The Christian Coalition and ‘The Sins of Others,’ Part I
VTR Date: December 14, 1993
Guest: Reed, Ralph
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ralph Reed, Part 1
Title: “The Christian Coalition and the Sins of Others”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today may well prove to e one of our nation’s most effective and influential end of the century political operatives. For Ralph Reed is executive director of Pat Robertson’s burgeoning Christian Coalition, whose precinct organizations, voter identification, and get out the vote tactics have already built it into an extraordinarily powerful and ever more successful conservative force for America’s liberals and moderates to reckon with, at the ballot box and elsewhere. And those who have found solace in the notion that the Christian Coalition’s earlier singular devotion to its social agenda, anti abortion, anti gay rights, anti feminism, was far too negative for building consensus and widespread political strength, may just have to think again. For Ralph Reed has developed his own counterpart to the Clinton presidential campaign’s self admonition, “It’s the economy, stupid.” For now he guides the Coalition’s program far beyond abortion and homosexuality and family values, into a larger involvement with personal and economic concerns common to all Americans. Mr. Reed has put it quite directly. He wrote, “We have discovered that, while we must continue to address issues like abortion and homosexuality, we must also speak to the pocketbook concerns of middle class families.” He noted that, “To win at the ballot box and in the legislative chamber, our movement is taking on the issues that voters care about. We know that without specific policies to help families, tax cuts, education scholarships, higher wages, appeals to family values will fall on deaf ears.” And Mr. Reed has insisted that, “People now, people of faith are more interested in providing for their families and protecting their children than they are in legislating against the sins of others.”
So, my question to Mr. Reed is, to what extent those “sins of others” aren’t now going to be ignored by the Christian Coalition, and does this new tack mean that such sins never really were that horrendous. Is that an unfair question, Mr. Reed?
REED: No, Richard, I don’t think it’s unfair. But I think that it would be a mistake to conclude or misapprehend from our desire to cast a wider net and speak to a broader range of issues that that means that we’re going to drop the eggs that are already in our basket. We really view it as a growing company. When you add more employees, you don’t fire the ones you already have; you just continue to expand. And in our case, we’re going to continue to speak out on the sanctity of innocent human life; we’re going to continue to speak out on the centrality and importance of the two parent family; we’re going to speak out on issues of Civil Rights as opposed to special rights. But what we also want to do is we want to meet people where we are and where their needs are. And there are families right now in this country that are struggling with a crushing tax burden, with an economy that seems to be stuck in neutral and isn’t creating the kinds of jobs that we were used to from roughly 1945 to the mid 1980’s. We’ve got families that are concerned and afraid to allow their nine year old to go two blocks from their home to go to a playground because they’re concerned about ever seeing them alive again. They’re concerned about the fact that their children are coming home from school and they can’t read and they can’t write and they can’t perform basic math skills, and they can’t identify Mexico on a map. So we think that the full counsel of God, if you will, and the values that we bring into the public square, charity, decency, love, fairness, justice, mercy, these kinds of values speak to every area of life, not simply to one or two issues.
HEFFNER: But what had you discovered about your earlier orientation that led you to expand in this way?
REED: Well, there was really no single epiphany. I think that from our standpoint it’s really been an ongoing process where we have been building a constituency – we now have about 950,000 members and supporters, and about half of those are giving us money on a regular basis – we’ve added about 10,000 new members since Bill Clinton took the oath of office, so this is a large and growing organization that is basically doubling every year. And we conduct, Richard, surveys of those members on a regular basis, and we ask them, “What kind of things are you concerned about, what’s troubling you, what issues would you like for us to work on?” Our own sort of internal market research, if you will. And they’re coming back to us and saying, “We want you to continue to speak out on the importance of protecting human life, and we want you to continue to speak out on those kinds of core issues that have been an important part of your message and should remain an important part of your message.” But the other things we’re hearing back is they’re concerned about crime, they’re concerned about personal security and safety, they’re concerned about taxes and the economy and education. This is, Richard – and it’s not widely understood, but I said it in the article that you quoted just a moment ago – that the pro family movement’s agenda is really a child centered agenda. That this, if you want to understand people of faith and why they’ve gotten involved in politics in the last, say, 20 years, it isn’t because we want to go out there and use the law and public policy as a club to impose our morality on other people. It is because most of us have children and are in child bearing and child rearing years, whether single parent or two parent. And, you know, we have to decide, is our neighborhood safe for our child to play in? Is our school effectively teaching our children? Is our culture sending the kinds of messages through television and radio and rock music and films that creates the kind of environment that is healthy for children? And so that’s really what it’s designed to do. It’s designed, first to protect those children, and secondly, to try to create a society that will allow them to prosper and rise as far as their talents will carry them.
