mrs. Clinton had served as a symbol for liberal values.

"Bob Dole supported the pro-life plank in 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992, and he will support it again in 1996," she promised. The crowd cheered approvingly.

Michael Barone of U.S. News and Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times sauntered over and asked how our members would vote in the straw poll. I replied that they were spread all over the map, with Dole, Gramm, Buchanan, and Keyes all receiving a healthy chunk. Alexander was also making a surprising run. Many remained undecided on the night before the vote. By declining to endorse a candidate, we had avoided the trap of appearing to dictate the nominee to the party. There was no "Christian Coalition" candidate for president. We had dodged the bullet that brought down organized labor in 1984, when the AFL-CIO made the mistake of endorsing Walter Mondale early and then was blamed when he lost forty-nine states. In 1996 we were being courted by all the candidates, and like a debutante at the cotillion, we refused to surrender our heart (or our chastity) to any of them.

After the rally the crowd scattered, and the candidates hustled to a live televised debate scheduled for that evening on Larry King Live. Sitting cross-legged on a metal chair in a back room with bare concrete walls and with electrical cables strewn about, I was surrounded by a blur of noise and confusion. I marveled that our participation in the pageantry of politics was now treated by the media as almost humdrum. Our rally had featured every major presidential candidate or his spouse, dozens of state legislators, the state commissioner of education, the governor of South Carolina, and two thousand grassroots activists. The majority of the delegates to a preliminary straw poll that might well determine the nominee of one of the nation's two major political parties were religious conservatives. Yet no one viewed our presence with alarm any longer. What a contrast from the Republican national convention in Houston in 1992, where many of the same delegates were treated as if they were horned monsters rising from the swamp.

These activists are not seeking to win government goodies or curry favor with politicians. They are reluctant political actors. After two generations of self-imposed retreat from political involvement, they have reentered the political arena with a common purpose and an uncommon enthusiasm. They look out upon a society they see as torn asunder by explicit sex and violence on television, rampant divorce, skyrocketing illegitimacy, epidemics of crime and drugs, and a million teen pregnancies every year. Their way of life and their values are under assault. For these activists, the most important issue in the nation is not "the economy, stupid," as the sign in the Clinton campaign headquarters proclaimed. It is the culture, the family, a loss of values, a decline in civility, and the destruction of our children.

Most politicians miss the heart and soul of this concern. They debate issues like accountants. As they headed into the 1996 elections, two of the most hotly touted topics in American politics were the flat tax and the balanced budget amendment. Those are important issues. But a flat tax will not teach a child right from wrong when a friend offers drugs or easy sex. A balanced budget amendment cannot provide a male role model to a young boy in the inner city who has no father. The nation is hungering for public figures to address these moral concerns--Hillary Clinton has called them "the politics of meaning," Dan Quayle called them "family values," while Bill Bennett has termed them the "politics of virtue." But it is not on such labels but rather on the root causes of moral drift that our national politics will turn in the coming years. On that there is little disagreement. What makes religious conservatives controversial--and essential--to the debate over values is their insistence that, in the end, the answers to moral decline can be found only with a return to faith in God.

From the moment the religious conservative movement burst upon the national political scene in 1979 with the dizzying ascent of the Moral Majority, the press and political establishment reacted with horror. Jerry Falwell, James Robison, and a cadre of preachers and religious broadcasters had awakened the slumbering giant of the American evangelical church. Their supporters poured out of the pews and into the precincts, becoming the most formidable grassroots army since the rise of the labor unions. When the movement played a central role in electing Ronald Reagan and giving Republicans control of the Senate in 1980, their critics reacted ferociously, calling them "fascists," "extremists," and "fanatics." Falwell later found himself embroiled in the financial mess of the PTL scandal and beat a quiet retreat from the political scene. The embarrassing sex scandals that rocked religious broadcasting in the late 1980s, culminating with the collapse of PTL and the fall from grace of Jimmy Swaggart, robbed the movement of the power of the electronic church that had once been its mainstay. The movement seemed dead, and the cultural elites danced on its grave.

