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Ralph Reed is Back, Hoping to Harness the Energy of the Tea Party Movement

Ralph Reed hopes to bury his past by bringing together the two most energetic right-wing movements: the Tea Party and the religious right.
 
 
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The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter here.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader and confederate of convicted felon Jack Abramoff, is making his bid for restored respectability and power in right-wing politics. This weekend, as Tea Party groups convene on the nation's capital to mark the first anniversary of last year's taxpayer march on Washington, Reed's latest venture, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, will host its debut Washington, D.C., "conference and strategy briefing," starting tomorrow at the historic Mayflower Hotel. (Sarah Palin is listed a an "invited speaker" though her place on the roster has yet to be confirmed.) "This will be an exciting weekend of featured speakers, networking and training workshops as we prepare for the November elections," reads the conference registration page on the organization's Web site. Earlier this year, Sarah Posner filed this report on Reed's attempt at a comeback.

Last November, the evangelist James Robison, an early organizer of the religious right and a mentor to the young Mike Huckabee, was ruminating about the state of the nation. He and his wife, Betty, he said, were increasingly worried about the country "drifting away from what I call 'foundation principles,'" the "foundational belief system based solidly upon the truths found in the scriptures."

Robison, whose daily talk show favors affable studio chats about Jesus and personal fulfillment to politically-charged polemic, packed a series of religious right dog whistles into his lament about the country's downward spiral. The founders, he said, believed in the word of God, and came to America looking for "spiritual freedom." The founders were dedicated, he went on, to "a very limited government that functioned to protect that freedom," a version of history that "not many get to anymore in our public school system."

Robison then introduced his antidote to the fallen nation: the recently resurrected Republican political operative Ralph Reed. The one-time golden boy of the conservative movement -- sullied by the Christian Coalition's decline under his leadership, and later his sordid partnership with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- was making the rounds promoting his new incarnation, the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

In introducing Reed as a guest on his program, Robison gushed that when he learned of Reed's new political effort, he exclaimed, "faith and freedom? I said, 'I've just been praying about that.'"

It Costs a Lot of Money to Print Voter Guides

Whether Reed is the answer to the conservative movement's prayers remains to be seen. But he is engaged in a full-court press to re-create the Christian Coalition for the 21st century through FFC affiliates in the states, a process already underway in Florida, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, California, Virginia, and Tennessee.

In announcing last March that he had decided against running for the Congressional seat being vacated by retiring Georgia Republican John Linder, Reed promised supporters, "In 2010 and 2012, FFC will register an estimated one million new faith-based voters and make tens of millions of voter contacts in what may be the largest conservative get-out-the-vote effort in modern political history." Reed, who has been suspected of exaggerating the numbers of Christian Coalition members and distributed voter guides, promised his for-profit Century Strategies' "voter contact subsidiary and grassroots team will be involved in a number of races in 2010."

Reed's FFC is essentially a retread of the Christian Coalition which, under Reed's leadership, was investigated by Congress, the Federal Election Commission, and ultimately (after Reed's departure) had its tax-exempt status denied over its engagement in electoral politicking. But Reed, who has managed to survive the Christian Coalition meltdown, his two-timing of evangelicals through his business association with Abramoff, and his 2006 loss in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia, is sifting the remnants of the Christian Coalition infrastructure to build FFC.

O'Neal Dozier, pastor of the Worldwide Christian Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, and a Christian Coalition of Florida board member, said that the board voted last year to "come under the umbrella of" the FFC. For an organization that was low on funds, said Dozier, it was "a great opportunity that we felt we couldn't pass up."

Now Dozier also serves on the FFC board, and says that the affiliation brings "more fundraising capabilities. With Faith and Freedom and with Ralph being known as he is, we can get more conservatives involved and coming to functions that we have in order to raise funds," both locally and nationally. "It costs a lot of money to print voter guides," he chuckled.

Dozier, whose extreme views have caused him some trouble in Florida politics, has been fighting the construction of a mosque near his church because he claims it has ties to terrorists. "The Muslim people we believe are beautiful people," he told RD. "They're beautiful people, we just believe that the Muslim people are victims of a very dangerous and evil religion and that religion is Islam." He said that neither the Christian Coalition nor the FFC would get involved in his mosque-fighting efforts, and that while they would continue to stick with the traditional social issues, he wanted to see a focus on economic concerns.

"Social conservative who talked about economic issues"

As early as 1993, Reed had been pushing the religious right to broaden its appeal, arguing that it "has limited its effectiveness by concentrating disproportionately on issues such as abortion and homosexuality." Now -- as his business partner Tim Phillips heads up Tea Party astroturf group Americans for Prosperity -- he's burrowing for an opening to convince activists that social and economic issues are linked. He recently described an overlap between Tea Party activists and his organization on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Religious right activists see that overlap too, but not yet a marriage between themselves and the Tea Party movement. But Reed's efforts seem directed at capitalizing on panic over "socialism" whipped up by the Tea Partiers. Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance (a successor organization to what used to be the Christian Coalition chapter in Iowa, and which is in the process of forming an Iowa FFC affiliate), said that the "one thing" social conservatives and Tea Party activists "are knitted together on is their dislike, their distrust, their disgust with Obama's march toward socialism, which is a takeover of every facet of a person's life." Scheffler is an old handof the religious right in Iowa, sought after by Republican presidential candidates seeking advantage in the state's early caucuses.

