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BY Jim Cosgrove
Ralph Reed, the angel-faced but politically astute executive director of the Christian Coalition has continued to make headlines ever since throwing the weight of his organization behind the “Contract with America.” His stature did not suffer even as Newt Gingrich and his revolutionary brand of Republican politics took a nose dive in the approval ratings. Most recently, coverage has focused on Reed's new book, Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politicsand his apparent call for moderation in the GOP plank's anti-abortion language, a move which got him into hot water with many pro-lifers. But the pragmatic gesture along with his soft-pedaling of the hot-button social issues such as school prayer—in favor of issues with a more mainstream appeal, such as tax reform to help families—further secured his image in the eyes of secular commentators as a smart “Republican political operative,” as he calls himself.
In its July 8 issue, The New Republicpaid tribute (in spite of itself, it seemed) in a lengthy and ultimately respectful cover story/book review. For good measure, the editors selected and perhaps touched up a photograph that makes Reed appear positively creepy. The reviewer noted that Reed “looks like an Upper West Side liberal's idea of a religious zealot from the Bible Belt, with his vanilla pudding face and headlight eyes.” Despite such digs, the review is ample testimony to Reed's success in becoming a genuine player, if not king-maker, in this year's presidential race.
For Catholics, Reed's power-broker status raises a question: Where is our man, or woman, in Washington? True, the Christian Coalition has branched out and created a Catholic wing to the organization. But, after a flurry of media interest—which focused mostly on outspoken criticism of the move by certain bishops—little has since been heard of the initiative. Then there is the Catholic Campaign for America, which, though solidly orthodox, has been hampered in its nearly exclusive appeal to hard-nosed GOP conservatives. Moreover, the organization has not yet produced a charismatic, recognizable “political operative” in the Reed mold.
There are a few candidates: The media-genic and highly articulate Helen Alvare of the U.S. bishops’pro-life office is one, provided she can be prodded and groomed to venture beyond pro-life territory and take on other aspects of public policy—welfare reform, education, health care. Or perhaps a member of ex-Gov. Robert Casey's family will follow in the footsteps of the Democrat who has combined pro-life commitment with a concern for social justice.
Reed has somehow managed to shake the liabilities of being associated with single-issue evangelical Christian politics whose image is so onerous to mainstream voters in both parties. In this regard, Catholics have some key advantages, among them a rich tradition of Catholic social teaching. The notion of subsidiarity, for example, is key to the protracted debate about federal funds and responsibilities devolving to the state level. Overall, the Catholic vision is, indeed, catholic,universal. Serving the common good, it grandly cuts across party lines and enriches the public debate. Our Ralph Reed need not necessarily be Republican. He or she could be a Democrat or even spring from a third party. Indeed, there could be several such Catholic “political operatives,” representing various political options that can bank on formidable intellectual and moral resources. That's something the “Christian Right” simply doesn't have at its disposal.
The point is that Catholics haven't even begun to tap their potential political resources. Ralph Reed deserves praise for his trail-blazing work and for rolling with the punches. But he shouldn't be the only game in town for committed Christians.