Ralph Reed is going to own this room. Granted, it’s only a standard-issue campus auditorium at Emory University, half filled at best for the annual Georgia College Republicans convention. But to the former boy wonder of evangelical politics, it looks like heavenly shelter on this drizzly February morning. The Christian Coalition co-founder’s first campaign for public office–lieutenant governor of Georgia, a position Reed and his fans envision as a stepping stone to bigger things–has turned into a waking nightmare. Every week brings a new revelation about the millions in dirty money Reed earned by duping his fellow evangelicals into putting their political muscle behind “Casino Jack” Abramoff’s gambling clients. Reed’s huge leads in both popularity polls and fundraising have almost disappeared. Instead of making his triumphant debut as a politician, the man Time magazine called “The Right Hand of God” is fast becoming the new poster boy for Christian-right corruption.

But here, Reed expects a hero’s welcome. As an undergraduate dynamo at the University of Georgia in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Reed turned the Georgia CRs into a political machine that helped elect the state’s first Republican US senator since Reconstruction. “Tricky Ralph,” as he was known on campus, went on to make a similar splash with the national CRs, teaming with the equally tricky pair of Abramoff, who was national CR chairman in the early 1980s, and Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform is also caught up in the scandal.

Those associations go unmentioned in the introductory roll call of achievements that Reed listens to, beaming, before he bounds up to the podium, spreading wide his Howdy Doody grin. “It’s great to be back home,” he chirps, fondly recalling how in 1980 he ran a mock campus election in which Ronald Reagan surprisingly beat President Jimmy Carter, Georgia’s native son–and timed the results perfectly for maximum impact. “Right before Ronald Reagan walked out on stage for his one and only debate against President Carter,” he says, “they distributed a news release announcing Reagan’s victory in Georgia!”

This is vintage Reed, the incorrigibly boastful, smooth-talking operator who long dazzled–and blinded–evangelical Christians, big-money Republicans and mainstream journalists. Now 44, he still looks like a million bucks, his elfin face perma-tanned to a brick red, his pencil-thin body subtly bulked out by a well-tailored suit. Only one thing is missing: applause. Maybe some CRs know the real history of that 1980 mock election from Nina Easton’s book Gang of Five, in which Reed’s first big political triumph is revealed to have been rigged–his first notable act of mass deception. Maybe they’re just waiting for Reed to finally offer a satisfying explanation of his star turn in the Abramoff scandal. But his mea culpa smacks more of false piety than genuine gut-spilling.

“I was approached in 1999 by a friend that I met in the College Republicans,” says Reed. “He said, ‘There’s an effort to bring five new casino-style operations to Alabama. Would you be willing to help us stop them?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I would. I’m opposed to casino gambling expansion, but I can only do it if I won’t be paid with revenues from other casinos.'” Before the kids get a chance to chew on that, Reed quickly offers a Nixonian apology before sliding into spin mode. “If I had known then what I know now, I would have turned that work down. But I will tell you that the work that I did either prevented from opening, or closed, eight gambling casinos, and we will never know how many marriages and lives were saved by the work that I did.”

The Georgia CRs finally give Reed a polite hand for his creative stab at self-redemption. A few awkward minutes later, Reed is climbing the steps toward the exit, wearing an iron-willed smile while making an elaborate show of “gripping and grinning,” even though only a few hands reach out to him. It’s one more sign of his mounting desperation to project the air of a winner–a desperation that led to embarrassment in January, when Reed’s campaign offered $20 and a free hotel stay to supporters who would attend the Georgia Christian Coalition’s annual convention and cheer for the man who invented the coalition.

When he announced his candidacy last spring, Reed figured that his biggest challenge would be winning over moderate, “party regular” Republicans who worried he might be too far right to win a general election. But the Abramoff scandal has forced him to fight for votes he should have been able to take for granted–especially those of Christian conservatives. Reed’s struggle to hold on to their loyalty has given this lieutentant governor’s race a rare national significance. Judgment day in Georgia, July 18, when Republicans cast their primary votes, is shaping up as a crucial test of how Christian conservatives will respond to their leaders’ entanglement in the ugliest corruption scandal since Teapot Dome. In the words of Georgia native Ed Kilgore, vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Reed has become “the Abramoff mine canary.”