HEFFNER: Are there those who are critical of this kind of market search or market research shift in your orientation? After all, up to this point, before this shift, one could believe that there was a group that knew exactly what its target was, and was going to pursue it. It had to do with family values; it had to do with all those other matters that you’ve discussed. Now you seem to be indicating that for very practical and pragmatic reasons, there is a market research orientation that takes you off in another direction.
REED: No, I don’t think that … I think that’s a mischaracterization of what we have attempted to do. We’ve not gone out and taken a poll and then gone wherever the poll told us. We continue to be against abortion, because we believe it’s taking innocent human life. Now, it just so happens, by the way, that the majority of Americans are against abortion on demand. But we don’t take that position based on survey data. We are in favor of tougher laws against crime and drugs. We’re in favor of choice in education. We’re in favor of a balanced budget amendment. We’re in favor of term limits. And we take those positions, Richard, based on principle, not based on polling. What we have desired to is what I think any organization should aspire to do, and that is to effectively represent the needs and the interests of our constituency in the public square and before Congress and the various state legislatures. We don’t want to end up where some traditional Civil Rights organizations have, where they’re not asking their members what they’re in favor of, and they begin to skew off on an agenda that begins to go away from their base. And our base has said to us, “Don’t waiver from those very important moral issues.” And we have not. But we are concerned about these other issues as well. So what it’s really been is a desire to effectively represent people.
HEFFNER: Has the growth in the Christian Coalition been a response to the shift?
REED: No, I don’t think so. I think we were growing anyway. We’ve doubled our membership every year for the last four years. So I think it’s been an ongoing process. But I think what I’m really trying to say is I think there is a caricature out there of the devout Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Jew or the Evangelical Protestant which suggests that these are people that are only driven by one or two issues. That is not to diminish the significance of those very important moral issues. But they also are concerned about other things: taxes, jobs, crime, government reform, things of that nature. And so we want to speak to that broad range of issues.
HEFFNER: Isn’t there a real possibility that you will become enveloped by a political structure that also relates in its entirety to these many, many, many different issues? There was a characteristic – you say a caricature …
HEFFNER: But let’s call it a characteristic. One assumed the Christian Coalition up until this point. Now, won’t you disappear in the massive political movement in this country?
REED: No, I don’t think we will. Because we continue to have a distinctive message that speaks to some of the anxieties and concerns of the American people that really very few other organizations speak to. I would say, for example, that I don’t really agree with the sign that was in the Clinton headquarters that said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It’s more than the economy. We have a GNP that has grown by 50 percent in the last decade. We have some of the highest employment rates in the Western industrialized world, and yet we have people being gunned down in trains in Long Island; we had a 12 year old abducted at knifepoint from her own parents’ home while her mother slept in the adjoining bedroom, and her body was found just, you know, a few days ago. We have a situation where we have 90 million functional illiterates in America. We have one out of every three pregnancies out of wedlock. That figure is 80 percent for the inner city. And African-American male living in the inner city in America has a higher likelihood of being killed than an American soldier in Vietnam. These are all aspects of moral and cultural decay. They’re not about the economy. And if you look at the survey data where 70 percent of the American people say they think the country’s on the wrong track, I don’t think it’s just because they think the economy’s too sluggish and tax rates are too high. I think it’s because they’re concerned about the moral and cultural direction of the country. And, Richard, we are going to continue to speak to those concerns with a message that I think is going to resonate in mainstream America.
HEFFNER: Why then Christian Coalition? Why not American Coalition?
REED: Well, I think we are a coalition of Christians speaking to America. So I don’t really see … I think we have a long and cherished history in this country of religious self identification. Whether you agree with the issues’ agendas or not, you had the Women Christian Temperance Union, you had the Martin Luther King Southern Christian Leadership Conference, you have the Catholic Campaign for America, the American Jewish Congress. And these are all issues or all organizations that have worked on more than one issue.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you have identified the new coalition, or the new orientation of the coalition with issues that spread, as you have described them so well, over the entirety of our nation.
HEFFNER: So, if I may repeat the question, why not an American Coalition?
REED: Well, I think again, if you look at a counterpart that would be part of a more liberal religious lobby, which would be the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, this is an organization that was founded to battle segregation in the South in the 19050’s, a battle that is largely won. There are still areas, obviously, of inequality, but it tends not to be in the form of Jim Crowe. They now speak to a broader range of issues. They came out in favor of the Clinton tax increase. They’ve come out in favor of the Clinton budget plan. They’ve issued resolutions on Haiti and others. And so, I think there would be a double standard to ask us to change our name. In other words, there are other organizations on the left that use the name “Christian” or “Jewish” or “Catholic.” And I don’t know why we shouldn’t be allowed to. This is a statement of who we are.
