Ralph Reed At the Helm of the Religious Right, Again

June 3, 2011 note: I’m live-tweeting the conference if you want to follow.

The New York Times previews Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, which is taking place here in Washington tomorrow and Saturday, by describing it as Reed’s “revival.” Despite Reed’s past ethical problems, most notably his involvement in Jack Abramoff’s double-crossing of religious right groups, the resurrected hero suggests to the Times that conservative operatives came calling, saying that the GOP hasn’t had as good a grassroots operations as when Reed ran the Christian Coalition.

Mr. Reed is pursuing these grand, some say grandiose, plans with a nonprofit group that he has described as “a 21st-century version of the Christian Coalition on steroids.” As the name implies, the Faith and Freedom Coalition hopes to rope in a broader constituency. His “sweet spot,” he says, is the millions of people who were fired up by the fiscal concerns of the Tea Party and share the cultural values of evangelicals.

“That’s our market,” he added.

In spotting that sweet spot in early 2010, I found that the alliance had not quite yet gelled, but that Reed was probably the best positioned religious right player to make it happen:

As early as 1993, Reed had been pushing the religious right to broaden its appeal, arguing that it “has limited its effectiveness by concentrating disproportionately on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.” Now—as his business partner Tim Phillips heads up tea party astroturf group Americans for Prosperity—he’s burrowing for an opening to convince activists that social and economic issues are linked. He recently described an overlap between tea party activists and his organization on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

When I wrote that piece in March 2010, Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State predicted that Reed’s new organization would not overtake the dominance of Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council. At the inaugural Faith and Freedom conference, held last September just one week before Perkins’ Values Voters Summit, the turnout was comparatively paltry. But Reed told me that the two groups had “synergy,” and that FFC does something FRC doesn’t: voter mobilization.

After the 2010 midterms, Reed boasted of the role evangelicals played in Republican victories, often seen as Tea Party victories. He claimed at a post-election press conference that these voters do not “disaggregate” their concerns over abortion, taxes, or the role of government. “They’re believers in the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said, “their worldview is the prism through which they view every issue.”

After the press conference, I asked Reed what he meant by “Christian worldview,” particularly how it applied to the right’s insistence on “limited government.” He said he would not go so far as to say that what he believes is a constitutional imperative for “limited government” derived from Romans 13 (laying out particular roles for government, church, and family, according to many on the religious right). instead, he claimed that the Founders “believed that America would succeed or fail based on whether it as a civiliation was based on biblical principles.” The black regiment, he said, pastors of revolutionary times that Glenn Beck has fancied emulating, “believed very strongly that a society ordered on Christian principles was a society that would prosper and a society that was not was destined to fail.” And contemporary pastors (and evangelicals) of this stripe, he said, believe that the current federal government is “overreaching.”

There’s no mistaking Reed’s effort as one to tie the Tea Party movement and the religious right—already closely intertwined—together. Reed’s mission, as he perceives it, is to amplify that the religious right is still very focused on abortion and gay marriage, but also on a quintessentially anti-government, corporate-minded “Christian” or “biblical” view of the role of government in caring for its citizens (that is, fend for yourselves, and ask your church to help you out in a pinch). In this view, very much like the one Rand Paul articulated when he was running for Senate, everything would be just fine if everyone were good Christians—and who would need health care, or Medicare, or regulation of lobbying or corporations with good Christians like Ralph Reed around?

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email