It’s easy to see why. As executive director of the Christian Coalition from its founding in 1989 till his departure in 1997, Reed got–and took–the lion’s share of credit for transforming the politically unsophisticated evangelical right into a disciplined Republican Party machine. “Ralph Reed symbolizes the rise of the Christian right to political power,” says Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. “He became the story of the movement–the face and voice for those millions of conservative Christians in the mainstream press. Now he’s becoming a symbol of what’s gone awry.”

Last June Georgia’s former GOP House minority leader, Bob Irvin, blasted Reed in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed. “His M.O. is to tell evangelical Christians that his cause of the moment, for which he has been hired, is their religious duty,” Irvin fumed. “As an evangelical myself, I resent Christianity being used simply to help Reed’s business.”

Irvin’s dart went straight to the heart of the matter. While grassroots organizing has been the key to lifting evangelicals to power in the GOP, the movement’s political model has mostly mirrored the traditional hierarchy of churches, with trusted leaders setting the tone and issuing marching orders to their foot soldiers. What if the generals–the Reeds and James Dobsons–are proven to care more about power and money than stamping out abortion or homosexuality? The damage to evangelical politics would clearly be immense. So would the damage to the Republican Party, which cannot carry a national election without the full enthusiasm and participation of the evangelical troops.

“Think what will happen on Election Day when 2 to 3 percent of the previously most passionate Republicans stay home,” Joseph Farah, editor and publisher of the right-wing WorldNetDaily, warned in January. “Think of what it will mean when 20 to 30 percent of the grassroots activists Republicans have counted on to work for them don’t show up.”

Other evangelical leaders and allies are taking their hits in L’Affaire Abramoff–former House majority leader Tom DeLay, in particular, along with antigay crusader Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and right-wing Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, both of whom allegedly took money from Abramoff client eLottery to help defeat a federal ban on Internet gambling. But Reed’s involvement runs the deepest and broadest by far. And the particulars of his cloak-and-dagger activities strike the evangelical political movement straight in the gut.

From 1999 to 2002 Reed’s Georgia-based consulting firm, Century Strategies, set up “anti-gambling” coalitions in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas to oppose proposed new casinos (and in one case to shut down an existing one). Reed convinced dozens of influential pastors in those states, along with some of the biggest national names on the evangelical right–Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer, Donald Wildmon, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson–to mobilize their flocks in a series of successful anti-casino campaigns. The front groups Reed established, with upright names like Citizens Against Legalized Gambling, organized religious rallies, sent out mass mailings decrying the evils of wagering and flooded legislators and state officials with thousands of calls from concerned Christians.

These were the same techniques Reed had groomed to perfection in his Christian Coalition days–the same techniques that groups like Dobson’s Focus on the Family continue to use on issues ranging from abortion restrictions to Senate filibusters. But this time, the concerned Christians were unwittingly doing the bidding of gambling interests–of Abramoff’s Indian casino clients, who were forking over millions to fend off competitors.

In Texas alone, Reed reportedly raked in more than $4 million for organizing fake anti-gambling campaigns and strong-arming Republican officials while failing to register with the state as a lobbyist, a criminal offense. (He also failed to register for his clandestine lobbying efforts on behalf of another Abramoff client, Channel One, the in-school network loathed by “pro-family” conservatives.) Three public-interest groups in Texas filed a complaint against Reed in December for failing to register his lobbying; he could have been jailed for up to one year if convicted. But in March prosecutor David Escamilla declined to pursue the investigation, citing a two-year statute of limitations in the Texas lobbying law. By hiding his activities cannily enough that it took three years to expose them, Reed squirmed out of trouble on a technicality.

