In February of this year, just as Bob Dole was finally pulling away from Pat Buchanan and the other candidates in the too-crowded-for-comfort pack of Republican presidential hopefuls, the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed found himself preaching political healing and reconciliation to hundreds of Christian conservatives at a gala ballroom gathering inside the opulent Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC.
In retrospect, Reed's message of unity would turn out to be an ironic one. As the leader of the largest and most powerful group of politically-motivated Christian conservatives, Reed has, in this election year, angered and alienated many of his allies in other conservative religious organizations.
Amazingly, the issue which has caused perhaps the most friction between Reed and other right wing leaders is one that traditionally has been a rallying point for them: gay and lesbian rights.
In the past, leaders of the Religious Right could always count on gay and lesbian issues to muster their troops. This election year is the ideal time for them to take adventage of two highly publicized cases. The first is the Supreme Court's rejection of Colorado's attempt to deny equal rights to gays, even though the voters of that state approved such a move. And second, the closely watched case in Hawaii, in which the Hawaiian courts are expected to rule in favor of same-sex marriages.
The national attention garnered by these front-page headliners has provoked many conservative religious leaders to take on gay and lesbian issues with added zeal.
"The gay issue will play big in this election year," says Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network (CAN), a conservative group based in Forest, Virginia, which claims 250,000 followers nationwide.
Adds Lou Sheldon, leader of the Traditional Values Coalition: "The homosexual issue's time has come. This definitely is a front-burner issue for us. It's time to thrash this one out."
In contrast, Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition has publicly played down any fierce opposition to gay and lesbian rights. In his recent book, Active Faith, Reed writes: "Calling gays 'perverts' or announcing that AIDS is 'God's judgment' on the gay community is not consistent with our Christian call to mercy."
A foreshadowing of the split among Christian conservatives over the gay issue was evident even on that cold February day in Washington, when Reed addressed a clamoring group of journalists outside the Omni Hotel. Most of the reporters grilled Reed on how the acrimony between Buchanan and Dole would play with his conservative followers when the Republican candidate faced off in the fall against the president.
But when one reporter asked Reed if the debate on same-sex marriage would be a national issue, and whether or not his organization would be involved in opposing it, Reed delivered a surprising answer.
"It's not in our voter guide," he responded, referring to the Christian Coalition's handout listing the 15 top social and economic issues they regarded as priorities for the election year.
Compare that with the emotional response gay and lesbian issues evoke from other conservative religious groups — and the high priority they give it as an election-year issue — and the divide between Reed and other leaders in the movement becomes apparent.
For example, in a poll of about 1,000 CAN members, the number one concern was how to counter the "homosexual agenda." Second was abortion, and third on the list was stopping same-sex marriages.
Reed's relative silence on gay and lesbian issues has other conservative religious leaders perplexed and chafed.
"The Christian Coalition is saying homosexuality is not that much of an issue," complained CAN's Mawyer to Freedom Writer. "I don't like to criticize another group publicly, but there are some strong feelings out there about this. It's fair to say Ralph Reed stands alone on this issue."
Adds Lou Sheldon: "This person [Ralph Reed] doesn't represent what the full movement truly feels."
CAN's Mawyer fears Reed's stance on gay and lesbian issues hurts conservative Christians when it comes to pushing their agenda with Congress. "It undercuts us and hurts our public image," he says. "In effect, they're saying that we're overblowing this issue. That gives policy-makers an excuse not to devote as much time and energy to this as they should. So it hurts our long-term goals."
Sheldon agrees that the low-profile approach that Reed and the Christian Coalition are taking makes it more difficult for other conservative leaders to force the issue. "The homosexual issue is so volatile that most politicians don't even want it on the radar screen," he told Freedom Writer. "What the Christian Coalition is doing is stepping back. That helps many people who are afraid of the homosexual issue. But I decided a long time ago I wasn't going to be afraid of it."
Political observers who follow conservative religious groups and their influence on modern-day politics say the fray between the different conservative religious groups is primarily one of political strategy, not core beliefs.
"There's a real debate going on between these groups about which strategy is the best to adopt," says Bruce Kuklick, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. On the one hand, he says, is Ralph Reed, "who has a need for political power, but knows he can't get what he wants if he's perceived to be too extreme." On the other hand are "the purists, those who believe they can best shape politics and public policy by remaining vocal critics."
The opposing factions, says Kuklick, "are tormented between moderating themselves enough to become a force in the Republican party v. making their arguments in the strongest way possible."
The result, observes Michael Lienesch, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of the book, Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right, has been the rise of "some push and pull, some real tensions within the Christian right."
Like most observers, Lienesch believes Reed's strategy is winning him favor — and thus power — within the Republican party. "Reed has been able to institutionalize the Christian right movement in the Republican party," he says. "It's really a major part of the Republican party now, and Reed's pragmatism has gained him a lot of internal respect. And power." Jealousy over Reed's and the Christian Coalition's rising prominence may also fuel the battles between him and other conservative groups, believes Lienesch.
"The Christian Coalition is the most visible group, and is easily our most formidable adversary" among right wing religious organizations, acknowledges David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group in Washington, DC. "Other groups covet the Christian Coalition's high profile, and that's part of why they're yelping like poodles at Ralph Reed's heels."
But CAN's Mawyer denies he and other hard-liners are motivated by envy. He insists they are simply staying true to their beliefs — and to their constituents. "The Christian Coalition is not listening to its own supporters," says Mawyer. "They want to be viewed as more moderate than their members are. It endears them to the Republican party and gets them in doors they might not otherwise make it through."
But Mawyer believes that, in the long run, this strategy will backfire. "It's a mistake not to stick to your philosophies," he says. Sometimes, he says, the Republican leadership tries to distance itself from its conservative Christian element. "We want them to ask: Can the Republican party afford to alienate itself from this branch of the party? Well, if they listen to Ralph Reed, perhaps they think they can, because he is saying that things like homosexuality are not as important as they really are to us."
Mawyer says Reed is trying to play both sides of the coin, putting on a moderate face when talking to the general public and the Republican party, but then being more passionate when he addresses his own constituents. "There's a big difference between what he says publicly and what he says in his literature to members," Mawyer notes. "Whatever they say publicly doesn't change what's in their hearts."
And Sheldon looks at the difference between his approach and Reed's as "a matter of how you say something, not what you say."
Despite the same underlying message on homosexuality, Mawyer believes the difference in strategies is a critical one. "This issue is too important to be ambiguous on. The Republicans need to know we're die-hard conservatives. So I find the strategy of moderation troubling, and there is some controversy in my mind over it. My question is: How far are they going to moderate on this issue?"
When it comes to debating the moderate v. hard-line strategy on gay and lesbian rights, says Mawyer, "there are some wounds that just won't heal."