WASHINGTON — The two roles of Ralph Reed, who stepped down last week as executive director of the Christian Coalition, collided in almost every major speech he ever delivered.
There was Reed the conservative social movement leader who lamented the "moral and spiritual unease" in America, who called on evangelical activists to show humility and tried to rise above partisanship by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Then there was Reed the political operative who would gleefully flay liberals, Democrats and President Clinton as if auditioning to sit in for Rush Limbaugh.
The tension between these two identities--the movement leader and the partisan operative--defined Reed's complex position in the political firmament. While most liberals viewed him as the embodiment of an intolerant conservatism, some key social conservatives saw him as a kind of double agent who was too willing to sacrifice movement goals (such as banning abortion) to advance the partisan goal of electing more Republicans. As one GOP consultant put it, Reed, for all his personal conservatism, was like a moderate Republican senator who faced the constant risk of a primary challenge from his right.
In fact, Reed's political vision was the key to his organizational success. In his eight years at its helm, Reed built the Christian Coalition into a potent political force precisely because he broadened its agenda beyond the narrow set of cultural concerns--primarily abortion and gay rights--that had animated earlier (and less successful) efforts to mobilize conservative evangelicals. But Reed could take that diversification process only so far, and as he prepares to step down, his dream of harmonizing the interests of the GOP and religious families remains unfinished, and in some respects in retreat.
Reed's genius was in seeking the political and cultural integration of evangelical Christians. "Evangelicals have been isolated socially through most of the century, [and] also religiously," said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist. "These were people who were self-consciously against the rest of Christendom. So when they did get involved in politics, it was problematic."
Reed threw himself against those walls. He built organizational links with Roman Catholics and conservative black ministers; he raised money to help rebuild burned black churches; he apologized to African American and Jewish audiences for historic racism and anti-Semitism in his flock.
Reed also relentlessly pursued opportunities to identify the coalition with issues beyond abortion and prayer. In New York City, the Christian Coalition allied with Catholics and conservative Latinos to overturn a public school "rainbow curriculum" designed by Manhattan liberals. In Washington, he joined the broader GOP coalitions that organized against Clinton's health care plan and behind the "contract with America." Welfare reform, inner-city revitalization, opposition to gambling: Reed embroidered all of these into his group's agenda.
In many ways, this strategy succeeded spectacularly. With Reed's focus on organizing, the group proliferated local chapters; the grass-roots reach then amplified its national power inside the GOP. Telegenic and articulate, Reed himself became a media star--as unflappable behind a microphone as Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, the group's founder, was combustible.
Yet as Reed steps aside to become a political consultant--and perhaps, eventually, a political candidate himself--the limitations of his strategy remain apparent. Two large hurdles still confront his vision of a broad-based "pro-family movement" as the cornerstone of an enduring conservative political majority.
On one side, divisions over social issues continue to limit the influence of social conservatives inside the GOP. Republicans remain reluctant to move much of their agenda. Though Reed signaled interest in finding a unifying compromise on abortion, he could not rally other social conservatives behind anything that even hinted at a softening of the party's commitment to an absolute ban--a position that places it opposite most Americans. In the final struggle over last summer's Republican platform, Bob Dole's camp decided it had to negotiate with antiabortion leaders to Reed's right because it was not certain the most hard-core activists would accept a deal reached with him.
From the other side, Clinton has launched an effective challenge for the family voters that Reed wants to cement into the GOP. Four separate postelection surveys found Clinton last year winning about one-third (or more) of white evangelical Christians--the best showing for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1980. Clinton ran even more strongly among parents.