But the fallout from Reed’s “anti-gambling” efforts has already flattened the once mighty Texas Christian Coalition. The equally powerful Christian Coalition of Alabama, which helped Reed fend off video poker and state lottery bills in 1999 and 2000–spending some $850,000 that has now been traced back to the casino-owning Mississippi Band of Choctaws–has also fallen into a tailspin, with its most popular political champion, former “Ten Commandments Judge” Roy Moore, trailing by almost thirty percentage points in the GOP primary race for governor.

Reed has denied from the start that he knew Abramoff was paying him with gambling money. But their e-mail exchanges, made public by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, indicate that Reed knew where his bread was being buttered. In a 1999 e-mail Abramoff asked him to “get me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP.” In 2000 Abramoff told Reed, “The firm has held back all payments pending receipt of a check from Choctaw.” The correspondence also shows that Reed played an active role in diverting tribal money through faux Christian-right groups like the US Family Network. Rather than receive his payoffs directly from Abramoff, or from the casino-owning tribes he represented, Reed made sure his checks came from pure-sounding sources. (“That’s sometimes called laundering,” Senator Byron Dorgan archly commented during Indian Affairs hearings last spring.) So byzantine was the whole arrangement that it sounds almost farcical in a 2001 message from Abramoff explaining a delay in paying Reed: “The originating entity had to transfer to a separate account before they transferred it to the entity which is going to transfer it to you.”

While the Abramoff scandals are plenty damning on their own, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered a pattern of similar instances in which Reed “tapped into his vast network of conservative religious activists” to do the bidding of big-money clients. In one example from 1998 Reed concocted the Alliance of Christian Ministries in China, a group of missionary organizations supporting favorable trade status for China purportedly to benefit efforts to spread the Gospel there. But the alliance turned out to be an empty shell, serving the interests of Reed clients, including Boeing, which hoped to sell $120 billion worth of airplanes to China. Like his efforts on behalf of the Indian casinos, Reed’s pro-China lobbying was not just dishonest but hypocritical to boot. Just as he often preached against the “nationwide scourge” of gambling, Reed had spoken out consistently against favorable trade status for China. “We believe that human and civil rights and religious freedom and liberty should be at the center of our foreign policy,” he piously declared at a 1997 Christian Coalition press conference, just one year before setting up the phony alliance. “We believe that if the United States makes the center of its foreign policy profits rather than people, and money rather than human rights, then we will have lost our soul as a nation.”

Given the Reed scandal’s potential to erode evangelicals’ faith in politics, it’s no surprise that the main reaction among movement leaders has thus far been “an embarrassing silence,” to quote Ken Connor, the former head of Dobson’s Family Research Council. Even Richard Land, the normally forthcoming Southern Baptist powerhouse, has been rendered speechless. (“Dr. Land has decided to pass on this topic,” his spokeswoman told The Nation after first agreeing to an interview.) President Bush’s staff has gone to considerable lengths to keep Reed, who chaired the Bush/Cheney campaign in the Southeast in 2004, safely away from the President–and from a photo op Reed desperately needs–during his most recent appearances in Georgia. One notable exception to the official silence has been Marvin Olasky, a longtime Texas adviser of Bush who literally wrote the book on “compassionate conservatism.” Olasky, editor of the most popular organ of the evangelical right, World magazine, has been outspoken in his view that Reed “has damaged Christian political work by confirming for some the stereotype that evangelicals are easily manipulated and that evangelical leaders use moral issues to line their pockets.” World reporter Jamie Dean has filed a series of fearless Reed exposes, causing a sensation in the evangelical community. Her dogged questioning of Christian-right leaders whom Reed dragged into his “anti-gambling” campaigns inspired sharp criticism from the most powerful of them all, Focus on the Family leaders Dobson and Tom Minnery, in a February radio broadcast. “They have a reporter who wanted me to dump on Ralph Reed,” said an exasperated Minnery, explaining why he refused to answer questions from World.

