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Ralph Reed: Onward Christian Soldier : Politics: He changed the face of the Christian Coalition. Now he’d like to give government the same treatment.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1988, he was a poor graduate student who waited on tables at the Democratic convention in Atlanta, serving among other VIPs--very important pols--Ron Brown and Jesse Jackson.

Seven years later, Ralph Reed Jr. is arguably more powerful than either of those men, having earned his Christian Coalition a place at the head of the table in an ascendant Republican Party.

Still only 33, with the face of an altar boy, Reed has already been anointed that highest of inside-the-Beltway accolades: player.

“He’s one of the smartest strategists I’ve ever seen in Washington,” said political analyst William Schneider. “He’s changed the whole face of the Christian Coalition.”

Just how dramatic a change was evident when Reed addressed the annual convention of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in Washington on April 3. Before 250 prominent Jewish leaders, he essentially apologized for anti-Semitic slurs made by Christian evangelicals, saying they had been “at times insensitive and have lacked a full understanding of the horrors experienced by the Jewish people.”

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In an interview, Reed said his appearance came at the invitation of the ADL, which last summer published a 175-page critique of conservative Christian groups.

“I viewed the opportunity to address the ADL as a first step toward a new kind of relationship based on trust rather than on fear,” he said.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said the audience was excited by Reed’s appearance, if skeptical.

“I do think he’s sincere. I also think he’s a pragmatist and a realist,” Foxman said. “He came to the conclusion that there is more to be gained by having the Jewish community as friends than as antagonists. Of course that’s easier said than done.”

Reed’s efforts to disarm opponents are consistent with his strategy of reinventing conservative Christian politics, which he developed after Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster and founder of the Christian Coalition, made him executive director of the group in 1989. From a membership of 2,000--drawn from supporters of Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid--the coalition has grown to 1.5 million members with an annual budget of $20 million, $1 million of it spent this year to promote the Republicans’ “contract with America.”

Positioning his group as the Republican Party’s core constituency, Reed has sought to build an alliance between anti-abortion Protestants and Roman Catholics.

“Reed’s insight is that ultimately their cause depends on becoming the mainstream or at least part of the mainstream,” said William Kristol, the Republican strategist.

Robertson, whose down-home preacher style and occasional eccentric conspiracy theories have turned off many people outside his movement, chose well when he selected Reed to be the coalition’s other face.

Despite his youth, Reed is an accomplished political operative who learned tactics during the Reagan years at the feet of such strategists as the late Lee Atwater.

The second of three children of a Navy doctor, Reed was born in Portsmouth, Va., and raised in California, Kentucky, Florida and Georgia. During the interview for this article, he said his sensitivity to those of different backgrounds came in part from this peripatetic childhood, especially the six years spent near Miami.

“I went to more bar mitzvahs than baptisms as I grew up,” he said. “Some of my closest and dearest friends were Jews.”

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When he was 15, his family moved to a more homogenous environment, in the Bible-belt of northwest Georgia. There, Reed began honing his political skills, running for student council president at Cutler Ridge Junior High School in the small town of Toccoa. Addressing students at a campaign rally, he threw away a prepared speech and spoke extemporaneously.

“I learned I had an ability to connect with an audience--that moment when you know you have to say what they need to hear,” he said.

Reed’s present-day critics charge that he is still saying what his opponents “need to hear”: that although he looks like Beaver Cleaver, he’s really Eddie Haskell.

“He’s the happy face,” said Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, the liberal lobby. “Reporters swoon over him and little old ladies want his autograph.”

“The agenda is still one of intolerance, but he’s very clever,” said Leslie Harris, the lobby’s director of public policy. “He’s not afraid to go into the lion’s den and target those most loyal to the Democratic Party.”

Asked about Reed, Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) recalled a quote the Christian Coalition leader gave (to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot) in 1991: “I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.”

Despite a change in rhetoric, Spector charged, the nature of the Christian Coalition has not changed. They are still determined to prevent the selection of a pro-choice candidate like himself for President in 1996.

“He and Pat Robertson are an intimidating force in the Republican Party,” the senator said.

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Reed no longer uses such military metaphors and denied that his group, which is tax-exempt and therefore officially nonpartisan, has or would exert veto power over the nomination.

But then it’s hardly necessary for him to issue ultimatums.

Nearly a quarter of the voters in the 1994 mid-term election identified themselves as “born-again” Christians, and of those, 78% voted Republican. Without the activism of the coalition, which distributed 33 million voter guides before the election, Congress would almost certainly still be in Democratic hands.

The coalition’s agenda includes abolishing the Department of Education and sending block grants to states to be used in part for private school vouchers; a “religious equality” Constitutional amendment that would permit voluntary prayer in public schools; eliminating federal funding for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, the Legal Services Corp. (which facilitates no-fault divorces) and Planned Parenthood.

Reed said his willingness to be patient on more divisive social issues such as abortion is in contrast to the way liberal groups acted when President Clinton was inaugurated.

“Take the first 100 days under the first Republican Congress in 40 years and our involvement in advancing that legislative agenda and contrast it with what the gay and lesbian movement and the feminist and pro-abortion movement did when Bill Clinton came into office. They demanded their issues be dealt with immediately. They made unrealistic demands on a President who didn’t have the support base to deliver. As a result, they set their movements back 20 years.”

Reed said his group would not push for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, realizing that it lacked the necessary votes, but might seek a law barring late-term abortions. “You can’t have 40 new pro-life members (of Congress) and not have something to show for it,” he said.

Reed, who is married with three small children, said he is personally opposed to abortion except in cases of rape, incest or endangered life of the mother, and feels strongly in general about the sanctity of human life.

“I was a preemie, born six weeks premature,” he said. “That was in 1961 when a lot of babies born prematurely didn’t survive. I feel pretty strongly personally about the ability of a child to survive outside the womb and that same child having its life taken.”

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Raised in a devout Methodist family, Reed made what he called a faith commitment in 1983, when he was working in Washington for the College Republicans.

“There were some real hard political hacks who were probably skeptical when Ralph went through this,” said Jack Abramoff, Reed’s boss at the time and now a lawyer in Washington. “I thought it would be positive in his life as it has been.”

Reed credits his friendship with Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew, for further sensitizing him to religious bigotry.

“I used to have Shabat dinner at his home,” said Reed, using the Hebrew word for the Sabbath. “I remember one guy who called him a ‘Beverly Hills Jew.’ It was something I saw that was ugly and disturbing.

“I’m trying to create a culture of civility between the different faith traditions--whether they be Jewish, Christian or (Muslim), so that even as we disagree, we need not be disagreeable.”

Reed’s political goals are equally ambitious. In his recently published book, “Politically Incorrect” (Word Publishing, 1994), he wrote that his aim is to turn his movement into “an institutionalized counterbalance to the Establishment left” with 10 million members by the end of the decade, activists in each of the nation’s 175,000 precincts and voter guides for every office in every election.

Can Reed pull it off?

“Ralph Reed is really smart and he is grounded in his Christian faith, but he is living in the world, not in a religious box. That’s what makes him so effective and so dangerous to the left,” said Rep. John Kasich of Pennsylvania, another ascendant Republican.

“Ralph’s awesome.”


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