For believers, however, the grave is always followed by resurrection. The silent and plodding return began with the founding of the Christian Coalition in 1989, a year that saw the pro-family movement fighting a desperate (and losing) rearguard action. The Supreme Court upheld a Missouri pro-life law, sparking a vicious counterreaction from the pro-abortion lobby. The National Abortion Rights Action League targeted pro-life state legislators across the country and poured millions into their opponents' campaigns. Two pro-life Republican gubernatorial candidates--in Virginia and New Jersey--waffled on the abortion issue and lost to pro-choice Democrats. Plans to legalize school prayer were quietly shelved. The number of conservative votes in Congress dwindled to barely enough to sustain President Bush's abortion vetoes.

How could the pro-family movement recover from the body blows it had suffered and regain the momentum of the early Reagan years? The way they chose was to focus on local politics and local issues. Thus the Christian Coalition began quietly building a formidable network of grassroots activists, who organized their neighborhoods, sponsored training workshops, identified friendly voters, and passed out voter education literature. A number of independent pro-family groups began to sprout up across the country, gaining newfound clout by lobbying state legislatures and producing well-researched policy papers. The media mostly ignored those changes. For three years we breathed new life into the movement, all with little fanfare. When the Christian Coalition showed its new strength in the successful Clarence Thomas confirmation struggle, the media attacked once again. Our opponents clearly hoped that we would repeat the mistakes of the old religious right, overplaying our hand, using overheated rhetoric, and becoming an easy target for the left. But they were swiftly disappointed. The grassroots were smarter, tougher, and wiser. They were seasoned veterans of many political battles. Now, nearly two decades after the first religious conservatives broke into national politics, we are a part of the scenery, a permanent fixture on the political landscape, treated with respect by our allies and grudging admiration by our foes.

The candidate forum in Orlando that balmy November evening underscored a central reality that will shape American politics in the 1990s. No longer a bipolar world dominated by Republicans and Democrats, America has become a fragmented, fractious republic of what James Madison called "factions"--citizen movements held together by shared values rather than party loyalty. Perot voters, property rights advocates, term limits supporters, environmental "greens," antitax activists, gays, gun lobbyists, home schoolers, and evangelical Christians are transforming politics in a dramatic fashion. The most effective among these citizen efforts is an emerging coalition of evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, and traditionalist Roman Catholics. Their goal: to limit government, reinvigorate the family, and restore the culture's Judeo-Christian principles. Their hierarchy of loyalties is uncompromisingly simple: They are people of faith first, Americans second, and Republicans or Democrats third. And they are proving yet again that man does not live by bread alone. The real battle for the soul of our nation is not fought primarily over the gross national product and the prime interest rate, but over virtues, values, and the culture.

There are those among the dominant elites and opinion makers who treat these religious convictions and the people who hold them as a danger to be feared. I believe they are a solution waiting to happen. For we must never forget, as George Will has observed, that the case for democracy is not aesthetic--it is philosophical. A dictatorship is efficient, quiet, and inhumane. In the chilling phrase about fascist Italy, Mussolini made the trains run on time. In a democracy, the trains sometimes run late, the conversation is loud, and disputes can turn contentious and occasionally downright nasty. But that dissent is a small price to pay for freedom. Indeed, this noise is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. And among the noisiest disputes are those introduced into the body politic by people of faith. Sure, the mixture of religion and politics sparks controversy. But this nation's thirty million religious conservatives are forcing us to talk about things that must be talked about. They are not going to be silent or go away. Nor should they.

The case for democracy is that the rights of government derive from the consent of the governed, and the surest antidote to tyranny is a free people that believes it owes allegiance to a Higher Power, not the government. The consent of the governed rests upon faith in a sovereign God to which government itself is subject. In this greater moral context, faith as political force is not undemocratic; it is the very essence of democracy.

Over the past six years, as executive director of one of the nation's leading public policy organizations, I have traveled an average of 200,000 miles a year, living out of a suitcase in a string of anonymous hotels and byways, crisscrossing the country and delivering hundreds of speeches to the faithful in hotels, churches, and meeting halls. This endless travel has required the commitment of my wife Jo Anne and our three young children, who have provided emotional support in the struggle. They are also a constant reminder of the reason why I and so many are engaged in it. On this frenetic schedule I have been sustained by the inescapable conclusion that our time as people of faith has finally come.