Nobody has nailed the discomfort better than Reed’s old cohort Pat Robertson. “You know that song about the Rhinestone Cowboy,” he told The New York Times last April as the Abramoff-Reed connections began to go public. “‘There’s been a load of compromising on the road to my horizon.’ The Bible says you can’t serve God and Mammon.” Robertson has subsequently fallen quiet on the matterperhaps because he knows that a willingness to serve both God and Mammon has been indispensable to the success of evangelical politics. It’s the very glue that holds together the awkward marriage of Christian moralism and high-rolling Republicanism.

“Historically, many conservative Christians were not involved in politics because they saw it as inherently corrupt,” says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That all began to change in the 1970s and ’80s when preachers like Robertson and Falwell joined “pro-family” conservatives like Dobson, Schlafly and Tim LaHaye in popularizing the opposite idea: that it was actually a Christian’s duty to participate in politics. And not just participate: win. But the only way for evangelical activists to win, at least in the short term while they remained a minority, was to team up with more secular allies–“co-belligerents,” in the term coined by Francis Schaeffer, one of the most influential apostles of this new effort to remake America into a “Christian nation.”

More powerfully than any other figure, Ralph Reed embodied–and promoted–this odd new alchemy of godliness and hardball politics. To both the Christian-right soldiers and the money masters of the GOP, Reed’s slick style and winning ways offered living, breathing assurance that Christians could play power politics with the same ruthless efficacy as anybody else. But right from the get-go there was a dark undercurrent that troubled some in the movement. The Christian Coalition made an immediate splash in several local and statewide elections in 1990 and 1992, but did it largely by means of deception–among other things, allegedly using churches as political headquarters and spending tax-exempt funds for partisan purposes. Candidates were advised to hide their social views. The coalition’s famous voter guides distorted some Democratic candidates’ records to make them look “anti-family.” “It’s like guerrilla warfare,” Reed boasted to a reporter in 1992. “If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings. It’s better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night.”

Reed’s bellicose comments and shady tactics stirred whispers about the sincerity of his Christian conversion. (Like Tom DeLay, he told a sketchy story of being “born again” in the mid-1980s, just in time for the rise of Christian right politics.) Even Reed’s own mother, Marcy, confessed to a reporter, “I used to tell people he was going to be either President of the United States or Al Capone.” It was widely suspected that Reed grossly exaggerated both the coalition’s membership numbers (apparently closer to 600,000 at its peak, rather than the 1.7 million he claimed) and the distribution of its voter guides (often found discarded in bundles). When Reed hastily exited the coalition in 1997–leaving it to flounder under a cloud of lawsuits from disgruntled employees, federal investigations into illegal ties with the Republican Party and declining membership–the whispers grew louder. But never loud enough to wreck his reputation as the prince of evangelical politics.

“He got a pretty easy pass on any questions of hypocrisy,” says Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University professor who’s followed the movement from its inception. “There’s been a tendency to say, ‘I worry that he might be fudging the corners, but I’m not gonna look. He’s doing too much good for our cause.'”

Now it’s virtually impossible to look away. Underneath the official silence, the lobbying scandals have revived many evangelicals’ old qualms. “So far, it hasn’t risen to a level where it would deactivate the Christian right,” says Green. “But for the first time in a long time, when I’m talking to my evangelical friends, I keep hearing: ‘My preacher used to say when I was growing up that we ought to stay out of politics because it was dirty. You know, he was right.'”

For years now, evangelical leaders have been asserting, as Reed writes in his 1996 manifesto, Active Faith, that there is “no biblical basis” for seeing politics as inherently corrupt. Now the likes of Olasky and Connor are reminding the faithful that the Bible does have a few things to say on the subject. “As early as the eighth century B.C., the prophet Isaiah railed against bribery and corruption in the public square,” Connor wrote recently in BP (Baptist Press) News. “In levying his indictment against the nation of Judah and forecasting the judgment of God, Isaiah complained, ‘Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.'”

