In the summer of 2006, my book tour for Thy Kingdom Come took me to Atlanta the weekend before the state's Republican primary. Ralph Reed was running for the nomination to be lieutenant governor of Georgia, and everyone I asked that weekend was utterly confident that he would win -- and thereby position himself to succeed the term-limited governor in the subsequent election. Beyond that, well, who knows?
When I heard the news a couple of days later that Reed had been defeated in that primary, I considered it a sure sign of the existence of God.
Reed, tainted by his involvement in the Jack Abramoff scandal, has laid low for several years. But now the mastermind behind the Christian Coalition in the 1990s is back. His new organization, Faith and Freedom Coalition, is conducting a high profile event in Washington, a gathering that includes several marquee conservatives, including Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Donald Trump.
It would be tempting, despite his youthful appearance, to dismiss Reed as an over-the-hill political hack, someone whose tawdry past and unsavory associations have rendered him marginal. But as one of Reed's heroes, George W. Bush, might say, "Never misunderestimate Ralph Reed."
Reed is a savvy operative, smart enough to recognize the generation gap among evangelicals in the 2008 election. Whereas the old guard of the Religious Right -- James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Tony Perkins -- insisted that the only salient moral issues were abortion and same-sex marriage, a younger generation of evangelicals discerned a much broader spectrum of moral issues: war, poverty, hunger, torture, the environment. These are the evangelicals who supported Barack Obama in much larger numbers than they did John Kerry four years earlier.
Reed, I suspect, also has his eyes on the Holy Grail of conservative politics: figuring out a way to unite evangelical conservatives with Tea Party conservatives. (The name of his organization, Faith and Freedom Coalition, suggests just that sort of alliance.)
Can he pull it off? Reed, despite all of his machinations and grassroots genius, was never able fully to integrate politically conservative Jews, Roman Catholics and Mormons into the Christian Coalition. Vestigial suspicions on the part of evangelicals toward these groups inhibited any real cooperation. The presence of Romney and John Huntsman (Mormons) and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich (Roman Catholics) in the Republican field of candidates this time around won't make it any easier.
But Reed's biggest challenge lies in bridging the evangelical generation gap. What's becoming more and more apparent to me is that a generational backlash has set in with the children of evangelical parents who stampeded to the hard right in the 1980s. These children, many of them homeschooled, are coming of age, and those who have not left the faith altogether are reading the calls to justice from the Hebrew prophets and the words of Jesus for themselves, absent the distortions of the Religious Right. Many find it difficult to reconcile Jesus' call to be peacemakers, his concern for the tiniest sparrow or his injunction to care for "the least of these" with the agenda of the Republican Party. Some are even beginning to acknowledge that, with churches unwilling or unable to provide such services, the government has an appropriate role in ameliorating poverty or guaranteeing access to medical care.
I'm not claiming that this generational shift is a groundswell. But it's there, and it's something that complicates Reed's vision of Tea Party-Religious Right cooperation.
Make no mistake, Reed is a clever fellow, someone who, despite his loss in 2006, still harbors ambitions for elective office. If anyone can forge a Tea Party-Religious Right coalition, it's Reed, and it would make him once again a king-maker in the Republican Party. After that, who knows?
Never misunderestimate Ralph Reed.