The Christian Coalition and ‘The Sins of Others,’ Part II
VTR Date: December 14, 1993
Guest: Reed, Ralph
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ralph Reed, Part 2
Title: “The Christian Coalition and The Sins of Others
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And as I noted last time, my guest today may well prove to be one of our nation’s most effective and influential and end of the century political operatives. For Ralph Reed is executive director of Pat Robertson’s burgeoning Christian Coalition, whose precinct organization, 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.
Last time, we began to examine the Christian Coalition’s earlier emphasis on what Mr. Reed has called “legislation against the sins of others,” and its newer recognition that people of faith are more interested in providing for their families and protecting their children in tax cuts, education, scholarships, higher wages, and the like. And I want to pursue Mr. Reed’s thinking along these and related lines today.
So, let me go back and ask you a question, Mr. Reed, that I didn’t ask you last time, and I frequently ask my guests. What are the ideas, the feelings, the emotions, the convictions that essentially inform your involvement in the Christian Coalition, on a very personal level?
REED: Well, I think my belief is, is that what really made this country great was two basic sets of principles. One was faith. The idea that there is a transcendent set of principles that informs our relationships with our fellow men and women. I think that faith in God is probably one of the most sublime social influences that we’ve seen in the history of our country. There is a tendency today to caricature it and to demean it and to treat it as a pejorative, or even as a pathology. But I think, if you look back at the history of this country, as Alexis de Toqueville said in 1835 when he visited this state and visited some of the revivals in upstate New York, he said, and I quote, “America is great because America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, she ceases to be great.” So I seek, in my own involvement as a person of deep faith, to kind of recreate that sort of ethic by finding in the past what I believe C. Van Woodward called, “A musical past,” to find examples in our history where people of faith, either through the temperance movement or the anti-slavery movement or the Civil Rights movement or other movements, have been able to move the country in a better direction.
And I think the second principle, the other thing that animates me, is, I think, a notion that we arrive at the truth through the discourse, that we have to be a pluralistic society, that we have to arrive at these solutions through democratic means. It isn’t a matter of me taking the government and imposing on you or you taking the government and imposing on me, but in the best sense of that word we believe that anybody who holds our values, wherever they’re coming from spiritually, is qualified for office. We have no religious test at all for anyone in government. And they can have any religion or they can have no religion. What we’re seeking to bring into the public square is a set of principles. So I think faith, on the one hand, and a tolerant, pluralistic society on the other.
HEFFNER: What about those who don’t share all your values?
REED: I think they’re an important part of the process. I think that, again, we have, that’s why we have a democracy, as they organize their supporters and we organize our supporters, and we play out on the gridiron of the American body politic. And I think that’s what it’s all about.
HEFFNER: You seem to be rather well convinced that on that gridiron you’re going to kick the final goal.
REED: Well, sometimes you hit the uprights, and sometimes it goes through. But again, as I said, less important than who wins – and I guess this would be sort of the opposite of the Vince Lombardi philosophy, which is, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” – I happen to think that respect for the process is the only thing. You win some, you lose some. Now, I’m proud and genuinely humbled to live in a country where you have a change of government and the new president drives up in a car and walks into the White House and has tea and a pleasant conversation with his predecessor. They get into a car together and drive on to the ceremony. There aren’t very many nations that have that kind of respect for the process of democracy. And whether it’s left, right, or center, I want to instill in our members a respect for the democratic process, that if you lose, you do the best that you can to work with the new government that comes in.
HEFFNER: How do you account for the fact of what you call the characterization of the Christian Coalition, the fact that it has been caricaturized so often in this country that there has been a refusal to accept it almost as mainstream, when you seem to be more mainstream than perhaps any other movement in this country today?