HEFFNER: Certainly no one is suggesting that you shouldn’t be allowed to. How effective would it be for me or for anyone to say, “You’re not allowed to use that title.” But I’ve wondered about it because you’ve described a movement away from a more limited set of concerns to a much broader set of concerns. One that is nation wide, crosses, as you’ve suggested, our entire culture.
REED: But I would take issue with the premise of your question. The premise of your question assumes that a Christian political agenda is, by definition, narrow. And when you broaden that issue’s agenda, as a result, the name no longer applies. I just don’t believe that. I think that if you go back and you look at the history of this country, whether it was Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry or Abraham Lincoln, or even people like Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, who spoke deeply about their faith and their belief in the Bible and Christian values, they didn’t speak to just one or two issues; they spoke to a broad range of issues. And we aspire to do that as well.
HEFFNER: In terms of your membership …
HEFFNER: In terms, you say you’ve been adding 10,000 persons …
REED: A week.
HEFFNER: A week.
HEFFNER: You also said here, and you said in one of your publications, that that’s been true since Bill Clinton’s election. What’s the connection?
REED: Well, I think Bill Clinton’s inauguration was a wake up call to Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and other people of faith who share our values that we could no longer elect a conservative president to the Oval Office as we did in 1980, ’84 and ’88 and then all go back to our churches and our homes and our children, and allow Western civilization to slide into the abyss. I think that unfortunately defined our movement for too much of the 1980’s. We were very good at mobilizing our people and getting them out to the polls in a presidential year, and then figuring, “Okay, we solved it, we fixed it, now let’s all go home.” Clinton’s election changed all that. We began to understand that what we need is a permanent, issues based infrastructure, like the AFL-CIO is for union workers, the VFW or American Legion is for veterans, Chamber of Commerce is for business, National Organization for Women is for feminists. Many of those organizations have not had very many sympathetic presidents to their agenda over the last 20 years, yet they continue to survive and prosper. And the reason is because they do not invest all of their political capital in the single repository of the presidency.
The second thing, of course, that happened was that Bill Clinton got off to a very shaky start by all accounts. I mean, you had Zoe Baird, Lani Guanire, Travelgate, you know, the White House travel office flap, gays in the military, and all of those sorts of things. The haircut, the $200 haircut. And that got him off to probably one of the worst starts that we’ve seen for a president, at least in my lifetime. And that, combined with the wake up call, sky rocketed our membership. But as I said, and I want to underscore, we’ve doubled our membership every year, and this was no exception.
HEFFNER: Now, what’s the future for this membership? Limiting it to local elections? You’ve done extremely well in that area. Or do you anticipate having a national candidate or throwing your lot in with a national candidate’s efforts in the next campaign?
REED: You mean a presidential candidate?
HEFFNER: Presidential candidate.
REED: I think it would be obviously premature today to speculate today with regard to ’96. I will tell you that, to the extent to which we have a kind of a direction in which we’re leaning, it would be not to seek to annoint or endorse a candidate.
HEFFNER: Why not?
REED: Well, because we are not candidate driven; we’re issue driven. And that again was one of the mistakes that I think was made in 1980. It was “Ronald Reagan is our guy.” And then you have to live with what he does well, and then you have to lie with what he does poorly. And what I would prefer to do is to hold up a standard, a banner, if you will, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “Of bold colors, not pale pastels,” that would say, “We believe in reducing the tax burden on families. We believe in choice in education. We believe in the elimination of welfare as we know it, which leads to incentives for family breakup and illegitimacy. We believe in tougher laws against crime and drugs. We believe in term limits and balanced budget amendment that would lead to some reform of Congress.” Hold that out. And instead of us going to the candidates, you hold out the issues agenda and make them come to you.
But, Richard, probably even more important than that is to continue to underscore that if you were to elect a conservative president who embraced our entire agenda, you still could not govern if you don’t have state legislature, if you don’t have mayors, city councils, county commissions, zoning boards, school boards, all the way down to the local level. What we have learned is one of the essential and primary rules of American politics, which is that political effectiveness flows from the precinct upward; not from the Oval Office downward. There’s a verse in the New Testament which says, in which Christ is speaking to his Disciples, and he says, “He who is faithful in small things will be faithful in large things.” Before you want to be president, first learn how to do a good job on the school board.