The reasons are clear: To look at America today is to witness a nation struggling against forces as dangerous as any military foe it has ever faced. The threats, however, come not from without but from within. Families are disintegrating, fathers are abandoning their children, abortion is the most common medical procedure in the nation, and young people attend schools that are not safe and in which they do not learn. In the inner city illegitimacy is rampant, drug deals are openly conducted on streetcomers, hopelessness is the norm, and children are shot by marauding carloads of juvenile gang members. There is no economic solution to this social chaos--it is a collection of moral problems that require moral solutions.

The pro-family movement grows and prospers by addressing these problems. Our solutions are so morally compelling that we can no longer be denied our place in the conversation we call democracy. We shall experience triumph and disappointment, victory and defeat, leaps of progress followed by frustrating setbacks, but we will not be denied what is right. I believe in the unforgettable words of the abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker: "The curve of the moral universe is long, but it leads towards justice."

Whittaker Chambers wrote in his autobiography Witness that when he left Communism he felt as though he had passed from the winning side to join the losers. Those were chilling words for anyone who lived during the Cold War. The American revolutionaries in their day, the Communists in their time, and the left in the 1960s all possessed a unique and powerful conviction that history was on their side. Today that conviction no longer belongs to liberals or their allies, but to the right and, more particularly, to religious conservatives. The once morally persuasive and politically powerful left has lost its voice. Where once it was a vanguard on behalf of minorities and the downtrodden, today it is a special-interest polyglot of quotas and set-asides. Its eloquent defense of voting rights and economic equality for women has been drowned out by the extremist demands of the abortion lobby. Its voice for the have-nots has been garbled by a shameful defense of a bloated and unresponsive poverty industry.

But more than any other failure, it is their myopic rejection of religion as a "fanatical" intrusion into politics that has paved the way for the success of the pro-family movement. For today, religious conservatives are poised to enter an era of American life in which moral issues, and the pro-family agenda, will predominate.

Those social undercurrents are far more important than the outcome of the 1996 elections. If the Republicans can make the election a referendum on Clinton's record, he will be a one-term president. But Clinton is a gifted politician who will borrow shamelessly from the rhetoric and campaign themes of conservatives in order to get reelected. His campaign is plagiarizing the Reagan reelection strategy of 1984. That will make the presidential contest competitive and close. But no matter what the outcome in 1996, Clinton is already governing on conservative terms, agreeing to a balanced budget in seven years, delivering homilies in support of school prayer, promising to "end welfare as we know it," dumping Joycelyn Elders and other left-wing lightning rods, and abandoning the pet causes of liberalism.

Bill Clinton cannot win the debate over ideas, but the Republicans could lose, especially if the party abandons its unapologetic pro-life and pro-family policies. If its presidential nominee chooses a running mate or runs on a platform that sends a signal of retreat on issues dear to pro-family voters, support for the party among its religious base will bleed away as if from a slashed artery. The "big tent" will collapse, and a third party featuring an evangelical Ross Perot figure could mushroom from the dank soil of compromise. If the GOP hopes to win back the White House in 1996, it must be the party of Main Street, not Wall Street, and it must be viewed as a pro-family party, not narrowly pro-business.

It is one of the ironies of our time that as society has become increasingly secular, religion has become a more potent force than ever in a cynical and alienated electorate. More than by the Perot movement or the independent voter, the destiny of American politics will be determined by the energized evangelical, the devout Roman Catholic, and the observant Jew.

To many, this reality comes as a profound surprise. In 1989, when Jerry Falwell closed down the Moral Majority, many declared the religious conservative movement dead. Editorials and columns gloated that after generating much heat, it had simply fizzled out. According to some it was like a "summer flower" that blossomed once and quickly faded. Few believed there was any future for the movement at all. Dark forebodings of irrelevance abounded. Even some evangelicals agreed. Christian groups had campaigned for years on issues like abortion and school prayer "without achieving one piece of legislation," one prominent evangelical theologian observed. And David Frum, author of the 1994 book Dead Right, proved that sometimes the conservative chattering class can be as wrong as their liberal counterparts. In his book and in later columns and articles, Frum wrote that a "poor, relatively uneducated group" would not "win very many fights, and is hardly in a position to start them." He wondered how a group "so few in number and so politically weak" had ever "generated so much fuss."