The FFC, said Scheffler, "will address a wider range agenda, social issues plus economic issues, issues that are important to traditional families." He pointed to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (for whom FFC helped mobilize voters) "as a perfect example" of a "social conservative who talked about economic issues," a combination Scheffler maintained is required to get elected. The Virginia FFC paid for robocalls recorded by Huckabee and Sarah Palin endorsing McDonnell, though the McDonnell campaign tried to distance itself from the Palin endorsement.

While Dozier said he was a tea partier himself, he added that he wouldn't want either the Christian Coalition or the FFC to endorse or partner with the Tea Party movement. The left, he maintained, has portrayed the Tea Party movement as "a crazy, right-wing party," and the Christian Coalition and FFC are, he said, "mainstream conservative organizations" that he wouldn't want "lumped in" with that.

Reed's dalliance with the "march toward socialism" paranoia harkens to the early days of the religious right, when it found common cause with the hardcore anti-communist right flank of the conservative movement. As Huckabee, who worked as Robison's communications director in the 1970s, recalled in his 2008 book, Do The Right Thing, Robison organized the seminal 1979 rally where conservative leaders like Paul Weyrich and Howard Phillips "recognized the untapped civic power sitting in pews of churches and synagogues each week and set about to mobilize the sleeping giant of people of faith into a force to be reckoned with."

When he supported Reagan, Robison wrote last year, the enemy was communism. Today, he maintained, "we face a similar threat, but one more crafty and subtle. We cannot see the danger for two primary reasons: first, we have lost our sense of right and wrong and, second, the enemy lies within." To Reed, he fretted, "I think we're racing toward Marxism, I've got to be honest with you. I think this government is consuming the productivity of the nation and doling it out."

In Reed's parlance, government is the evil that meddles with the freedom of God-fearing Americans, even in their religion. "I don't want the same government that can't run the Cash for Clunkers program to be running the church," he told Robison, though it's unclear which government effort he's referring to. "So the purpose is not to protect government from faith. That's not what the founders believed; that was never the objective. The purpose was to protect the church from bureaucrats."

Reed went on to claim that not running the country on a Judeo-Christian moral code is actually contrary to democracy. "So really, when you really get right down to it, James," he said, "democracy doesn't really work at all unless there is a citizenry animated by a moral code that derives from their faith in God. That's what makes the whole thing work because otherwise, the government has to tell everybody what to do." After offering his view on taxes, he concluded, "we start crushing that, we crush more than just the greatest economy in the world, we crush the entrepreneurial and liberty-loving freedom of the American people to go out there and pursue their dreams as high and as far as they can carry them."

Reed Re-enters a Crowded and Ambivalent Evangelical World

It was Reed's overly zealous entrepreneurial spirit -- to put it charitably -- that led to his key role in the Abramoff scandal. Although he crashed and burned in his first public effort after the scandal, evangelical activists are loathe to disparage him, a reluctance evident even as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation laid bare his schemes with the lobbyist. In 2005, the evangelical magazine World came under fire after it published an article about Reed that concluded, "the portrait that emerges is one of a shrewd businessman who has spent years leveraging his evangelical and conservative contacts to promote the economic interests of his clients, rather than the principles of the political movement he once led."

After the piece appeared, Focus on the Family executive Tom Minnery complained on the radio that the magazine's reporter, Jamie Dean, "wanted me to dump on Ralph Reed for his involvement with Jack Abramoff." Minnery had declined to respond to Dean's requests for comment on Reed's role in double-crossing anti-gambling evangelicals in order to benefit Abramoff's tribal gambling clients. Marvin Olasky, World's editor, defended the magazine's practice of journalism, noting that the focus should not be on Dean doing a reporter's job, but "on one person who has shamed the evangelical community: Ralph Reed."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and a longtime observer of the religious right, said Reed "faces two daunting realities. First of all, many people no longer trust him within the conservative movement because of his connection to lobbying, gambling, and other things seen by some as bad. Second, I just think that the Family Research Council has done -- sadly -- a magnificent job of filling the gap and expanding the universe of people who were previously interested in the Christian Coalition."

Yet Reed continues to elicit effusive praise from fellow evangelicals. The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody claims FFC "is indeed poised to be a major player in the 2010 and 2012 elections." About Reed's association with Abramoff, Scheffler told RD, "if you look at the whole explanation it was a nonissue, it was the press that made something out of nothing that was there." He added that Iowa activists were "excited" that Reed was the master of ceremonies for the Iowa Christian Alliance's fundraiser this week, at which Rick Santorum was the keynote speaker.

Cindy Costa, the Republican National Committeewoman for South Carolina and former Christian Coalition activist, told RD that Reed is a "fine gentleman" and "helpful to the conservative movement." After an FFC organizing event in Tennessee last week, Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the FFC "one of the most important forces for sound public policy in America in the coming years." And GOP operative Chip Saltsman, forced to pull out of the race for Republican National Committee chair last year after he distributed a "Barack the Magic Negro" CD, added that FFC "has already been effective in identifying and turning out conservative voters and we're pleased to bring it to Tennessee."

But Lynn thinks Reed won't be able to compete with the goliath that FRC's Tony Perkins has built, and suggested that Reed exaggerates his capabilities. "Even when the Christian Coalition claimed strength locally, a lot of those local chapters were virtually nonexistent," he said. "They just didn't have the commitment or resources." Perkins, on the other hand, "has connected with a lot of local churches." Reed, Lynn added, "had that as a vision but didn't achieve it... You can't compete when you have the well-oiled machine that Tony Perkins has."

Sarah Posner is associate editor of Religion Dispatches and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. Read her blog or follow her on Twitter.