Ralph Reed, Born Again

Ronald Reagan Trumps Jesus At Faith & Freedom Conference, As Religious Right Operatives Seek To Lure Churches Into Another Partisan Political Scheme

Pennsylvania Tea Party activist Ana Puig has figured out President Barack Obama’s secret plan: It’s to turn America into a Soviet-style state.

“I’m gonna talk about 21st-century Marxism, which to me is the same as communism,” Puig declared during a recent gathering of Religious Right devotees in Washington, D.C. “We’re so politically correct in this country that we’re afraid to say the word communism. And we’re afraid to say that this administration is actually bringing communism to this country.”

Key to Obama’s scheme, Puig added, is a plan to grant citizenship to 15 to 20 million illegal aliens, who will then be bribed into voting for the Democratic Party through generous welfare packages.

“They will take the handouts, and they will vote for the party that will give them the most freebies” she said. “That’s just a fact. I don’t know why that happens, but that’s just how it is. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Puig, speaking at a session on “The Future of the Tea Party Movement” moderated by Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, also asserted that Americans are being subjected to “brainwashing.”

“There is a subliminal message everywhere – in the songs that we’re listening to on the radio, in the movies that we’re watching, in the television shows,” she said.

Puig unveiled these startling revelations during a June 3-4 meeting of Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition. The “conference and strategy briefing” was a reminder of the extremism and partisanship of the Religious Right – as well as a warning to anyone who believes this movement is losing power, money and influence.

In fact, Reed, the 50-year-old former executive director of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, is busy forging ties to the Tea Party to build a new, muscular far-right political unit. Tea Partiers like Puig were in great supply during the conference, and their favorite issues (tax cuts, huge reductions in federal spending, rabid opposition to health-care reform) dominated the conference – although the Religious Right’s traditional “culture war” issues weren’t slighted.

The mix made for a potent far-right political circus, a heady brew of the old-school fundamentalism of the Religious Right blended with the anti-government energy of the Tea Party – with Reed as the ringmaster holding it all together.

Reed formed the Faith & Freedom Coalition (FFC) in 2009, three years after his political career collapsed when his attempt to become lieutenant governor of Georgia faltered on the rocks of the Jack Abramoff casino lobbying scandal. (See “Wheel of Misfortune,” March 2006 Church & State.)

The ever-resourceful Reed bounced back from that debacle by returning to his roots as a Religious Right kingpin. Some political analysts were skeptical, but Reed seems to be pulling it off. In the conference program, he claimed 400,000 FFC members and activists and 23 state affiliates.

Reed says his outfit will distribute 35 million “voter guides” in 2012 and contact 29 million Tea Party and “pro-family” voters by mail, phone and text.

While Reed is notorious for exaggerating his influence, some hard evidence suggests the FFC is indeed growing. His first Washington conference in 2010 was a modest affair that attracted only about 200 souls. This year’s event at the glitzy Marriott Renaissance Hotel on the edge of D.C.’s Chinatown drew about 1,000 on Friday, when the event was augmented by a generous dollop of college students. The numbers for day two’s proceedings were smaller but still topped 600.

No matter the figures, Reed’s cozy relationship with the Republican Party was more than enough to produce a bevy of GOP presidential contenders. Speakers included U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and pizza magnate Herman Cain (who drew a coveted slot as the banquet speaker on Saturday night).

In addition, GOP heavy-hitters from Congress and other partisan precincts put the event on their schedules. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) addressed the throng, as did House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Several other members of the GOP congressional leadership were on hand, along with Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The Faith & Freedom Coalition, a 501(c)(4) organization, doesn’t even pretend to be non-partisan. Friday’s sessions offered a litany of speakers, all of whom fulminated over the same themes: America is on the verge of destruction. Obama is a socialist and must be replaced. The House must remain in Republican hands. The Senate must revert to GOP control. Health-care reform has to be repealed.

Most speakers were limited to about 10 minutes, one after the other with no breaks – there wasn’t even time for lunch on Friday. Although the speeches were often interchangeable in content, the effect was stupefying. The speakers’ constant blare of hostility blasted every favorite right-wing target: Obama, unions, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), “European socialism,” government social-service programs, health-care reform and so on.

Although the conference was sponsored by a group that considers itself Christian, only a handful of speakers referred to Jesus. Nearly half of them, however, quoted – or at least mentioned – the Religious Right’s favorite pseudo-deity, President Ronald Reagan.

Several speakers warned that the 2012 election will be the most important one that America has ever faced – a line the Religious Right has been hawking every four years since 1980.