How did the Christian Coalition rise from the rubble of the televangelism scandals and political defeats of the late 1980s to become one of the most effective grassroots political organizations in the country? The answer may surprise you.

After his bruising 1988 presidential campaign, Pat Robertson returned to rebuild the battered finances of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which had suffered more than $100 million in lost revenues in his absence. Robertson had come in third in the Republican presidential primaries, trailing George Bush and Bob Dole. The financial network and grassroots army he had built during this presidential campaign provided a ready-made base for a new political movement. But what form would it take?

In the spring of 1989 Robertson received a phone call from Billy McCormack, his Louisiana state coordinator, that would prove fateful. "You brought hundreds of thousands of people into the political process," McCormack said. "Unless you provide them with leadership now, all you have worked for will be lost, and all the blood and treasure you have spent will be for nought." Robertson agreed and some time later sent out invitations to a meeting of key campaign operatives and other pro-family leaders to discuss the future of the religious conservative movement.

In late September 1989 Robertson convened the meeting at a downtown hotel in Atlanta. Many of the most prominent pro-family leaders in the nation attended. They groused about having been asked to carry water in presidential campaigns for Reagan and Bush while being given little input into policy or personnel. That reinforced the feeling among the leaders that they were like urchins with their hands out. Their level of political maturity---and frustration-was rising. They now understood that all the pro-life platforms in the world were a poor substitute for committed conservatives serving in government.

The movement was at a fuming point. Unless it did something to reassert its strength, it would continue to be taken for granted by Republican politicians and discounted by the press. It needed to build a permanent, lasting political infrastructure. Two ideas dominated the discussion. Several leaders proposed a large convocation to call for a rightward turn in government and a return to traditional values--a kind of political Billy Graham crusade that would fire up the troops and draw massive media attention. The proposed name was the American Congress of Christian Citizens. The idea was to fill the Houston Astrodome or some other huge arena in the South or West with twenty thousand to thirty thousand supporters. Such a meeting, it was felt, would be a tangible expression of the movement's political clout.

The second idea was for a grassroots citizen group that would "give Christians a voice in government again." Robertson passed out a proposed mission statement with a five-fold purpose, which included training Christians for effective social action, combating antireligious bigotry, alerting Christians of issues and legislation on a timely basis, speaking out for profamily values in the media, and representing people of faith at every level of government. The reception to this plan, the brainstorm of Robertson, was less overwhelming. Many leaders, like Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America or Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, already had large and formidable organizations. They wondered if another group was necessary. Grassroots leaders were also nervous. Many had launched small, struggling state-based or community-based groups bearing innocuous names like the Family Policy Network. Did they want another national organization that would compete for dollars and moreover could become a lightning rod for the national media, as the Moral Majority had been in the 1980s?

Robertson had invited me to attend the meeting after I bumped into him at an event at the Bush inaugural in early 1989. At his request I had sent him a memorandum on how to organize a grassroots organization--a group that had no name but would later become the Christian Coalition. My background was as a Republican political operative and a historian, though I was a committed Christian. I did not consider myself a "Christian activist," but I shared many of the values of the movement and wanted to see religion play a more vital role in the public life of the nation. The memorandum recommended that the new group focus on building a state-by-state, county-by-county grassroots organization that reached all the way down to the neighborhood level. It also advocated teaching those pouring into the political process how to be effective citizens by launching an ambitious training program modeled after the leadership schools of Morton Blackwell, a longtime conservative who had served in the Reagan White House and whose political activism stretched back to the Goldwater campaign.

When some present were critical of the idea of launching a new organization, I leaned forward and said to Pat, "I think there is a real need and a huge constituency out there."

Although offered an opportunity to become involved in the project earlier, I waited until I had finished my doctorate in history at Emory University. My real goal was to write and to teach at the collegiate level. I was writing literally the final three pages of my dissertation when Pat called and invited me to attend the meeting. The timing was providential. As attracted as I was to the idea of a life in the cloisters of academe, the opportunity to help rebuild the remnants of the religious conservative movement was more compelling. When Pat introduced me to the others in attendance as the "first staff member" of the new organization, I was as shocked as everyone else. But the sense of adventure was irresistible, and the possibilities for success seemed almost limitless.