The miraculous news from Georgia is that Ralph Reed still has a decent shot at getting himself elected lieutenant governor. His Republican primary opponent, State Senator Casey Cagle, continues to trail in the polls–though just barely–after a full year of sensational revelations that would have long since demolished most politicians’ chances. “Reed has to figure, if he’s still competitive in the race, after all that’s already come out, he’s got a good chance to win,” says Wilcox.

If he does pull it off, it will mostly be a tribute to the persistence of evangelicals’ “see no evil” attitude toward their political leaders. The Republican Party leadership in Georgia, for its part, has tried everything short of paid political assassination to force Reed out of the race. In February twenty-one of thirty-four Republican state senators took the unprecedented step of signing a letter publicly urging Reed–who steered the party to historic victories as state chairman in 2002–to withdraw his candidacy “for the good of the Republican Party.” As the GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor, they fear he would drag down their other candidates for statewide office, including incumbent Governor Sonny Perdue, who faces a tough match-up in November with either the current lieutenant governor, Mark Taylor, or the secretary of state, Cathy Cox. There’s been a low rumble of rumors that Reed will pull out in late April, when Georgia candidates officially file for office during “candidate qualifying week.” But few believe them. “He really can’t afford not to stay in,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “He’s getting terrible press everywhere, and his consulting business is in bad shape. If he wins, it would raise his stock again. He can say, ‘Look, the people who know me best voted for me.'”

Evangelical leaders in Georgia have mostly remained supportive of their tarnished idol. “He’s stood for our issues. He’s not wavered,” Christian Coalition chair Sadie Fields told the Journal-Constitution. “It was important for us to hear him say, ‘I shouldn’t have done it,'” said Tim Echols, a popular Christian right leader who runs a youth group called TeenPact, which served as the venue in December for Reed to issue his first semi-apology for his casino lobbying. Maurice Atkinson, vice chair of the Gibb County Republican Party and former supporter of Reed, appears to be in the minority with his view: “I believe in grace, but I also believe in accountability.”

“His biggest problem is not the Christian right but Republican regulars who view him as a carpetbagger,” says the DLC’s Kilgore. Cagle is trying to capitalize on Reed’s national notoriety, regularly reminding folks while campaigning, “I’m not a lobbyist. I don’t spend my time in Washington.” A 40-year-old businessman and “seventh-generation North Georgian” with the deep drawl and aw-shucks manner to prove it, Cagle makes a vivid contrast to Reed’s GQ glitz and accent-free news anchor’s voice. His voting record is staunchly right-wing, too, including a near-perfect rating from the Christian Coalition of Georgia. “This isn’t an ideological primary,” says Kilgore. “Casey Cagle is just as crazy as Reed is.” Which means that Georgia voters should steel themselves for Reed to, as he likes to say, “open the bomb bays” in a fiercely negative campaign against Cagle.

Reed also has to make himself look just as authentically Georgian as his opponent, which might be the toughest trick of all. At every campaign stop, in every piece of campaign literature, Reed repeats the new mantra of his embattled campaign: “Growing up in the North Georgia mountains, I learned the values that matter most–faith, family, freedom and hard work.”

But Reed did not grow up in the North Georgia mountains. As he writes in Active Faith, “It all began in Miami, where I grew up. My childhood was hardly spent in the Bible Belt.” Reed’s family didn’t move to Georgia until he was in his mid-teens. And when they did, as Nina Easton reports in Gang of Five, Reed was considered a “fast-talking Miami smart aleck” in Toccoa, the tiny mountain town where they settled. Even his best friend there, Donald Singer, remembered Reed showing “no demeanor of civility,” his abrasive personality constantly clashing with the native Southerners around him.

At first blush it seems like a mighty inauspicious time for Ralph Reed, friend of Abramoff, to be fudging a fact as basic as where he comes from. But then again, why not? His whole unlikely career has been built on a foundation of fudges and falsehoods. And every step of the way, so far, he has found safe harbor and giddy encouragement in a strange community of politicized moralists who see no evil when it’s on their side.