HEFFNER: Of course, as a much older person, I remember how well, so well that in the ’30’s there was the anti Christ, if I may, took that message. It was the far left, it was the Communists, in fact, who took that lesson of organizing at the precinct level and of building up. You’re learning that. What are your successes?
REED: Well, we’ve had a number of successes. We fielded probably somewhere in the neighborhood – not our organization, because we’re not a political action community – but religious conservative candidates. There were about 500 of them, 500 to 1,000 of them in 1992 at the local level, state legislature or below. And 40 percent of them were elected to office. We saw, in July of this year, Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, immediate past president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, defeat Bill Clinton’s hand picked candidate for lieutenant governor of Arkansas. Currently the governor of Arkansas is engaged in some S&L problems, and it’s very possible that Mike Huckabee, who won that election, could be the next governor of Arkansas, entirely possible. Here in New York City where you have the Rainbow Curriculum controversy, we got involved in that campaign, worked with the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, distributed a half million nonpartisan voter guides. And the result was that 60 percent of the pro family candidates were elected to school board here in New York City, the largest school district in America, with 960,000 students. And also this year you saw in Virginia us distribute 1.6 million voter guides. We made over 100,000 get out the vote calls. And on Election Day, according to an exit poll that we conducted, 40 percent of the voters on Election Day in Virginia this year were self identified, born again Evangelicals. They voted three to one Republican. The Republicans elected an attorney general, they elected a governor by the largest margin in this century, and Mike Ferris, who is a very strongly committed Christian, and a conservative, got 47 percent of the vote and was almost elected lieutenant governor. So these have been some of the successes that we have had.
HEFFNER: That’s a pretty powerful political organization.
REED: Well, I think it’s an effective political organization, because what it’s doing is it’s taking what we’ve identified to be roughly about a quarter of the electorate. That’s what our surveys show. On Election Day 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated George Bush, according to our surveys, one out of every four voters that pulled that curtain and then pulled that lever in that voting booth was a self identified Evangelical Christian. This is a constituency that, just like union workers and business and African-Americans and other minorities, and women, needs to have representation, needs to have an organization that desires to give them a voice in the public square.
But again I want to emphasize, the purpose of this organization is not to impose our values on others. The purpose of this organization is to give voice to a constituency that frankly has always been there and has been badly underrepresented, but also wants to serve. You know, one of the things that I point out – and Jimmy Carter is not somebody that I agree with politically, but we espouse the same faith – Jimmy Carter’s first political office was on the Sumter County School Board in the 1950’s. He then went on to be a state legislator, then he went on to the governorship, and later became president. You have to be willing to serve at the local level. Not with a lot of fanfare, not with a lot of balloons and whistles. But you need to get your hands dirty with the stuff of civic duty and stewardship and service to your fellow man and woman. And when you do that, you’ll be qualified to serve at a higher level.
HEFFNER: As an effective political organization, as you describe it, is there a tax exemption involved?
REED: Well, we are, we do not pay taxes on contributions. But nobody does. In other words, the Democratic Party does not pay corporate income taxes on donations. Neither does the Republican Party. Our contributors receive no tax break at all. In other words, if you give $100 to the Christian Coalition, you don’t write that off on your taxes. So there’s no tax benefit, direct or indirect, to the donor, as there would be, for example, if you gave money to the Boy Scouts or your local church.
HEFFNER: Is there, are there any grounds on which those who consider your political organization effective or otherwise – and you maintain quite effective, and I think that’s demonstrated – might say that you could be challenged in terms of your, you do have a tax exemption?
REED: Well, but again, we have a tax exemption that is no different than any other corporation has, for profit or non profit. In other words, Richard, if we tomorrow were to accede to the criticism of our critics and change our status from a grass roots civic organization, which is what we are, to a political action committee, you’d still pay no taxes. For example, the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which is the gay pack, one of the largest ideological packs in the country, they raise about $12 million every year, they pay no taxes on the contributions. There are no taxes on contributions as income to a corporation. A lot of people don’t understand that law. What the distinction would be, and where the tax subsidy comes in, is if I write a check to an organization, am I able to write that off on my taxes. So any contribution to the Christian Coalition, the contributor has paid taxes on it. And I would also point out, by the way, that there really is no tax break associated with supporting us anyway, because our average contribution is only $19. So we’re not dealing with a lot of fat cat contributors that are …
HEFFNER: Mr. Reed, we’ve reached the end of our time for this program. But you’ve promised to sit still and do another program with me. And I’d like to talk about this combination of religion and politics next time. Thank you for joining me now.
REED: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”