Saturday, April 22, 2006

Politics and Evangelican Fundamentalism

SPECIAL ISSUE: POLITICS AND EVANGELICAL FUNDAMENTALISM

This article is based on, "The Devil Inside: Ralph Reed Hits the
Evangelical Movement in the Gut,
" by Bob Moser, in the April 17, 2006 issue of the Nation.

Ralph Reed is the "former boy-wonder of evangelical politics" and a Christian Coalition co-founder. Lieutenant governor of Georgia is a position that Reed and his fellow extremists see as a jewel. For it is movement towards still higher positions in government. But their political movement has recently turned into a "living nightmare." Millions of dollars of dirty money was obtained by Reed-- by lying to other evangelicals. For he tricked them into supporting the crooked "Casino Jack" Abramoff. Reed's former extraordinary advantages with Christians have exploded and collapsed disastrously. His economic empire has also vaporized. He does not celebrate new conquests as a politician, as he had hoped. Instead, his corruption is being revealed publicly and nakedly, so that he can no longer hide it. This is "Christian" and rightwing corruption.

Reed formerly transformed the Georgia Christian right into a ruthless political machine. It made possible Georgia's Republican senator. Reed also joined forces with the dishonest Abramoff and Grover Norquist. The latter's Americans for Tax Reform is also smothered with scandal.

Reed is notorious for his arrogance and conceit, as well as his artificial "Howdy Doody grin.” He is described, in the article, as an "incorrigibly boastful, smooth-talking operator." It is said that he "dazzled--and blinded-- evangelical Christians." He also misled wealthy Republican supporters and newspeople.

But now, in his shame, all the accolade and applause are gone. He lives in humiliated embarrassment at the continuing revelations of his thievery. In Nina Easton's book Gang of Five, his first win in politics is shown to have been faked. The article calls it "mass deception." It is suggested that still-gullible followers are awaiting some halfway-convincing explanation for his decline and fall. But even his admissions seem more like self-serving phony religiosity than true confessions.

He claimed to have aided in the prevention of five new casino-operations in Alabama in 1999. He claimed to have been totally opposed to casino-gambling operations. His major challenge now seems to be to find ways to appear, as a loser, to be a "winner." The article calls this attempt "self-redemption." These attempts are accompanied by a masklike "iron-willed smile." He even stooped to paying people twenty dollars and a free hotel room to attend a Georgia Christian coalition convention. This, and similar antics, expose his "mounting desperation."

The Abramoff scandal has coerced him to have to struggle for votes of even Christian conservatives. His "entanglement in the ugliest corruption scandal since Teapot Dome" is spoiling any hope for a decent reputation, soiling his future as well as his past.

Reed was executive director of the Christian Coalition from 1989-1997. He took the "lion's share" of personal fame and other percs for having turned around the uneducated and unworldly evangelical right. He polished and honed it into a restructured "Republican Party machine." While he used to symbolize, even embody, the political power-lust of the "Christian" right, he now represents only many screw-ups that he has made.

His m.o. is the same as that of Muslim and other extremists: He tells people that his causes are their religious duty-- pointed out by Georgia's former GOP House minority leader, Bob Irvin, in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed. While small groups of activists started as grass-roots gatherings, the movement became quickly organized along exactly the same lines as a church. Leaders at the top are supposed to be blindly trusted to be "good and wholesome" men-- and they are not. So, the "war" can be only as good as its generals; when they are rotten, so is the whole cause. Leaders such as Reed and Dobson have proved beyond any doubt, by their actions, that money and power are so much more important than the people-- or their issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. The corrosive effect on the cause of Christian politics has begun to eat away at its very foundation. Since they are many, they also threaten the Republican Party. As many as twenty percent might not even show for an election, if they are not being positively energized. And they are not; they are being discouraged.

The leaders are crumbling. Anti-gay crusader Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and right-wing Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition both allegedly took money from Abramoff. He gave them bribes from eLottery. His purpose was to defeat a federal ban on Internet gambling.

