Reed defends role of religion in the political arena

Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, a 1991 Ph.D. history graduate of Emory, returned to campus Feb. 13 to discuss "The Role of Religion in American Public Life."

Reed supporters appeared to be in the minority during the event's question-and-answer session, however, as a stream of visibly angry audience members called Reed to task for what they view as attempts to impose his morals on the rest of the nation through religion-based political advocacy groups such as The Christian Coalition. The address was part of the Ethics Center's ongoing series of forums on ethics and public policy.

Questions Reed faced from the audience of about 500 dealt mostly with abortion, gay rights, inclusion of the disabled, and the question of whether Reed and his group have a hidden agenda to forcibly impose Christianity and Christian values on the nation by gaining control via the political process of the judicial and legislative branches of government.

In his responses and during his initial address, Reed stressed The Christian Coalition's role as a vehicle by which people of faith can participate in the political process. Reed said that those who dismiss The Christian Coalition and similar groups as part of the "radical right" movement should remember that the Declaration of Independence is based on what was during its time a radical idea: "that rights are given by God and not the government, and rights can be taken away only by God. You become an American not by an accident of birth, but by subscribing to this ideal," he said.

Consistent polling that shows the vast majority of Americans believe in God and pray daily, Reed said, clearly demonstrates that "faith has a role to play in American culture and politics." Since The Christian Coalition's founding in 1989, it has grown to encompass 1.7 million members and supporters in 1,700 local chapters in all 50 states. This history, Reed said, shows that there is "no way to deny that faith is impacting politics in a significant way for the first time in many years, and I believe that impact has been a positive one."

In response to Reed's address, Steven Tipton, professor of sociology of religion in the theology school, pointed out that The Christian Coalition's membership is extremely homogeneous and narrowly focused on a few issues. Tipton said that while the United Methodist Church's membership is about equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, 68 percent of Christian Coalition members identify themselves as Republicans, while only 5 percent identify themselves as Democrats. Less than one-third are college graduates, and more than half are over 55. A group with such a narrow focus and homogeneous membership, Tipton suggested, is bound to face some daunting challenges in reforming the political and cultural arenas of a society as large, diverse and complex as that of the United States.

John Witte, director of the Law and Religion Program and a law school faculty member, followed Tipton's response by citing three points of agreement with Reed: 1) America is beset by profound political, social, legal and moral crises; 2) organized religion has been unduly marginalized and privatized, and restricted from the political process; 3) Christianity and democracy complement each other and provide each other with appropriate contexts in which to flourish.

However, Witte said, The Christian Coalition has not offered a solid theological grounding to drive its revolution. The group's political orientation, Witte said, makes it too easy to bend theological doctrine to accommodate expedient political agendas of the moment. Citing The Christian Coalition's "parochial" view of American democracy, Witte said that "democracy is a human creation, inherently flawed," and not a heavenly form of government on earth.

--Dan Treadaway

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