WASHINGTON, D.C. – When the Faith and Freedom Coalition kicks off its annual conference on Friday with a who's who lineup of conservative political speakers, it will be a coming out for a little-known organization aiming to become a powerful new force of the religious right.
Almost every single Republican who has either announced a presidential primary run or is expected to do so will attend the group's two-day event in Washington, D.C.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who announced his presidential bid on Thursday, will speak at the conference on Friday. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain will all attend as well.
In addition, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and real estate magnate Donald Trump, both of whom called off any plans to run for the presidency, will make their cases about the nation's moral and political direction at what has quickly become one of the most talked-about gatherings of Christian conservatives in the country. And on Thursday, TV host Glenn Beck joined the schedule.
Notably absent from the conference will be Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and Southern Baptist-turned-Catholic from Georgia who announced his candidacy in May. Gingrich was originally supposed to attend but said though a spokesman that he had a scheduling conflict. Also absent: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Tea Party favorite who does not appear to be running, despite having launched a bus tour across the eastern U.S. this week.
Despite its conference's name-brand lineup and despite being the brainchild of political strategist Ralph Reed –- who led the influential Christian Coalition in the 1990s and later floundered during a failed state election bid after revelations of his close ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff –- the Faith and Freedom Coalition faces significant challenges.
In an era of Tea Party politics and waning influence of the “old guard” of the religious right, such as Reed mentor Pat Robertson, the conservative Christian political landscape is more complicated than it was in 1995, when Reed made the cover of Time Magazine for his outsized influence among politicians and the electorate. At the time, his group had 1.6 million active supporters and $25 million that it used to send out hundreds of thousands of voter guides. It focused on issues such as homosexuality, abortion, the support of prayer in schools, deregulation and welfare reform.
“There has been a generational change among Evangelicals,” said Randall Balmer, a Columbia University professor who studies American religious history. “This younger generation has a much broader spectrum that they care about: war, torture, AIDS, poverty, the environment.”
Generally defined, Evangelicals are Christians who believe that the Bible is God's word (to be read with varying degrees of literal interpretation), that there is a biblical imperative to spread the gospel and in centrality of conversion or a “born again” experience. When former ABC pollster Gary Langer analyzed state exit polls in 2008, he found that 44 percent of Republican presidential primary voters were people who called themselves evangelical Christians.
“A Republican cannot capture the White House without wooing conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants” said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist who authored Faith in the Halls of Power, a book about Evangelicals in politics. “But Reed needs to see how to take the energy and the fire in the belly of the Tea Party activists, which is largely a quasi-libertarian, fiscally conservative movement, and broaden it to appeal to the moral and social issues that are important to Evangelicals.”
A February analysis from the Pew Forum showed that most people who agree with the traditional moral positions of the Religious Right support the Tea Party as well, but it also indicated that the two groups are not synonymous. The report cited a Pew poll which showed that 46 percent of Tea Party supporters hadn't heard of or had no opinion about the Religious Right. Yet the same poll revealed that Tea Party supporters were still more likely than the overall public to say “religious beliefs” were the biggest influence on their views about same-sex marriage and abortion. The demographic overwhelmingly opposed both.
In a clear sign of the Faith and Freedom Coalition's attempt to woo Tea Party voters, it has invited several Tea Party groups to the conference this weekend, including Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group that has 2,800 local affiliates. Representatives from Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity, and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List will also attend.
Reed, who did not return requests for comments for this article, posted an open letter in the conference program that outlined his far-reaching goals.
“In 2012 we will mail, phone, and text an estimated 29 million Tea Party and pro-family voters and distribute 35 million voter guides to turn out the largest conservative vote in a presidential election in the modern era,” he wrote. “That is just the beginning. We will not rest until America is restored to greatness through a return to its founding principles."
To achieve these goals, Reed will need lots of money.
“Reed had a very different task in the late 1980s and 1990s,” when Robertson asked him to take over the Christian Coalition after the televangelist's failed 1988 bid for the presidency, said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. “Robertson had the largest contributor list of any Republican candidate and that was the foundation for the Christian Coalition.”
The Faith and Freedom Coalition, which was formed in in 2009, reported just $500,000 in revenue in its most recent public tax filings. With well-established conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family still active, Reed is fighting for donors and attention in a crowded playing field.
But Reed, a charismatic, well-spoken figure who turns 50 later this month, has demonstrated an ability to rally followers and forge alliances. Before he left the Christian Coalition in 1997 to become a political consultant, the group was known for training previously apolitical people in how to get involved in conservative politics. Many of them have grown to work in broader Republican efforts that do not hinge on a particular social or religious movement.
Even with big-name political connections and a reputation for building large donor and voter rolls, political observers are pointing to one issue that could stop Reed's success in re-invigorating the Christian right.
“The challenge that Reed and others will face is that it's almost guaranteed that the economy may trump social issues during the election,” said Lindsay. “It's possible there could be a Supreme Court ruling or a moral issue that bubbles up to the top between now and next summer that could change the dynamic, but that would be a real surprise.”