But Reed is much more deeply entangled in such lies and bribery. And his "cloak-and-dagger activities" strike the evangelicals like a knife in the "gut."

From 1999-2002, Reed's consulting firm, Century Strategies, set up "anti-gambling" coalitions in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. These were ostensibly to oppose new casinos. Reed convinced a swarm of pastors, along with national names on the evangelical right-- James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer, Donald Wildmon, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson-- in a series of anti-casino campaigns. Reed established a few "front" groups. They had wholesome names such as Citizens Against Legalized Gambling. They organized rallies, and sent out mass mailings. They moaned and bitched about the evils of gambling. They also flooded legislators and state officials with thousands of calls. These were the same techniques that Reed had groomed so finely in his Christian Coalition days. They were also the same methods that Dobson's Focus on the Family use against abortion. But now, Christians were, in ignorance, serving and supporting gambling. They were doing the will of Abramoff. For his Indian casino clients were spending their millions to defeat competitors.

Reed grabbed more than $4 million in Texas alone. All this fortune, stolen from Christians, was used to organize phony anti-gambling campaigns. It was also spent to intimidate Republican officials. Reed criminally refused to register with the state as a lobbyist-- a criminal offense. He also refused to register for his secret, hidden lobbying efforts on behalf of another Abramoff client, Channel One. This was the in-school network despised and hated by "pro-family" conservatives. (Three public-interest groups filed a complaint against Reed for failing to register his lobbying. He could have been sent to prison for a year if convicted. But because he had manipulated nondisclosure, evasion, and secrecy, Reed managed to wiggle out of trouble on a technicality.
The article continues with the summary, "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 has also been sunk by hypocrisy and lying. It had helped Reed "defeat" video poker and state lottery bills (1999-2000). Reed spent $850,000. All this dirty money has now been traced back to the casino-owning Mississippi Band of Choctaws. It has also created political waves. Its most popular champion, "Ten Commandments Judge" Roy Moore, trails by almost thirty percentage points in the GOP race for governor.

Reed has, since the beginning, denied that he knew that Abramoff was paying him with gambling money. But their e-mail exchanges show that Reed knew all along. The records also prove that Reed diverted tribal money through faux Christian-right groups. These included the US Family Network.

He was sneaky. Rather than receive his payoffs from Abramoff, or from the casino-owning tribes, Reed made sure that his checks came from "pure-sounding" sources (money-laundering).

The Abramoff scandals are damning. But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has exposed a pattern of even more comparable instances. In these, Reed "tapped into his vast network of conservative religious activists" to serve big-money clients. In one example from 1998 Reed concocted the Alliance of Christian Ministries in China. This was ostensibly a group of missionary orgs supporting favorable trade status for China. It was purportedly to benefit efforts to spread the Gospel there. But the alliance turned out to be a phony and diversion. Its sole purpose was to make more money for Reed and his clients. These included Boeing, which hoped to sell $120 billion worth of airplanes to China. Reed's pro-China lobbying was not just dishonest, but hypocritical. Just as he often preached against the "nationwide scourge" of gambling, Reed had spoken out consistently against favorable trade status for China.

The Reed scandals erode evangelicals' confidence in politics. Their reaction is embarrassed silence. Many have been rendered speechless. Bush's staff has struggled hard to keep Reed away from the president. They have worked to avoid a "photo op."

An exception to the silence is Marvin Olasky. He is a longtime Texas adviser to bush. He literally wrote the book on "compassionate conservatism." He, editor of an evangelical right magazine, is
outspoken. His view is that Reed has harmed Christian politics. Reed has "confirmed" that evangelicals are easily pushed around and that its leaders use "moral issues" to get rich. World reporter Jamie Dean has written fearless exposes, "causing a sensation in the evangelical community." Her dogged questioning of Christian-right leaders inspired sharp criticism. This came from the most closed-minded of them all, Focus on the Family leaders James Dobson and Tom Minnery.

