Ralph Reed Sees Role for Religious Right in 2016

Evangelical Republicans aren't going away.

Not waving goodbye.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For more than a quarter century, Ralph Reed has been a leader of the religious right political movement. The first executive director of the Christian Coalition, in the 1990s he became the public face and lead strategist of the movement. In 2006 he ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia.

Reed, 54, runs a political consulting firm in Georgia and is founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. What follows is a lightly edited Q&A conducted via e-mail.

Hunt: Does the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision settle the issue?

Reed: It is a little early to conclude how the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision will unfold, but I doubt it will settle the issue. Only 11 states had legalized same-sex marriage by legislation or popular referendum prior to the Supreme Court imposing it by judicial fiat. By short-circuiting the democratic process and preventing the people and legislatures of the various states from resolving this matter themselves, the high court has all but ensured that same-sex marriage remains politically polarized. If same-sex relationships are a protected class under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, then there are major implications for faith-based businesses, nonprofit organizations, charities and potentially even churches. Roe v. Wade did not settle the abortion issue and I doubt this decision will settle the marriage issue.   

Hunt: How is the conservative Christian movement different than when you started?

Reed: Certainly the pro-family movement has matured and grown in sophistication politically. At the outset, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was often a millennialist impulse, and a triumphalism, evident in the civic discourse of conservative Christians, in part due to a lack of experience and a naïve belief that one could win a few elections and impose the moral beliefs held by millions of Americans. Over time, evangelicals and their Roman Catholic allies have learned that a free society rarely allows for such complete victories outside of a cataclysm like the Civil War or the Great Depression. As a result, they have a more reasoned and nuanced understanding of what can be accomplished in the political arena and what can only be accomplished through winning hearts and minds. Another big change is the casting of a wider net in terms of issues. Thirty years ago religious conservatives worked primarily on abortion, gay rights and school prayer. Today they have a larger and more diverse policy agenda, including education reform, human trafficking, criminal justice reform, tax policy and foreign policy.

Hunt: Wasn't the 1980 Ronald Reagan campaign -- and the Reagan presidency -- the turning point for the religious right?

Reed: No question. Reagan was the midwife of the social conservative movement, ushering it into the mainstream of American political life -- a remarkable development considering that he defeated Jimmy Carter, arguably the most explicitly evangelical U.S. President since Woodrow Wilson.  Reagan’s popularity and association with religious folk legitimized their participation in the civic arena, he supported many of their policy aims, and he unashamedly shared their aspiration for a spiritual awakening and moral renewal of the nation.  On the other hand, Reagan was more pragmatic than his friends or critics gave him credit for and he was more of an incrementalist than the leaders of the religious right. He understood that half a loaf was better than none at all.  

Hunt: Reagan biographers say he never made social issues a priority.

Reed: I have always thought that an unfair criticism. It is true he had other priorities -- his tax and budget cuts, getting the economy moving again, rebuilding the military and a more aggressive posture in the Cold War. But many of the social issues played out in the federal courts, where he made appointing conservatives a high priority, and he actually published a book about abortion while he served as President. He said after he left the presidency that his inability to do more to restrict abortion was one of his greatest regrets. Still, his deft use of the bully pulpit, which he used to boldly address the responsibility of people of faith to combat evil (I am thinking here in particular of his famous address to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983), was a landmark on the path of religious folk from self-imposed political exile to a place at the table.  

Hunt: How crucial were Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the movement?

Reed: Robertson and Falwell were both critical to the rise of social conservatives in very different ways. As a fundamentalist, Falwell made civic engagement palatable to a constituency that had largely withdrawn from politics for three generations. He was a trailblazer, especially in cooperating with Jews, Roman Catholics and Mormons, which previously had been anathema to fundamentalists. Later, he quietly encouraged his fundamentalist brethren to lock arms with Southern Baptists, which played a critical role in promoting unity among conservative evangelicals. 

As the son of a U.S. Senator, Robertson grew up around politics; it was second nature to him. When he ran for president in 1988, his candidacy encouraged evangelicals to switch their party registration from Democrat to Republican in order to vote for him. When Robertson came in second to Senator Bob Dole and defeated incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucuses, he paved the way for the evangelical-fueled candidacies of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. He received over three million votes in the GOP presidential primaries, and his candidacy laid the foundation for what would become the Christian Coalition in the 1990’s. While controversial at times, Falwell and Robertson were indispensable to the pro-family movement becoming an important constituency in American politics.

Hunt: Did they ultimately become political liabilities?

Reed: I don’t think so. While it is true that they occasionally generated controversy, that is always the case with pioneers who build social reform movements. It takes a unique entrepreneurial personality to do so, and both Jerry and Pat had that gift.  They both built enormously influential ministries in Liberty University, Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Regent University, and while Jerry is gone and Pat is no longer engaged in politics, their political legacy is historic.

Hunt: A recent Pew survey shows a significant decline in the number of self-identified Christians over past seven years. Why?

Reed: The main reason is the decline in membership of mainline churches. The major Protestant denominations, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, have drifted in a liberal direction theologically and been in decline since the 1960’s.  Conservative evangelicals only declined about 2 percent in the Pew data, well within the margin of error, and they remain about one-fifth of the population as a whole and roughly one out of four voters. They continue to be the largest and most dynamic constituency in the electorate -- larger than the minority vote, the union vote or the feminist vote. There has been a rise in "nones," who claim no religion, but over half of them claim to be spiritual and believe in God. The number of true atheists and agnostics in the U.S. is insubstantial at roughly 2-to-5 percent of the population. The U.S. remains a deeply religious nation with strong spiritual yearnings.

Hunt: But doesn't the increase in nones present a challenge?

