11/02/2010 12:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Religion, Politics and the Return of Ralph Reed: Is That God or Ambition Talking?

Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition, has founded a new organization entitled the "Faith and Freedom Coalition," intended to mobilize evangelical voters. The founding conference was recently held in Washington. Reed had left political life after his work with con man Jack Abramoff and his role in secretly lobbying for Indian casinos came to light. According to press reports, Reed shared with conference participants his reluctance to reenter the political fray by recounting a phone conversation he had had with Sean Hannity. "I wanted to know that this was not for me, that this was not any ambition of mine," he said to Hannity. "I wanted to know that this was the Lord." Hannity's response: "Ralph, God is speaking through this phone line right now, and he's using me to deliver the message."

There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to this anecdote. (You can agree with Hannity or not, but it's hard to see him as a messenger of God. In fact, it's hard to see any journalist as a messenger of God.) Still, Reed's comments raise some real questions for those of us interested in religion's role in public life.

I am a religious person, and my religious beliefs shape my political outlook. In studying the sacred texts of my tradition, I discern certain values that I try to apply to the world around me. For example, the Hebrew Bible and the other sacred teachings of both Judaism and Christianity demonstrate an almost obsessive concern for the welfare of the poor. (The general assumption of the Bible is that the rich can take care of themselves.) Still, the Bible is not a partisan political handbook. It does not instruct me to be a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, a follower of Keynes or Hayek. My task is to understand Biblical values through the prism of Judaism and then do my best to apply them, on a case-by-case basis, to the political issues of the day. This is a difficult and complicated process, but an unavoidable one for a serious religious person.

I have two worries when it comes to Reed's new coalition. The first is that it will not be an instrument to advance religious values as Reed understands them; instead, it will subordinate religious values to political interests. In other words, it will be used for purely partisan political purposes. This is an issue for both the left and the right. In the religious world, there are both liberal and conservative forces that function more as a political tool than as a voice of religious conscience.

My second worry is that religious coalitions require leaders with true humility. As Reed's little anecdote demonstrates, humility may not be his strong suit. After all, religious organizations that involve themselves in politics can be especially prone to exaggerated claims and hyperbolic pronouncements. As their members struggle to hear whispers of the divine call, their leaders may be tempted to provide answers they do not have or offer certainties that they do not possess. While I hesitate to question the religious experience of anyone else, there are certain times when healthy skepticism is in order. Whenever someone says, "this is not about ambition," I assume that it is. Whenever someone says, "God has spoken to me," I wonder if ego might be at work.

Will Ralph Reed succeed in his "religious comeback"? I don't know. But those who care about religion and ultimately make a difference in American political life tend to follow certain rules. They study the text. They remember that concern for the weak is at the heart of Biblical religious tradition. They perceive the truth as best they can, but know that our knowledge of God's ways is always less than absolute. They keep their pride in check, consult with others and don't assume that they are the only ones to speak for God. I suspect that Reed's success, and the success of all other "religious organizers," will depend on how closely they adhere to these rules.