REED: Well, I think part of it has been our own fault.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
REED: Well, after the Scopes Trial of 1925, evangelicals and those who hold to those very basic Christian beliefs largely withdrew from the culture and from the political square. And as a result, we did not have the kind of involvement or prominence in American public life until we began to get back involved again in the late ’70’s. Part of it is, I think, a cultural estrangement and a cultural divide that separates middle America from opinion leaders and cultural elites. There was a survey, for example, conducted in 1981, that I think is instructive along these lines. It was conducted by Stu Rothenberg and another sociologist who interviewed editors and other prominent journalists. And 86 percent of them said they attended church either not at all or almost not at all. And only 14 percent attended church on a regular basis, meaning a couple of times a month. By contrast, when we survey the American people, according to Gallup, 57 percent of the American people say they pray every single day, and about half of America’s population is in church every Sunday. There are more people in church on Sunday morning than there are watching 60 Minutes on Sunday night. But there’s a sense in which there’s that divide between the church-going, mainstream public and those who write our books and teach our students and run our universities. And I don’t mean that in any way to question their values. I mean, a lot of these people have very strong values. But I’m just saying, you know, a lot of times I will get asked, you know, as Dan Quayle would, or other conservatives, “What would you do if your daughter had an abortion,” or, “What would you do if your son came in and he said he was gay?” Sometimes, you know, you almost want to turn that question on its head and ask the editor of one of America’s top three or four metropolitan dailies, “What would you do if you child came in and said, “Dad, I’m born again?” Probably be a sense of horror in some of these, and I just don’t think that they understand. I don’t think they have very many friends who are deeply committed Christians. I don’t think that they have a social circle that encompasses those kinds of people. And I think when you don’t have friends who come out of that milieu, I think oftentimes it’s easy to misunderstand and misapprehend, and have stereotyped views.
HEFFNER: So you would feel that what the common wisdom was among those people of the press, among media people that in the time of the last Republican convention, when Pat Robertson, leader of your organization, and Pat Buchanan spoke in Christian Coalition terms quite vigorously, almost mocking out those and leaving out those who didn’t agree with them, that they didn’t do damage to Republican chances in that election. Common wisdom among those people you are critical of is that those extreme statements did in the Republican Party and Mr. Bush’s chances. Your comments?
REED: Yeah. There’s simply no data to support that kind of contention. In fact, if you, in the exit polls in which they ask people what kinds of things factored in your decision, the debates in which, you know, George Bush, I thought, did very poorly vis-à-vis both Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, were far larger in the minds of the voters than the convention was. In fact, a lot of people don’t even go back and look at this, but only seven percent of the electorate made their decisions about who to vote for the week of the Republican convention. And they basically split evenly. And what the survey did indicate is the stand-pat Democrats watched it and that was when they made their decision to vote for Clinton; the stand-pat Republicans watched it and that’s when they decided to vote for Bush; and everybody else kind of split down the middle.
I would also underscore, Richard, that I was in Houston, I was on the floor of that convention. And often, when I read the press accounts, I don’t know what convention they’re talking about.
HEFFNER: Why do you say that?
REED: Well, because I sat of the floor every night and listened to the speeches. There were 102 speeches. Pat Robertson’s wasn’t even in prime time. He spoke at 7:20 in the evening. Believe me, I know, because I tried to negotiate a better time slot. So he was not somebody who was speaking in prime time such that he became a major issue. As a matter of fact, his speech was really a mainstream stump speech. He talked about term limits, he talked about the Gulf War, he talked about the Berlin Wall coming down, he talked about how he went to the Sudan in 1985 with George and Barbara Bush and saw Barbara Bush holding a starving child in her arms. It was really a very moving and evocative speech.
HEFFNER: But what was it that he said that led to what you consider the caricatures of the Christian Coalition?
REED: I can’t think of anything that he said. In fact, I almost never see a quote from his speech even used in these stories. They just say Pat Robertson spoke and it offended people. Finally, last year, I got so tired of reading those accounts that I sent every political journalist in the country a copy of the speech and said, “Read it. There’s nothing in here that would offend anybody.” But even more than that, Richard, Lynn Martin spoke, and she’s pro-choice. She nominated the president. Former Secretary of Labor Mary Fisher spoke, I believe, on Tuesday night. This is the woman who has AIDS who is the daughter of Max Fisher. Pat Wilson, the governor of California, who is pro-choice, spoke. Bill Weld, the pro-choice, pro gay rights governor of Massachusetts spoke. The speeches from the platform represented the full diversity of the party. The only convention that was controlled and which was censorious and which did not allow full diversity was the Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden, where you saw the spectacle of Bob Casey, the governor of the fourth largest state in America, excluded from the platform because he was pro-life. So the Republicans had pro-life speakers, and they had pro-choice speakers. I have challenged the journalists to tell me the name of one speaker at the Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden, one, who was pro-life. They can’t name one. So it was really the Democratic convention that would not allow the full diversity of views to be expressed.
HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that given that, and given Clinton’s victory, that they were indeed reflecting what Americans generally think?
REED: No, because I think that the exit polling indicates that people voted primarily on the economy. The number one issue was the economy. And those who listed the economy – which was about 40 percent of the electorate – they broke two to one for Bill Clinton.