Reed's old cohort Pat Robertson said, "You know that song about the Rhinestone Cowboy? 'There's been a load of compromisin' on the road to my horizon.'" Robertson has now grown suspiciously silent on the matter -- perhaps because he knows that the service of money is absolutely required in "Christian" politics. The article says, "It's the very glue that holds together the awkward marriage of Christian moralism and high-rolling Republicanism."

In history, most Christians avoided politics because it was evil and corrupt. That began to change, for so-called "evangelicals," in the 1970's-1980's. That was the blossoming of hypergreed and its
accompanying lying and hypocrisy, when preachers such as Robertson and Falwell joined "pro-family" conservatives. Many began to popularize the notion that it was a Christian's obligation to participate in politics. Their goal was to win! But the only way for them to win was to join forces with secular allies. Through this, what has been called "co-belligerents," they made an effort to remake America into a "Christian nation."

Ralph Reed embraced this "odd new alchemy of godliness and hardball politics." He appealed strongly to the greed-consumed Christian-right. He also attracted the "fat cat" Republican dollar mongers. Reed's "slick style and winning ways" assured that "Christians" could play heartless "power politics with ruthless efficacy." But there was "a dark undercurrent." The Christian Coalition wrestled some minor victories in 1990 and 1992. But it overcame by duplicity and dissembling. It allegedly used churches as political hubs. And it spent tax-exempt funds for partisan political ends. Candidates were told to hide their views of society and programs. The Coalition's Voter Guides distorted Democratic records to make their candidates appear to be "anti-family."

"It's like guerrilla warfare," Reed boasted to a reporter in 1992. "It's better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night." Reed's "bellicose comments and shady tactics" created great doubts about the reality and sincerity of his so-called "Christian conversion." (Like Tom DeLay, he told an incomplete and vague story of being "born again." This supposedly occurred in the mid-1980's.) Even Reed's own mother confessed to a reporter, "He [Reed] was going to be either President… or Al Capone."

Reed grossly inflated the Coalition's membership numbers (apparently closer to 600,000 at its peak, rather than the 1.7 million that he claimed). He also lied about the distribution of its Voter Guides. These shoddy and tawdry little books were often found discarded in bundles.

Reed beat a hasty retreat from the Coalition in 1997. He left it to flounder under a tsunami of lawsuits from unhappy and frustrated employees. It also wrestled with federal investigations into illegal ties with the Republican Party. And added to all this was a steadily and steeply declining membership.

Reed got away with multitudes of lies, and a mountain of hypocrisy. Many people turn their heads and refuse to look at the facts, because they think that Reed, despite lies, has done "too much good" for the cause of evangelical politics.

The article continues, "Scandals have revived many evangelicals' old qualms." "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."

The Bible does speak of politics. In the eighth century BCE, it spoke against bribery and corruption in the public square. Isaiah complained, "Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts."

If Reed does win the election for lieutenant governor, it will mostly be due to the sheer tenacity of evangelicals' "see no evil" attitude. The Republican Party has tried everything short of paid assassination to force Reed out of the race. In February, twenty-one out of thirty-four Republican state senators signed a letter publicly urging Reed to withdraw his candidacy. As the GOP's nominee for lieutenant governor, he would drag down their other candidates for statewide office. This includes incumbent Governor Sonny Perdue, who faces a tough match-up in November. There are rumors that Reed will pull out in late April. That is when Georgia candidates officially file for office during "candidate qualifying week." "He's getting terrible press everywhere, and his consulting business is in bad shape."

Maurice Atkinson says, "I believe in grace, but I also believe in accountability."

The article continues: "His biggest problem is not the Christian right but Republican regulars who view him as a carpetbagger," says the DLC's Kilgore. [His opponent] 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.
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1 comment:

Steven P. Barrett said...

I consider myself a fairly conservative Christian. However....
There's the small c christianity of the religious wrong and the Large C Christianity that can be found in Scripture and Tradition.

You pegged these phonies right on the money...if you'll pardon my notorious pun. Great chronicle of
these charlatans of counterfreit "christianity."