How political fortunes change. Just two years ago, the Republicans swept the 1994 midterm elections and declared the beginning of a new conservative "revolution." Newt Gingrich, the most powerful man in the new Washington and self-proclaimed leader of the revolution, was seemingly omnipresent in the media.
Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition claimed credit for the Republican success and purported to speak for all or most Christians. Reed proudly announced his organization to be "a permanent fixture on the political landscape for people of faith."
As I write 19 months later, the Republican candidate for president is 20 points behind in the polls and there is talk about the possibility of the Democrats retaking both the House and the Senate. Republican candidates distance themselves from Gingrich, their former philosopher king. Reed has become a principal Republican Party operative (a "ward boss," as one evangelical leader recently described it), and the Christian Coalition played a decisive role in anointing Bob Dole as the party's presidential candidate, only to have the consummate compromiser waffle on some of their most important issues, like abortion.
Other things have changed as well. Because of efforts like the Call to Renewal, Reed now admits the Coalition doesn't speak for all Christians and has admirably counseled his followers to a greater "civility" in their political holy warfare. Most important, key evangelical Christian leaders are turning away from the Religious Right. The highly politicized Christian Coalition has gained considerable power, but at the cost of moral credibility among a growing number of church leaders. When all is said and done, most Christian leaders, regardless of their political leanings, prefer a politics more independent, spiritual, and prophetic than one that is too partisan, ideological, and caught up with the pursuit of power.
Most Christians this election year will not be enamored with either presidential candidate. Bill Clinton still generates personal distrust on a host of moral issues. From Whitewater, to "Travelgate," to the FBI files, the official explanations from the White House simply do not ring true. Many have been sorely disappointed by Clinton's lack of a principled commitment to justice on a range of issues from welfare reform to immigration, from landmines to NAFTA. Many have also been outraged by his veto of the ban on partial birth abortions and lack of effort to make abortions "rare" as he said they should be. The only consistent area of commitment by this president is to racial justice (which, indeed, is a very important one).
Bob Dole, on the other hand, has been trying to convince us that tobacco is not addictive and that a lot of peoplefrom Katie Couric to the NAACPare out to get him. No one, even on his own staff, seems to know for sure if he has any clear vision of the country's future. Dole doesn't seem clear himself about much beyond wanting to be president.
BUT THE RELIGIOUS Right leaders have become consummate insiders themselves now, more comfortable with a seat at the table of Republican power than with remaining the strident voice in the wilderness that characterized their early days. Reed, who has moderated the rhetoric of the Christian Coalition by getting Pat Robertson to be quiet, readily admits that he is much more a political operative than a religious leader.
Nor has the Religious Right stayed with the "moral issues" that launched their political activism, now broadening their "moral" vision to include tax cuts for the wealthy, overturning environmental regulations, opposing gun control, and abolishing the Department of Education.
The Coalition's organizing against other Christian candidates who don't toe the conservative Republican Party line is a growing concern to many. Rep. Tony Hall, one of the most widely respected evangelical Christians in Congress, recently led an effort by 40 pro-life Democrats to insert a statement of conscience into the party platform for those who oppose the party's adamant pro-choice stance. Apparently that is not enough for the Christian Coalition, due to the fact that Hall still opposes Republican efforts to gut the social safety net and cut aid to the hungry overseas. When Hall was asked why the leader of the Ohio Christian Coalition is now running his opponent's campaign, he replied, "I guess it's just because I'm not a Republican."
With all the power amassed by the Christian Coalition, the three most important issues its delegates planned to focus on at the Republican Convention were the exact wording of the party's anti-abortion plank, the choice of Bob Dole's running mate, and Pat Buchanan getting a prime-time television speech. Is this the prophetic politics that will change the soul of America, as the subtitle of Ralph Reed's new book promises?
One of the problems with just going for political power is that you can lose it as quickly as you've gained it. If the Republicans' newly gained political dominance crumbles in the fall elections, the party's right wing could be blamed for being too extreme and alienating too many Americans. After boasting so much of its political influence, the Christian Coalition in particular could be left holding the bag.