HEFFNER: What do we do then with, what do we make of, and perhaps it’s misquotation of Pat Robertson’s, Robertson is the leader of the Christian Coalition, his statement in Iowa that “Feminist women leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” A joke?
REED: Well, I think obviously we regret that that letter ever went out, and Pat has publicly distanced himself from that letter.
HEFFNER: But it went out, and obviously expressed his convictions.
REED: Well, he has subsequently said, “That does not express my conviction, and that does not express my views on women.” But let me explain what the letter said, because what you’ve done is taken one line out of context …
HEFFNER: Yes, and that’s what the media have done.
REED: Yeah, from a three-page letter. Those are not Pat Robertson’s words, and those are not his views. What you just read are quotations from feminist leaders that were listed in a letter. Gloria Steinem said in a speech at the University of Michigan in 1971, “Overthrowing capitalism is too small a thing for us. We want to bring down the entire blanking patriarchy.” There was an article in the NOW Times in 1990 that said, “In order to be identified as fully feminist, every woman must be willing to be publicly identified as a lesbian.” There was a news conference in 1991 in which Molly Yard said, and I quote, “The Chinese policy of infanticide is among the most wonderful and intelligent in the world.” And there were other quotes like that. These were their quotes; not his quotes.
HEFFNER: But the only trouble, Mr. Reed, is that Pat Robertson did send out this letter. And I would ask you too, and I’m not trying to pick a fight, believe it or not, I’m trying to understand where the movement comes from. He said at some point, “We want to see a working majority of the Republican Party in the hands of pro-family Christians by 1996 or sooner.” Well, that’s a benign point, because that’s the point that you would make. But doesn’t that make you partisan? Why “A working majority of the Republican Party in the hands of pro-family Christians by 1996?”
REED: Well, I was, again, at the event where he gave that speech, and that is one line taken out of context out of a 40 minute address. What he actually said that evening was, he said, “I want to see a day where Christians and other people of faith have a voice in both political parties that is commensurate with their numbers.” That’s what he said.
HEFFNER: You quote him as saying “Christians and other people of faith.” Do I understand then that the term “Christian Coalition” is not a misnomer, clearly you’ve indicated that to us, but that what you mean by it is people of faith coalition?
REED: Yes. I mean, in other words, we are open to Jews, to Roman Catholics, to Protestants, to people of all faiths. We have an open membership policy. And that is absolutely what we want to do. We want to be an open organization that is inclusive of all faiths and all walks of life.
HEFFNER: You say “Catholics.” I mean, does “Christian Coalition” really mean “Protestant Coalition?”
REED: No. Absolutely not. In fact, we have done extensive coalition building in the Roman Catholic community. As you know, in the New York City School Board races we worked very closely with the Catholic Archdiocese. We had a seminar at our national conference in September of this year entitled “Catholics and Evangelicals: A Winning Coalition.” So we think that this is one of the real waves of the future is breaking down these historical barriers that have separated people based on denomination, and having people work together based on shared values. And that means Protestant, that means Catholic, it means black, brown, white, yellow. There are people of the Christian faith of all colors and all races that have historically been separated and segregated. And we’re also changing that. We worked with the Black community and the Hispanic community in the Los Angeles mayor’s race, distributed 300,000 voter guides in Asian. I think we were the first pro-family organization to ever distribute tri-lingual voter guides. They were in Korean, in Spanish, and in English. And the result was, is that Michael Wier, the Democratic nominee’s vote, went down dramatically in the Hispanic community and you had the first Republican mayor in Los Angeles in 30 years. So I’m talking about building coalitions across denominational lines, across color lines, and across geographical lines, to build a winning coalition.
HEFFNER: You know, over the few years that the Christian Coalition has been in existence, but considering its predecessors too, I’ve often wondered, and the fact that you’re a student of American history, that you have your doctorate in American history, leads me to ask whether you don’t think that Jefferson and Madison and others are spinning, wherever they may be, at the fact of your political victories.
REED: Oh, no. Not at all. As a matter of fact, Thomas Jefferson was the one who said that he believed that faith was essential to democracy as he understood it. And John Adams said after the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787, he said, “Our Constitution is designed for a moral and religious people. It is wholly unsuited for any other.” By which he meant not that we ought to have a religious test to be in government, because that clearly is prohibited in the Constitution. What he meant was we have designed a government that by design is small, decentralized, and limited to only specific, enumerated powers in the Constitution. For a government like that to work, you must have a citizenry that abides by a code of voluntary self obedience. It is almost always historically animated by faith. And that was the kind of government they wanted. They wanted a government in which you didn’t need a large, powerful, bureaucratic central state as they had fled in Europe, because they wanted citizens, often animated by good will for their fellow man based on their faith, to found orphanages and hospitals and universities and colleges and schools and soup kitchens and lending libraries. And that, in fact, is what they did.
