Religious Right Has-Beens Try for a Resurrection
The last few years haven't been easy ones for Ralph Reed.
The former Christian Coalition executive director and religious right strategist ran for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006. Early on, the race looked to be a cakewalk. Political observers predicted Reed would easily win the position, use it as a steppingstone to the governor's mansion and perhaps bag a Senate seat, or even seek the White House after that.
But Reed hit a serious pothole on his road to victory. His ties to disgraced casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff became an issue, and Georgia Republicans quickly threw Reed under the bus. On Election Day, he lost decisively to State Sen. Casey Cagle 56 percent to 44 percent.
Undeterred, Reed tried to reinvent himself as a novelist. In 2008, he published Dark Horse, a political thriller about an independent candidate seeking the White House. It tanked.
Although Reed worked for the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and helped Arizona GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain raise money in 2008, he has been mostly out of the limelight since stepping down as the head of the Christian Coalition in 1997.
With his political career on the rocks, and his attempt to become a Christian fundamentalist version of John Grisham in shreds, what is Reed to do?
One answer: Get back to basics. Reed recently announced that he is jumping back into the political fray by forming a new religious right group.
Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition will target white evangelical Christians but also reach out to new audiences, including Hispanics, blacks, women and young people.
"This is not your daddy's Christian Coalition," Reed told U.S. News & World Report's Dan Gilgoff. "It's got to be more brown, more black, more female and younger. It's critical that we open the door wide and let them know, if they share our values and believe in the principles of faith and marriage and family, they're welcome."
But Reed was also cagey about the group's reach. His coalition currently has just one staffer in its Washington office, and Reed has talked about the group doing most of its work over the Web with so-called virtual chapters.
So far, the group's Web site is studded with the same shopworn Obama-bashing and far-right rhetoric that can be found on any number of conservative sites.
It's a far cry from the heyday of the Christian Coalition, which pulled in $25 million annually in flush years and drew 4,000 to the nation's capital for its "Road to Victory" conferences.
Even as Reed was gearing up for another run at the political spotlight, a second religious right figure re-emerged from semi-obscurity: Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry has begun making the rounds again.
Terry grabbed headlines after the slaying of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in May. Deliberately seeking to be provocative, Terry booked a room at the National Press Club in Washington to say that Tiller got what he deserved.
The performance was vintage Terry: Toss something outrageous to the media and watch the ensuing fireworks.
Tiller's killing provided Terry with the soapbox he has been looking for. Once prominent for leading raucous protests at abortion clinics in the 1980s, the 50-year-old activist never fully left the movement, although his public profile declined greatly during the 1990s.
Prior to the Tiller shooting, Terry was leading right-wing Catholics opposed to President Barack Obama's appearance at the University of Notre Dame's commencement and trying to drum up opposition to Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
But these stunts weren't giving Terry the exposure he sought. The Tiller slaying put him back on page one, and Terry rode the wave.
By mid-July, he was in front of a Senate building splashing fake blood on baby dolls and ordering his followers to prance about with child-sized coffins. A Terry confederate dressed as the Grim Reaper lurked nearby.
To some observers, the street theater might have looked like a blast from the past -- because it is. As The Washington Post put it, "[Terry is] using many of the same tactics that made him famous two decades ago."
But while the antics are familiar, there's no denying that the times have changed. The United States is not the same nation it was in 1988, when the Reagan years drew to a close. There was no World Wide Web then, and the Soviet Union still existed.
The religious right was powerful, and TV preachers like the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson held so much influence that Robertson felt emboldened to seek the presidency.
America in the era of Obama is a much different place. The demographic portrait of the country has changed. Republicans no longer control the federal government. Social networking and the rise of the Internet have revolutionized how political organizing and grassroots advocacy are done.
There's a sense that the social and political movements of the day will be much different from what we've seen before.
They'll be younger, edgier and led by tech-savvy activists of the type that populated Obama's campaign and even the insurgent White House run of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
The question is, can two middle-age figures from the past -- Reed, 48, and Terry, 50 -- lead such movements?
In Reed's case, even some of his friends are skeptical.
"It's not likely the second match will produce as much power," Billy McCormack, a Louisiana minister and long-time Christian Coalition activist, told the Associated Press. "The likelihood of him being able to repeat that is difficult."
Reed and Terry face another formidable obstacle: Some conservative Christian activists want nothing to do with them.
Reed is still lugging around baggage from his 2006 race. Although he posed as a "family values" candidate and a happy cultural warrior, Reed's actions, it quickly became apparent, were more about lining his pockets than advancing conservative social policy.
The mess started in 2002, when Abramoff's firm hired Reed to rally religious-right leaders to oppose a new casino proposed by the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana. Among the leaders Reed reached out to was James Dobson of Focus on the Family.
Dobson's antipathy toward legalized gambling is well known, making him a natural target for Reed. But Reed failed to tell Dobson the whole story.
Reed's political consulting firm, Century Strategies, was actually working on behalf of another Indian tribe that already operated a casino. Those Indians, the Coushatta, didn't want another tribe cutting into their action.
Reed lobbied religious-right leaders, including the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association; Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council, and long-time religious-right activist Phyllis Schlafly. Prodded by Reed, each agreed to send letters to the U.S. Department of the Interior, urging that the Jena Band's request be denied.