Reed: Not really. The nones don’t gather in a single place weekly as evangelicals and Catholics do at church. And it is not clear that the nones are anti-God or anti-faith, only that they do not currently consider themselves part of an organized religion. It is a lot easier to organize people who hold to what they believe is a transcendent and eternal truth than it is to organize people who don’t believe in anything, or much of anything. (That is also why conservatives or liberals have more impact than moderates in either party; a moderate is generally lukewarm and harder to get fired up about something.) Finally, the Pew data only measured population, not the electorate. Exit polls in 2010, 2012 and 2014 all demonstrate that conservative evangelicals are turning out in bigger numbers than at any time since they first emerged in the late 1970s.

Hunt: Blacks and Hispanics identify more with religion than whites do. Yet the conservative Christian movement seems to have had little appeal to them. Is there any prospect of that changing?

Reed: It will be more difficult to make common cause with black believers as long as Obama is president. But in the past we have worked with black churches on marriage, pro-life issues and our shared support for criminal justice reform. My sense is you will see more of that in the future. Many of the Republicans who recently called for changes in state flags or in the role of the Confederate battle flag were evangelicals.

The prospects for collaboration are even greater among Hispanics, about one in five of whom are evangelicals. My organization, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, supports immigration reform based on Biblical principles. We have worked closely with Hispanics to advance that agenda along with education reform and pro-life efforts. That relationship will become an even higher priority due to the changing demographic picture in the 21st century.

Hunt: You've had success in limiting abortion on both federal and state levels. Is the goal still to repeal Roe v Wade and is that a realistic prospect if you elect a Republican president and Congress?

Reed: We remain committed to seeing Roe v. Wade overturned. It was wrongly decided. It has been further undermined by advances in sonograms and neo-natal surgery that have changed our view of life in the womb and what can be done to protect it. The gruesome revelations and 2013 trial and conviction of the abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell demonstrated that legal abortion has not been good for women’s health or safety. We would like the Supreme Court to revisit Roe, and we think the prospects for that are good should a Republican president be in a position to make one or more Supreme Court appointments.

Hunt: When Indiana sought to enact religious conscience laws on gay marriage issues there was a huge backlash from corporations, athletes and average voters. Was that sobering?

Reed: Yes and no. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts have passed at the federal level and are now on the books in 21 states. The purpose of these laws is to create the strictest scrutiny possible for any law that restricts someone’s exercise of religion. We have always balanced the expression of one’s faith with compelling state interests, such as in the areas of military service and public vaccination programs. All the law in Indiana (and the one proposed in Arkansas) did is ensure that if a state law restricted one’s expression of faith, there had to be a compelling state reason for it. 

The mistake was suggesting that somehow that would allow a baker, photographer or caterer to decline to provide services to a same-sex marriage ceremony. This was not clear.  No court has ruled that a RFRA allowed a private business to decline to serve such a wedding ceremony. We remain committed to passing state religious freedom statutes modeled on the federal RFRA, which was co-sponsored by Senators Ted Kennedy and Chuck Schumer and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It is sound public policy. It only become controversial when it became conflated (probably erroneously) with the same-sex marriage issue.  

Hunt: What other issues are of special concern in 2016?

Reed: Likely immigration reform. Faith & Freedom Coalition supports immigration reform that places a priority on the entry of spouses and minor children of legal residents and citizens -- not the “chain migration” of extended relatives that currently claims 80 percent of all visas. We do not support amnesty or a path to citizenship for those who have entered the country illegally. We oppose Obama’s executive amnesty. My sense is there is an opening for a candidate to urge reform the right way, with a president partnering with Congress, not acting unilaterally and probably illegally.

Hunt: As you survey the 2016 GOP field, which candidates are stressing your priorities?

Reed: I don't believe the large presidential field poses a problem. There are more candidates of faith running in 2016 than at any time in my career. We have a record number of Catholics seeking the nomination -- Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal (the latter two converts). Evangelicals such as Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Scott Walker (among others) will mobilize evangelical voters and make sure their issues are addressed.

In Iowa and South Carolina, between 50 and 60 percent of caucus-goers and primary voters are self-identified evangelicals. The road to the nomination requires the eventual nominee to speak in a clear and convincing voice to voters of faith. I expect the Republican nominee and platform to remain pro-life and pro-traditional marriage.

Hunt: Pope Francis, who'll visit the U.S. in September, has stressed the need for governments to do more for the poor, and to address climate change and check unbridled capitalism. Are conservatives right to be concerned about the Pope's message?

Reed: Count me a fan of Pope Francis. I believe he can make the Gospel more relevant and compelling to many who have either drifted from the faith or may have been turned off by what they see as the harshness or judgmental attitude of the Church. I believe he will further evangelical-Roman Catholic cooperation.  His exuberance, evangelical style and charisma are major assets in ensuring that the Gospel reaches a large audience in a culture that is spiritually hungry and searching.

In addition, Francis has been firm in his defense of unborn life and traditional marriage. His papacy has brought no change in the teaching of the Church on these core issues. As for the encyclical on climate change, I agree that people of faith have an obligation to be good stewards of God’s creation. I just think when we pursue public policy to achieve that end, we need to show more humility and be more mindful of the impact on the poor and marginalized. Well-intentioned policies can have cruel and unforeseen consequences. Reducing carbon emissions by shifting more of the U.S. gasoline supply to ethanol, for example, has diverted a huge amount of the U.S. corn crop from cereal and food, leading to skyrocketing prices for staples for the poor and harming faith-based charities who provide food to the hungry in Africa and elsewhere. Similarly, a carbon tax, while marginally discouraging energy use, is a highly regressive tax that falls hardest on the poor and elderly. It will increase power bills and gasoline costs for those least able to pay. So while the faith community should address environmental issues, it should frame them in moral terms and allow for wide latitude in pursuing the best solutions.    

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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