It’s also clear that the Faith & Freedom Coalition – like the Christian Coalition before it – is working to forge a partisan political machine anchored in churches. Although Reed insists that the organization will remain focused on issues, many speakers didn’t even bother to pretend that the FFC has any goal other than defeating Democrats. (See “Congressional Con Game,” July/August 2011 Church & State.)

The partisan tone started right at the beginning. On Friday morning, Coalition Executive Director Gary Marx warmed up the crowd by asking, “Are you ready to change America? Are you ready to send a message to Washington? Are you ready to send a message to President Barack Obama? Well, you’re in the right place.”

Moments later, a smiling Reed took the stage. Waving to the crowd, he lamented the “catastrophe” of Obama’s election, labeling him “the most far-to-the-left candidate that had ever been nominated for president by either party.”

Employing football metaphors instead of the military verbiage he was once famous for, Reed said, “We’re going to teach you some basic fundamentals of how to block, of how to tackle, of how to run a pattern and how to know the plays so that they are so ingrained in your brain that you can execute them without even thinking.”

Reed told the crowd that, once trained, “You’re gonna win the biggest victory ever seen in American political history.”

He regaled attendees with a story of how he woke up the day after the 2008 election determined to jump back into politics.

“I vowed that as long as I had breath in me that that was never gonna happen again as long as I lived,” Reed said. “In 2012, we’re gonna add to the majority in the House, we’re gonna see a conservative majority in the U.S. Senate and we’re gonna replace Barack Obama with a president that we can be proud of.”

Reed’s dramatic story aside, the FFC’s origin may be tad more prosaic. In a New York Times interview prior to the conference, Reed admitted he formed the group with the help of Republican operatives eager to boost their grassroots presence among fundamentalist Christians and harvest votes for the GOP.

Reed told The Times’ Erik Eckholm that “a couple good friends, fairly senior in the party” told him, “You need to do something.” They said, “Since you left the Christian Coalition, we haven’t had a lean, mean operation focused on the grass roots.”

The new group is also something of a hybrid. During the conference, social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion were not as prominent as one might have expected. Instead, attendees were fed a steady of diet of common Tea Party obsessions – denunciations of taxes, warnings that the nation’s debt load is not sustainable and attacks on social-service programs (even though many in the crowd were well past retirement age and undoubtedly comfortably ensconced in Social Security payments and Medicare).

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), author of a controversial budget plan that slashes federal spending, received a hero’s welcome at the event. Ryan spooked attendees with claims of a coming “European cradle-to-grave welfare state” and said the real issue is a choice between American values and European socialism. His only mention of religion was to assert that “our rights come from God and not the government.”

Even speakers who highlighted social issues often tied them to Tea Party themes. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told the crowd that economic and social issues share a vital link, asserting that family breakdown leads to big government.

“When the natural family is looked down upon, people will look up to the government,” Perkins said.

Pleading with attendees to “defend the Christian principles upon which this nation was founded,” Perkins insisted, “We cannot fix the fiscal until we fix the family.” He blamed family breakdown on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, which, he argued, made people too dependent on government. Echoing a common refrain among speakers, Perkins asserted that the very survival of the nation is at stake.

“This could be the bottom of the ninth for our country,” Perkins added.

Bob Reccord, executive director of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive cabal of wealthy secular and religious conservatives, fired up the crowd with a tent-revival-style exhortation blasting Obama and praising the Tea Party.

(Reccord, who was fired as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board in 2006 after allegations of mismanagement, could help Reed tap into a lucrative vein of support – CNP dollars.)

U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) also sought to forge a link between the economy and religion. While he called for putting the White House “in the Republican column in 2012,” Pence said policy changes will not be enough to rescue the nation.

“To have a lasting victory for our values, we have to recognize that the present crisis is not just economic and political but moral in nature,” Pence said. He added, “The truth is, we’ve got to get back to basics. We will not solve the crisis facing this country economically or politically by public policy alone. It will require public virtue…. We must again say yes to the importance of organized religion in our everyday life.”

Bachmann, speaking on Friday morning, discussed her involvement in opposing same-sex marriage in Minnesota when she was in the state legislature. She told the crowd that thanks to the groundwork she laid, the state will vote on changing its constitution to ban same-sex marriage in 2012.

“How many of you know that marriage is under siege like no time in recent history?” Bachmann asked.

But Bachmann made sure to cover all of the bases by blasting Obama. She called for sending a “change of address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, because if we have anything to say about it, Barack Obama will be a one-term president.”