The meeting adjourned with a decision to pursue both projects simultaneously. The idea was to begin forming a grassroots network across the nation and to use it to feed into the American Congress of Christian Citizens. I moved to Virginia Beach, and began the arduous work of launching a direct-mail fund-raising effort and making the first grassroots contacts from lists of activists left over from the campaign. Sifting through the wreckage of the presidential campaign, I sat in an old warehouse building surrounded by the relics of its heyday: abandoned mail machines, inflatable elephants, an IBM mainframe computer that we sold for salvage, and thousands of cassette tapes bearing the title, "What I Will Do as President." Phones jangled all day with disgruntled vendors still owed money by the defunct campaign. I was reminded of Winston Churchill's observation, "Politics is almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times."

All that occurred against a backdrop of the deepening disappointment of many religious conservative leaders as the Bush administration assembled a government. George Bush was elected in 1988 as the first incumbent vice president to succeed a sitting president since Martin Van Buren followed Andrew Jackson in 1836. Bush had campaigned as a conservative and had pledged to assemble what would have been in effect the third term of Ronald Reagan. Pro-family voters had played a prominent role in his victory--one-third of all voters listed abortion as their main reason for voting--and they cast their ballots for Bush by a margin of two to one. But after the campaign ended, many Reaganites throughout the government were politely asked to leave. A group of evangelical leaders led by Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson, and Bob Dugan submitted names of qualified conservative evangelicals to the Bush transition team. A number of them met with Bush and Chase Untemeyer, director of White House personnel, just before the Bush inaugural and provided them with a list of individuals and the posts they were seeking. Untemeyer and others promised to give the list full consideration.

The personnel selection process got off to a rocky start almost immediately. When the White House floated the name of Dr. Louis Sullivan, president of Morehouse College Medical School in Atlanta, as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the pro-family movement balked. After delivering a huge vote for Bush in the fall, the last thing they expected was for a pro-choice moderate to head the cabinet department with responsibility for social policy affecting families and children. Sullivan was also weak on other important items in the pro-family agenda, such as funding of Planned Parenthood. Paul Weyrich, a longtime Washington-based conservative activist, and others peppered John Sununu, the new White House chief of staff, with messages of protest. But there was a problem: Sullivan was a friend of Barbara Bush. The post had already been offered to him, and he had accepted. With the assistance of George W. Bush, the president's politically savvy son, Sununu contacted Kay James, an eloquent pro-life spokeswoman and prominent conservative African-American, and offered her a post as Assistant Secretary of HHS for public affairs. Kay agreed to serve in the position, sparing the administration a major explosion on the right. But the entire episode left a bad taste in the mouth of the religious conservative community.

Other conservative Christian candidates for high-profile jobs faced a similar fate. Judge Paul Pressler of Houston, a conservative lay leader in the Southern Baptist Convention and a longtime friend of George Bush, was originally recommended for Solicitor General or federal district judge. He later accepted the newly created post of ethics czar. But Pressler withdrew his name from consideration after he came under attack from liberal Baptists and moderates within the Bush White House, who leaked allegations against him to the Washington Post. This pattern repeated itself numerous times. Pro-family leaders also lobbied for Patricia Heinz, who had served in the Reagan White House, for a slot as Assistant Secretary for Education, a powerful post with oversight over much of the department's budget. When Senator Ted Kennedy objected, Heinz instead received a post at the Pentagon overseeing the training of Navy personnel, a job that did not require Senate confirmation. Another strong conservative, Hal Ezell, was serving as a deputy regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Evangelicals concerned with Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union wanted him reappointed, but he was dropped in favor of a Bush loyalist.

In the end, few evangelicals were appointed or, for that matter, carried over from the Reagan years. By the time the Bush administration held its first cattle call for religious leaders in November 1989, the grumbling was becoming clearly audible. In what was supposed to be a typical hand-holding exhibition at the White House, several rose to challenge Chase Untemeyer, director of presidential personnel, as to why so few evangelicals had been selected for prominent posts. Untemeyer argued that it violated the law to "count" people according to religious beliefs.

