02/12/2007 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Evolution of the Religious Right, with Ralph Reed

Today the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and the Yale Forum on Faith and Politics are co-hosting Voices and Votes: Religious Convictions in the Public Sphere, a conference on the intersection of religion and politics in America. I'll be liveblogging from the conference throughout the day.

Below is a running summary of the afternoon's second panel, "The Evolution of the Religious Right?"

The panel features Ralph Reed, former Executive Director of the Christian Coalition; Serene Jones, Professor of Theology, Yale Divinity School; Ron Sider, President and Founder Evangelicals for Social Action; Richard Viguerie, Author of Conservatives Betrayed and Founder of Conservative Digest. The moderator is Evan Baehr.

BAEHR: Richard, how does your conservative philosophy make you interested in these kinds of discussions?

VIGUERIE: Liberals are generally credited with getting involved with politics for very lofty ideas. But the same thing is true of conservatives. We're each concerned with injustice, but we have different ideas of what that is ... we're all dedicated to helping our fellow man, Democrats just get more credit for it.

BAEHR: Ralph, since you've been involved in so many programs, I thought it would be interesting to ask what your interest is in all them?

REED: Before I converted to Christ I was incredibly idealistic, I thought you improved humanity through politics. Then I learned at an early age that you can't bring about heaven by winning campaigns.... My purpose changed from being focused exclusively on winning elections to glorifying Christ within the public sphere.

BAEHR: Once we reach conclusions on certain policies, how should our faith influence how we advocate for them within the public sphere? How does Christian ethics shape our behavior for engaging in the public square?

JONES: For people of faith, theology is the space out of which belief and practices emerge in an indistinguishable manner ... But in the public sphere we should engage each other in a manner that is continually shaped by respect for each other, with a recognition of their integrity as human beings.... Even though, frankly, in the public square it's often the case that people with more power find it easier to say we should talk calmly and with integrity, whereas people with less power might feel that there lives are literally on the line.

VIGUERIE: Look at negative advertising. It's not always bad. How are we going to distinguish two issues? They're very, very important for understanding that candidate A takes a certain position and candidate B takes a different one ... Everyone has there own image of Jesus. But Jesus said that he's not here to bring peace. So --

BAEHR: So Jesus is the first practitioner of direct mail?

REED: That's the first time I've heard negative ads as Christ-like [laughter] ... But it's important to remember that the reason why people do negative ads is that they work. If they didn't work, this would be much easier to solve. But they do. Voters respond to it ... Now, that doesn't make it right, but it makes fixing the problem harder. ... And by the way, I think this is an outstanding question. It's a question I've struggled with frequently in my career...When you're a Christian and a middle linebacker for the Colts, you still hit people when they come over the middle. You just make sure it isn't a cheap shot. ... In politics, you try to make sure it's not personal. I've never felt comfortable with a family situation, even a divorce ... You also have to make sure that the negative information is true ...

BAEHR: Would you mind sharing with us a time you've crossed the line?

REED: I think I've said some things when I was at the Christian coalition that I would have put differently ... We're all going to make a mistake. I think about Peter and the ear of Malchus, how after he severs his ear Christ heals it ... If we're willing to say, I went too far, I think we have to trust Christ to heal it.

SIDER: We always have to put our commitment to Christ ahead of winning and losing. ... But I want to get back to Serene's statement. It seems to me that it's just overwhelming clear in the scriptures that God has a concern for sanctity of human life and economic justice ... I don't for the life of me understand how a group that claims ot be evangelical can have a one or two issue agenda and still claim to be biblical.

REED: That's a great question...

SIDER: If the Coalition was biblical, why didn't it focus more on the poor?

REED: Well we actually did things on that. We had a range of anti-poverty programs ... We also had a program that raised over a million dollars for Churches that had been burned ...


SIDER: Richard, do you really think that Republicans are talking just as much about poor and overcoming poverty??

VIGUERIE: Yes, yes I do. In my Bible it says Richard must help poor, Richard must help prisons, etc. Jesus doesn't say set up a committee to help this, which is what liberals think --

JONES: But Jesus did say set up a committee! [laughter]

VIGUERIE: You're right, you're right, and I'm a part of it, the Catholic Church. ... To say that direct mail is a conservative issue is wrong ...

REED: I would say right now the number one issue, if you're running for federal office, is Iraq and the War on Terror. So if you're running for office you better recognize that ... But because we don't have a parliamentary system, and we need to get 50% plus one to get in office, you have to hit a lot of specific issues as well. And if there is a market for a specific issues, the politicians are going to find it. ...

JONES: For Jesus, in his time, the single big issue was the Roman Empire. But he never talked about it. ...

REED: You're right, he didn't speak to it as a political matter, but he did speak to it as a spiritual matter. Even more, he had as among his disciples a Roman tax-collector on the one side and a member of a terrorist organization seeking to overthrow the Romans on the other ... In a way that was how he said he wasn't going to weigh in on that issue.

JONES: But there were certain things he did way on, didn't he? [...]

REED: You mean like the great society? Let's spend tons of money and thirty years later we still have plenty poverty? I don't think arrogance is limited to the left or the right.

SIDER: I'd agree with that. [laughter]

BAEHR: For much of 20th century, many evangelicals retreated from public sphere, but in the late 90s that changed, and they even became successful. Since they're now in power, how do you cater to them if the diea that they are persecuted doesn't hold as easily?

VIGUERIE: if there's one issue that really got evangelicals to mobilize, it was the Carter administration's ruling that private religious schools couldn't be set up with non-profit.

REED: In the evangelical mind there is that tension ... It's a desire to protect oneself and children from the larger culture, and then also the desire to enter and change the culture. The same is true of the evangelical impulse for civic engagement. There's a desire to protect certain values and faith, but then also to acknowledge and profess the more edifying aspects of their faith to a culture that can be course and at times, if you're not careful, even dehumanizing.

JONES: I think that's a very interesting question about persecution and evangelical community ...

SIDER: In the last ten years there's been a sea change. Look at Rich Warren. Never has an evangelical been so committed to the world's poor. The center is engaged in a larger and more biblically based agenda.

REED: I agree with Ron's point, but I question how new it really is. Look at Franklin's program or Robertson's program to outfit planes as mobile hospitals in Africa ... I think conservative evangelicals have always had a concern for the world's poor, but we're doing a better job now of structuring that.

BAEHR: Before we open to questions, I'd like to talk more about the emergence of the religious left....

SIDER: Both on the right and the left, religious faith has been used, and one has to constantly guard against that. The other comment I have is that there is a segment of the religious left that is rigidly, dogmatically secular.

JONES: Even at a place like Yale University, there is a segment that appears to be either ignorant of religion or hostile to it ... My response is to remind myself that there are real harms religion has done.


NEFF: [Question on persecution. ]

REED: Not that I've ever felt persecuted, but I've definitely felt different ... I think the bigger is that when women suffer, men do as well, that when blacks suffer, whites do too. Injustice affects all of us. ...

WEHMEYER: There was a lot of anger even among evangelicals towards the Christian Coalition. Looking back now, do you feel good about what the Christian Coalition has done, and what it's role in American culture?

REED: Yes, I do. I'm not saying we didn't make mistakes. But what I'm proud of is the left saying now "we need to reclaim our faith". I have an expansive view of God's sovereignty, that it's bigger than anything I can say. ... I celebrate those on the left and applaud that they're trying to proclaim their own faith, that they make people aware that God's will is bigger than a political party.