Beaming before the adoring crowd, Bachmann shouted, “We’re at a critical time and a critical hour in our nation’s history.” She then proceeded to lead attendees in a lengthy prayer.

Lesser political lights also scored points with the crowd. Rebecca Kleefisch, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, won over conference-goers with an impassioned attack on legal abortion – but she didn’t stop there. She proudly noted that her state is also slashing funding for birth control and cutting funds for condom distribution, asserting that such programs put young women at risk.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged the crowd to put aside their differences and support the candidate who wins the Republican nomination. He warned attendees not to be distracted by third-party candidates, saying only a Republican can beat Obama.

Barbour told the crowd that they may not like every stand the eventual GOP candidate takes.

“Now, we’re gonna nominate somebody for president that doesn’t agree with you on everything, and you’re not gonna agree with them on everything,” he said. “But I’m gonna tell you what: They’re gonna agree with you a lot more than you agree with Barack Obama.”

Continued Barbour, “We gotta stay focused on the main thing. The main thing is winning the election. We can’t change the country like we wanna unless we win the election, OK? Remember, purity in politics is the enemy of victory.”

Boehner and Cantor outlined the same partisan scheme but barely mentioned red-meat social issues during their talks. Boehner called jobs the top issue and labeled health-care reform a “monstrosity.” He lauded the reauthorization of a federally funded religious school voucher plan in Washington, D.C., but then shifted gears to talk about the national debt.

Cantor lauded “the most pro-life, pro-family House majority leadership in history” but spent the balance of his remarks blasting Obama’s policy on Israel.

Romney and Pawlenty, both of whom spoke on Friday night, spent most of their time attacking Obama’s economic policies. Pawlenty did offer boilerplate attacks on legal abortion, same-sex marriage and “radical Islam,” but Romney, perhaps wishing to keep the focus away from his potentially problematic Mormon faith, avoided religion, sticking to economic themes.

Santorum tried to link social issues and the economy and for good measure threw in an attack on Islamic fundamentalists. He indirectly criticized the credentials of some of the other candidates, pointing out that he has worked on these issues in the Congress for decades.

But, added Santorum, attendees must be willing to back whoever wins the GOP nomination.

“This,” he said, “is the most important election in your lifetime.”

It was left to some preachers to turn up the rhetorical volume. On Friday night, Pastor Benny Tate of Rock Springs Church in Milner, Ga., blasted abortion and same-sex marriage. Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego opined that America “has cancer” and told attendees that if their pastor will not address political issues and stand for “biblical truth” to find another church.

A Saturday speaker, Mark Smith, president of Ohio Christian University, warned the conferees that “our nation will go down to ruin” if they don’t act. Adding a touch of paranoia to the proceedings, Smith asserted that the U.S. Department of Education is preparing a “values-free” education program for the country and insisted that anti-bullying programs in public schools promote homosexuality.

Smith added that the federal government is putting together a national curriculum for colleges and universities and seeks to seize control of all accrediting bodies.

“Is this the beginning of the end for Christian-based education?” he asked. He demanded private school vouchers as a solution, remarking, “Give us liberty in education or give us death!”

New York real estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump even put in an appearance. Referring to the president as “Barack Hussein Obama,” Trump plunged right into the zone of crazy by promoting birtherism and crowing that it was his pressure that persuaded Obama to release his long-form birth certificate. The crowd reacted with wild applause. (“Birther” notions were otherwise absent from the proceedings. But other Obama conspiracy theories had some weight. When Richard Land, a lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, accused Obama of favoring the Palestinians over the Israelis, a woman in the audience cried out, “That’s because he’s a Muslim!”)

Despite the stellar line-up, there were some surprising no-shows. Newt Gingrich was invited to speak but declined. Sarah Palin, who was touring the country by bus at the time, didn’t swing by. Fox News personality Glenn Beck was listed on the conference’s promotional materials but never showed up. He reportedly claimed that a family emergency kept him away.

Americans United will continue to monitor the FFC’s injudicious mixture of religion and politics. The day before the event, AU issued a press statement expressing concern about Reed’s misuse of religion to advance partisan political interests.

“This kind of mixture of religion and politics is a grave danger to American public life,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “It is a sad day when our politicians start preaching and our preachers start politicking.”

Concluded Lynn, “I wish all the candidates would have the courage to stand up and say – as John F. Kennedy did in 1960 – ‘I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.’ Today, the Religious Right’s power is such that a statement like Kennedy’s is almost unthinkable. As a matter of fact, candidates are more likely to give their personal profession of faith.

(Americans United Communications Associate Sandhya Bathija contributed reporting to this story.)