Finally, Pat Robertson rose to speak. "Isn't it interesting that you have no difficulty identifying evangelicals and their allies during the campaign," he said, "but you cannot find them after the election?" The room exploded with laughter and applause.

Religious conservatives had grown tired of being patronized. Their leaders gathered for a planning meeting in February 1990 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, held in conjunction with the National Prayer Breakfast. Among those in attendance were nm and Beverly LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, Chuck Colson, the Reverend Charles Stanley, D. James Kennedy, and several prominent Roman Catholic organizers. It was one of the largest gatherings of religious conservative leaders in many years.

Spirits were upbeat, but it was clear that financial resources and grassroots organization were exhausted. Many groups had seen their memberships wither and their budgets plummet following the charge-the-breastworks atmosphere of the past decade. When the subject of contributing money (the proposed convocation would cost nearly $1 million) or lending mailing lists came up, many fell silent.

Were the grassroots ready for another crusade? Some were not sanguine about the prospects. "One thing I have reamed about Christians, having organized them for years," Jerry Falwell said. "When they lose, they quit. And when they win they quit. We are just quitters." We knew we needed to propose a long-term vision that would stretch not for one election cycle or a single decade, but for an entire generation. To that end, we targeted the fall of 1990 as the date for the American Congress of Christian Citizens, just prior to the elections.

A few days later I flew to California for my first organizing trip for the Christian Coalition on the West Coast. In Orange County I spoke to a packed breakfast meeting with an overflow crowd spilling into the halls. The electricity in the room showed that the grassroots desperately wanted a new vehicle for affecting public policy. Later I dropped by the headquarters of Focus on the Family, headed by influential Christian radio psychologist Jim Dobson, where the public policy staff grilled me on our intentions. Did Pat Robertson plan on running for president again? No, I replied. Were we planning to start a Christian third party? No again. We parted on good terms, but clearly there were suspicions about whether or not the Christian Coalition was simply a front for another Robertson presidential bid.

About a month later, Pat Robertson and I were flying to another Coalition organizational event when I laid out for him the time and effort that would be necessary to put on the Christian Congress event in Atlanta. It was taking more and more of my time, pulling me away from my grassroots activity.

"Pat, we have to decide to do one or the other," I said. "We are either going to do one extremely well, or both poorly. If you want an effective grassroots network, we may need to put the idea of the political rally on the back burner."

Pat looked out the window of the airplane and nodded. "We have to have the grassroots organization," he said. "It is the hope of the country." After that the Congress project quietly died for lack of attention, and we moved ahead with the most ambitious state-by-state recruitment and training program in the history of the pro-family movement. It was a decision that would have far-reaching consequences for the movement and the country in the years to come.

My arrival at this position of responsibility and leadership was the culmination of a long personal odyssey. It all began in Miami, where I grew up. My childhood was hardly spent in the Bible Belt. Miami was an international city in which whites were a bare majority, with a large population of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, and African-Americans. It also had a large Jewish population, and I attended more bar mitzvahs than baptisms as I grew up. My father was an ophthalmologist and surgeon, and my mother worked at home. I grew up in a fairly typical middle-class neighborhood, where I attended public schools, joined a local swim club, learned to play golf, and followed the Miami Dolphins. But from an early age my greatest passion was reading. Most children of my generation watched Sesame Street. I read the autobiography of Eddie Rickenbacker, Sandburg's Lincoln, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam, and All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The political figures in those books--especially Churchill, Lincoln, and Roosevelt--came to life in my young mind.

Shirer's account of Britain's failure to heed the warnings of Churchill and stop the rise of Hitler chilled my bones. I also recall reading a biography of Woodrow Wilson and being enthralled by an account of his election, which had been made possible by the support of political bosses like James "Sugar Jim" Smith. But in his inaugural address, Wilson had promised to reform the political system and adopt progressive measures, astonishing the corrupt bosses who had mistakenly thought they could control him. I deeply admired these great leaders, sensing that public service was an enormously consequential career and that politics could be a noble calling.

© 1996 Ralph Reed

Free Press

Back to the top