Is Christian Coalition’s Conversion Real?
When the Christian Coalition declared that it was setting a new course to help the poor and minorities with education, inner-city crime and unemployment, liberal Christians could hardly believe their ears.
There was Ralph Reed--the politically conservative, smooth-talking director of what is arguably the nation’s most effective grass-roots political organization--quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and saying government wasn’t all bad.
His next statement was downright confessional.
“For too long,” Reed said, “our movement has been primarily a white, evangelical movement whose political center of gravity has been the suburbs.”
Now, he vowed, the officially nonpartisan coalition that has mostly backed Republicans was determined to cross the color line and reach out to “our African American and Latino brothers and sisters” in the inner cities.
Has the Christian Coalition--founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson in 1989--undergone a late conversion to the “social Gospel” so long espoused by liberal Christians? Or is this a political ploy to expand the 7-million-member organization’s power and membership?
Reaction from two well-known liberal Christians who have done battle with Reed is cautiously approving.
Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian and political liberal known for his urban ministry and support of social justice causes, not only welcomed Reed’s announcement but said liberal religious groups that quickly dismissed Reed’s proposal as political posturing were wrong in jumping to conclusions.
“We welcome the Christian Coalition’s public commitment to fight poverty and racism,” said Wallis, founder of the Washington-based Sojourners.
In New York, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said she took Reed at his word, based on the Christian Coalition’s political track record.
“They have proposed something fairly ambitious, but they have been fairly consistent in delivering, for better or worse,” Campbell said. “I really expect them to deliver on this.”
Known as the Samaritan Project, the coalition’s package includes legislative goals and outreach programs from its affiliated churches to 1,000 mostly African American and Latino congregations in troubled, inner-city neighborhoods by 2000.
Among new laws sought are a $500 tax credit for charitable giving, and state and federal tax breaks in “empowerment zones” in 100 impoverished communities to encourage the growth of new businesses and employment. Also, “vigorous enforcement” of civil rights laws is encouraged.
Among the proposals are laws allowing “faith-based” drug treatment programs to be eligible for state funding, school vouchers to allow inner-city youngsters to attend better schools and mandatory cooling-off periods before a couple with young children divorce.
The program has been roundly criticized in some religious circles. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance have accused Reed of trying to further a right-wing agenda. Meanwhile, the American Jewish Congress and American Atheists see an attack on the separation of church and state.
But Wallis and Campbell are hopeful that they can work with the coalition, even if they do not always agree on the means to the ends all say they want.
Reed has had at least one conversation with Wallis, who said he plans to ask the Christian Coalition to join in a “Pentecost for the Poor” observance May 18, when participants examine how Scriptural teaching requires them to minister to the poor and powerless.
In the past, Wallis has criticized the Christian Coalition for showing more concern for the unborn, in opposing abortion choice, than for children living in poverty.
Reed told The Times that social liberals like Wallis may have been justified in their criticism.
“If we went out and talked about abortion and divorce and the traditional family and didn’t do anything about those left behind I think we would be open to a legitimate criticism by the left that we had blinders on,” Reed said.
Those blinders, Reed said, started to fall off last year when the Christian Coalition raised funds to help rebuild African American churches burned down by arsonists.
The Rev. Earl Jackson, an African American pastor who oversaw the coalition’s response to the burned churches, recalls a trip last year by Reed to a burned church in Richmond, Va. “Here was our common humanity laid bare,” Jackson said.
Then, in June, Jackson said a summit of coalition leaders and African American pastors in Atlanta left no doubt about the future.
“The moment was so pregnant with poignancy and emotion and connections between people,” Jackson said, “that all that other stuff--conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat--just dissipated. All that was left was human beings expressing deep concern for one another.
“I think that was a kind of epiphany. There’s no question in my mind that was a transforming moment,” he said.
Said Reed, “Once we built this relationship, we realized if the church-burning issue is largely over, do we just stop or do we take the next step? We decided that it was our moral obligation to take the next step.”
It might just be a smart move, according to Martin Marty of the University of Chicago and a leading authority on American religion.
“I think it’s at the stage at which Reed and the Christian Coalition can make this move at no expense to themselves. Twenty or forty years ago this would have been fatal,” Marty said. “At that time, very few people in his constituency would ever have said a good word for Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights movement.
“Things have moved to the point now where the Christian Coalition . . . can take this stand without expense. Nobody is going to drop out of the coalition because Reed says let’s coalesce with black leaders. Both as Christians--and as tacticians--they would say that is fine.”
Whatever skepticism remains, Reed insists that the Samaritan Project will someday be viewed as a defining moment in the political maturing of his organization, whose early growth relied heavily on campaigns against abortion rights and homosexuals in the military.
“When historians look back on the growth and the maturation of the religious conservative movement,” Reed said, “the unveiling of the Samaritan Project will be a watershed moment.”
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