HEFFNER: Well, of course, that leads me to ask you whether you feel one can separate – whether you can – this matter of faith, this matter of values …
HEFFNER: … from the matter of religion, organized religion.
REED: Yes. Absolutely.
HEFFNER: Is the Christian Coalition geared in that direction?
REED: Yes, we are. We are geared to give people of faith a voice in government and a role in government, which we think is altogether appropriate. We don’t think that there should be a religious test that says you can’t be in the government unless you are of a particular religion. We also don’t think there should be the reverse, which is excluding people based on their religious beliefs. But what we do not seek to do is to come into government for the purposes of establishing a church. There is the fear out there that that is what we seek to do. What I think a lot of people don’t maybe particularly understand about the evangelical mind is we would be the last ones that would want to do that.
HEFFNER: Have you contributed to that fear in any way? I don’t mean you personally, but the drive, the organization, Christian Coalition?
REED: I hope not. Certainly speaking for myself and our other senior team at Christian Coalition, we try at every step of the way to point out that we’re not seeking to speak for the church or for a denomination or to use the government to establish a church and denomination. We think that to mix the two, to mix the purposes of government with the purposes of the church would be deleterious to both. The government hasn’t done a very good job of propagating the Gospel over the years. And I don’t want to turn over the Gospel to a government that has the efficiency of the post office and the cost effectiveness of the Pentagon. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Nasty, nasty, nasty.
We’re coming to the end of the program. Let me just ask you what you see in the future.
REED: Well, I think, what I see is a day in this country where you’ll see people running for political office of deep faith and devout religious convictions being elected and serving, and their faith never becoming an issue. Martin Luther King said he wanted to see a day when people were judged based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. I want to see a day when we who are of deep faith are judged and weighed in the balance based on our talents, our abilities, and our willingness to serve, and not based on our religious convictions.
HEFFNER: And what role do you anticipate the Christian Coalition will play in party politics in this country?
REED: Well, I think we’re going to continue to play the role that we play now, which is to act as a facilitator for the members of our organization to make their voices heard in both political parties. We’re not going to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of either political party; we’re going to impact both and speak to both.
HEFFNER: Where do you think you’ll have the greater influence? In which party?
REED: Well, so far, at least, it has been in the Republican Party. But I think that there are an awful lot of democrats out there, especially at the local level, less so at the national level. But at the local level, we work with a lot of state legislators and a lot of locally elected officials that are democrats and are with us on most of the issues. We helped elect Governor Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Governor Joan Finney of Kansas. And there are other pro-life and pro-family democrats out there.
HEFFNER: So that pro-life and pro-family are still, those are the issues that you’d like to be identified with?
REED: Those are the core issues, sure. But we’re going to work on other issues that impact the family as well.
HEFFNER: Is that an opportunistic approach?
REED: No, I don’t think so at all. I think what it is is a desire to effectively represent our members. And, you know, clearly we are impacted by issues of morality and cultural decay. Things like abortion, divorce, gay rights, illegitimacy, and so forth.
HEFFNER: Isn’t that where you begin?
REED: Well, I think so. But I think also the family is hurt when in 1950 they’re paying only two percent of their income in taxes, and today they’re paying 24 percent of their income in taxes. And if you’re going to deal with the issue of the centrality of the two parent, intact family to American society, you’ve got to deal with the issue of the crushing tax burden on those families. So I think you have to speak to both. You have to speak to the pocketbook, and you also have to speak to the heart.
HEFFNER: And if you had to make your guess, your educated estimate as to whether it’s going to be pocketbook or heart in the next campaign., which is it going to be?
REED: I think it’s probably going to be a mix. But if I were forced to choose one or the other, I would say that these issues of crime and illegitimacy and divorce and drugs and those kinds of cultural, moral issues are going to be very, very ascendant in the 1990’s.
HEFFNER: And again, if you had to look into the crystal ball, in the few seconds we have left, what do you think will happen in terms of partisan politics?
REED: I think the Republicans will probably pick up 20 or so seats in the House, maybe four seats, five seats in the Senate, and I think they’re well positioned to take the White House in 1996.
HEFFNER: Ralph Reed, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
REED: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again 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 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”