Ralph Reed’s exile from the power structure of Washington is officially over. Damaged badly in the Abramoff lobbying scandal in 2005, Reed flexed his rehabilitated political muscle this weekend as his new Christian right group—the Faith and Freedom Coalition—held a gathering at a downtown hotel that attracted almost every bright light in the Republican Party.
Attendees paid $110 to see a stunning lineup of conservative political elite, plus a fancy gala dinner on the final night. Those considered to be presidential material came to woo the crowd: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and even Donald Trump. Heavyweights in Congress appeared as well—House Speaker John Boehner, majority leader Eric Cantor, budget guru Paul Ryan (and his staff director), head of the National Republican Campaign Committee Representative Pete Sessions, along with a litany of lower-ranking members.
The head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, delivered a long speech. Strategists like Grover Norquist, Dick Morris, Frank Luntz, and the leaders of several national Tea Party organizations made appearances.
Powerful Christian right leaders also enjoyed prominent speaking slots: Gary Bauer of American Values, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Liberty Coalition, and David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting network all showed up.
In short, almost every appendage of the Republican political body was present. It was an enormous coup for Reed, officially announcing his return to the political forefront—something many thought impossible. They were not sufficiently cynical about Washington’s short memory.
Things got rough for Reed in 2005, when investigators revealed his involvement Jack Abramoff’s massive illegal lobbying racket. Up until then, Reed had been an essential player in Republican politics. As the head of the Christian Coalition, he graced the cover of Time in May 1995 under the headline “The Right Hand of God.” He went on to advise the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign and served as the southeast director for the 2004 effort.
When the Abramoff scandal exploded, however, e-mails revealed that Reed had taken millions from the disgraced lobbyist and used the money to mobilize Christian voters in Alabama against Indian casinos and state lotteries that were competing with Abramoff’s other Indian clients. Aside from potential illegality, the episode seemed to permanently damage Reed’s basic credibility—Christian Coalition faithful weren’t being mobilized to protect the word of God but were being exploited in service of Reed’s petty greed.
But if there was one Christian principle on display at Faith and Freedom 2011, it was forgiveness. None of the speakers nor attendees appeared bothered by Reed’s transgressions. Speeches frequently began with praise of Reed—Cantor thanked him for “standing up for the greatness of American during these difficult times.” That’s particularly forgiving praise, since Reed was connected to a campaign to destroy Cantor during the 2000 Republican primary for his seat—an effort described as “despicable, underground [and] unquestionably anti-Semitic.” Similarly, Barbour has apparently forgiven Reed for attacking him at the behest of Abramoff in 2002.
It would be hard for most of the politicians at Faith and Freedom 2011 to hold Reed in contempt for dressing up his own narrow priorities in Christian language, however—that’s also what they were there to do. For two days, speakers gamely tried to paint Republican policy priorities and Biblical principles as inextricably linked.
Paul Ryan, for example, defended his Medicare-killing budget and small-government ethos by explaining that “our rights are not given to us from government—our rights are ours naturally, given by God.” After Ryan spoke, Tony Perkins informed the crowd that single mothers were the largest voting bloc in favor of a welfare state.
Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and failed 2006 Senate candidate, told a Friday afternoon breakout session that “religious liberty, economic freedom and political freedom are inextricably linked. Their common enemy is bloated, intrusive, big government.... When you begin to let moral relativism bleed into the marketplace, bleed into the public square and become controlling, government replaces God.” Blackwell, a board member of the corporate-funded Club for Growth, was there to promote his balanced budget proposal that would cap federal spending as a fixed percentage of GDP and prohibit any federal tax increase unless two-thirds of both the House and Senate agreed.
The anti–big government rhetoric was a bit out of sync with pledges from government officials to use their political power to create a more Christian country, as they define it. Bachmann—who received probably the most raucous reception, and closed her speech with a two-minute prayer “on behalf of our nation”—moved seamlessly from an angry attack on government intrusion and “Obamacare” to promoting her work getting a bill passed in Minnesota that prohibited gay marriage.
The real purpose of Faith and Freedom 2011 was defeating President Obama in 2012—"one-term president" was possibly the most-issued phrase from the podium. Everything else, including matters of faith, was incidental. This point was driven home by a handful of liberal clergy who gathered for a small press conference Friday afternoon in a restaurant near the hotel. “I know Ralph Reed,” said Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, a progressive Christian group. “I know Ralph Reed as a political operative. A political operative of the Republican Party. That’s what that is over there—that is a political gathering of a political party.”
Wallis and the other faith leaders there were promoting a much different faith-based message than Reed’s confab, though the hordes of mainstream media cameras and reporters didn’t manage to make it across the street for their event. “A nation is judged—our Bible says—by how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable. Period,” Wallis said. “That’s what God says to us. That’s God’s instruction to us. To be faithful to God, we have to protect poor people.”
James Salt, a member of that coalition and of Catholics United, attempted to give Paul Ryan a Bible with passages about the poor underlined as Ryan left the hotel after his speech. “He just laughed and walked away,” Salt told me afterwards. Meanwhile, CNN has already dubbed Reed an “evangelical whisperer” that is a new “political powerhouse.”