Winning over Dobson was a huge victory for Reed. Reed scored his biggest coup when Dobson agreed to use his far-reaching radio network to attack the Jena Band's plan. An ecstatic Abramoff employee wrote in an e-mail that Reed "may finally have scored for us! Dobson goes up on the radio this week!"
When the lobbying scandal broke, e-mails between Reed and Abramoff became public: They did not portray Reed positively -- the two spoke frankly about their manipulation of conservative religious groups.
Reed often came off as greedy. In one e-mail, Reed joked that money owed him should be sent to "the Reed Family Retirement and Educational Foundation" in the Cayman Islands -- a location notorious for its loose banking laws and reputation as an offshore tax shelter.
Reed, who was never charged with a crime in connection with the Abramoff affair, walked away with $4 million. It was a nice payoff, but it came with a price: Many of Reed's associates in the religious right believed they had been rolled. It's unclear if they are willing to work with him again.
Instead, Reed may try to bypass the old guard and work to create a new generation of activists. He told one right-wing Web site that his movement will definitely emphasize new technology, relying on tools like Facebook and Twitter, and will mobilize college students.
"We need to be hipper, more technology savvy," Reed said. "This is where the culture is going, and we need to be there if we're going to compete."
Indeed, the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Web site is heavy with YouTube clips and social network buttons for Facebook, Twitter and others -- the same tools that can be found on the home page of virtually any activist group these days.
Terry, meanwhile, faces similar problems: Many of his old friends have turned their backs on him. Other abortion opponents say they are alienated by Terry's confrontational tactics and constant self-promotion.
Terry's problems stem from a different source from Reed's: His weakness was his zipper, not his wallet.
In 2000, Terry abruptly divorced his first wife, leaving her in New York with the couple's three children. A year later, he married a younger woman who had served as a volunteer in one of his congressional campaigns. The couple has since had four children.
The move was not popular in the fundamentalist community. Terry's church outside of Binghamton, N.Y., excommunicated him. Undaunted, he aligned with another conservative Protestant church before converting to Roman Catholicism in 2005.
Terry recently moved from Washington, where he says he plans to launch a new version of Operation Rescue, the rabidly anti-abortion group he ran throughout the 1980s and '90s. (The current leadership of Operation Rescue, which has taken pains to distance themselves from Terry, may have something to say about that. Terry and Troy Newman, who now run the group, have sparred in court over the use of the name.)
Like Reed, Terry tried to step away from religious-right politics and the culture wars for a time. He moved to Nashville, Tenn., at one point and recorded two CDs, one country-and-western and one gospel.
But Terry's nascent musical career flopped, and he soon returned to what he knows best: ranting and raving about legal abortion.
While their trajectories may be similar, Reed and Terry are unlike in one very important way: Reed has always labored to paste a pleasant face on his political activities. While he certainly employed some strong rhetoric, Reed worked to portray the Christian Coalition as a nonthreatening collection of well-educated and upwardly mobile activists (whether they were or not remains open to debate).
A common Reed claim was that the religious right merely wanted a place at the table, to be part of the political dialogue. Reed may have harbored theocratic dreams, but he kept them under wraps.
Terry, by contrast, has moved closer and closer to an overt theocratic vision over the years.
In one notable 1993 speech, he told a crowd: "I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good. ... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this county. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism."
More recently, in the wake of the Tiller shooting, Terry urged abortion opponents to step up their attacks. He called for "confrontational" tactics and "highly charged rhetoric" -- ignoring pleas that confrontation and rhetoric has escalated the debate over abortion to the extent that some extremist groups openly espouse violence.
The re-emergence of Reed and Terry comes at a time when the religious-right movement has reached something of a crossroads. Warhorses like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy are dead. TV preacher Pat Robertson is aging and less visible.
Even Dobson of Focus on the Family claims to be scaling back. While some have questioned the legitimacy of Dobson's semiretirement -- he still does radio broadcasts every day, still issues regular mailings to followers and still plans to endorse political candidates -- the ministry founder has handed day-to-day operations to Jim Daly.
Several new religious-right leaders have been proposed, but many of them tend to be figures from the political world, such as ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich. (See Americans United for Separation of Church and State's "Power Struggle," in its May 2009 Church & State.)
Reed and Terry, by contrast, have failed in their attempts to launch political and artistic careers, but they do have experience in grassroots organizing, mobilizing houses of worship and raising funds -- qualities that are essential to any effective religious-right operation.
But there are those who believe the religious right doesn't need new leadership -- chiefly the men and women leading religious-right groups now.
In June, a band of religious right organizations called a press conference in Washington to announce a new Freedom Federation, a coalition of right-wing theocracy-minded groups. The Federation released a "Declaration of American Values," reiterating the groups' opposition to legal abortion, gay rights and church-and-state separation. They pledged to work together to press the religious right's social agenda.
Organizations taking part in the effort include the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Liberty University, the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, Vision America, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, Catholic Online, the Traditional Values Coalition and a host of smaller entities.
Religious-right groups have tried this before. For many years, the leaders of national groups met in a war council called the Arlington Group. This new effort is a little different in that it includes Hispanic and Catholic organizations.
Prior efforts to grow the religious right base by building bridges to these communities have mostly fallen flat -- but, like Reed, group leaders may realize that if they don't do something to expand their demographic pool, their influence will decline.
What role will Reed and Terry play in this dynamic? Can the two resurrect their careers as religious-right kingpins, or is their day done?
Stay tuned. There's definitely going to be more to this story.