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Christian right repackages social agenda

NCR Staff

"Now that we have ended 'welfare as we know it,' we can no longer blame the liberals for the carnage that is our inner cities."

Thus spoke Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition executive director, Jan. 30 as he declared a war on poverty in the nation's inner cities by backing legislation that critics say would primarily funnel government money into local churches.

Yet Reed immediately found a welcoming response from fellow evangelical and Sojourners community leader Jim Wallis: "I am very grateful that people who are poor and racially divided finally are on the agenda of an organization that calls itself the Christian Coalition," Wallis said. "I think that's a very important thing and we've been waiting for this for a very long time. What's been most wrong with the Christian Coalition in my view is not just what's on the agenda, but what's not. And people have not been on the agenda at all."

Two years ago Reed stood in a room in the U.S. Capitol, flanked by leading conservative Republicans, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to announce the Christian Coalition's legislative agenda for the 104th Congress -- the 10-point Contract with the American Family.

This year, in a hotel meeting room, Reed was flanked by a half-dozen black and Latino ministers as he unveiled his eight-point agenda for the new Congress, "the Samaritan Project."

"For too long," said Reed, "our movement has been a predominantly, frankly almost exclusively white, evangelical, Republican movement with a political center of gravity centered in the safety of the suburbs.

"The Samaritan Project is a bold plan to break that color line and to bridge that gap of separation that has divided white evangelicals and Roman Catholics from their Latino and African-American brothers and sisters," he said. "It is now incumbent upon us as people of faith to provide a positive, faith-based alternative to the welfare state."

Some critics, such as Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, claim to peel away what they call Reed's "cheap veneer" to reveal "the same creaky agenda of intolerance, moral paternalism and government aid to religion that the government failed to pass during the last Congress."

Two years ago, the coalition "contract" was founded basically on issues that polls showed most Americans supported in a general way -- such as prayer in school.

This time, the coalition admitted it has picked from a crop of Congressional bills and ideas already in circulation and packaged them as its eight-point "Samaritan Project":

  • Strong families. Seeking legislation that would grant moneys from the Social Security Act to fund sexual abstinence education; legislation to provide funding to states "that require couples with young children to receive counseling and undergo a waiting period prior to divorce."
  • Hope and opportunity scholarship. Supporting legislation to establish scholarship (voucher) demonstration projects in 100 of America's most impoverished and drug-ridden school districts.
  • Charitable giving. Establishing a $500 tax credit for taxpayers who give both financial assistance and volunteer time to a private community service organization assisting the poor.
  • Racial justice. The coalition will hold a congress on racial justice in Baltimore in May.
  • Empowerment zones. Legislation to provide jobs through federal start-up costs and tax breaks for new businesses in the inner cities.
  • Faith solutions. Amending the Public Health Services Act so that federal funds can go directly to "faith-based drug treatment programs consistent with the Establishment (Separation of Church and State) Clause" and amending the law so that "normal credentialing requirements" can be waived.
  • Revitalize the church. The Christian Coalition intends to "raise funds to help 1,000 existing or new inner-city churches engaged in outreach or ministry to at-risk youth by the year 2,000."

Said Reed, "We disagree with those on the left who believe that government can solve these problems and we disagree with those libertarians on the right who believe that government has no role at all. This is designed specifically to revitalize the church and to strengthen the family."

Americans United's Lynn, at a briefing that followed Reed's announcement, said "the Christian Coalition was not born in the fire of the civil rights movement, not established to end poverty. It proclaims its interests in the poor only when that advances its genuine goal of a Christianized nation where the government doles out aid to churches and religious institutions, where it tries to impose its religious beliefs on all citizens, where it advances an agenda to restrict personal decision-making on matters of morals and family values."

Lynn said Reed wants to "be everything to everybody. I've known chameleons that have not been able to change their colors as swiftly as Ralph Reed switches the Christian Coalition's agenda.

"He's happy to tell the national press how [the coalition] raised $750,000 to rebuild [burned] African-American churches," said Lynn, an ordained minister and a lawyer, "but it takes digging to get at financial facts about his organization. $750,000 is an insignificant percentage of a $21 million budget used primarily for partisan political purposes, and a smaller piece of Pat Robertson's annual $164 million solicitation budget [1996] income."

Lynn noted Robertson's absence, saying, "I believe that's because Mr. Robertson's published work on poverty states it may be the result of a satanic attack and may be alleviated only when the poor memorize Bible verses and give away part of what little they have to religious work."

The Rev. Ken Brooker Langston, spokesperson for the Interfaith Alliance, told NCR, "Robertson is the ultimate obstacle to all of Reed's repackaging schemes."

Of the Samaritan Project, Langston said it seems "like nothing more than a politically packaged strategy aimed at softening the Christian Coalition's image and increasing the group's appeal to Hispanics and African-Americans, just as in December 1995 Reed made an overture to Catholics with the Catholic Alliance."

Reed, Langston said, "touts his new compassionate agenda in the same breath he exults in his success in the (104th) Congress, dismantling such government programs as SSI benefits to disabled children and the elimination of food stamps to legal immigrants."

Langston said that Reed's implication that churches need his legislative package to spark them into action is insulting to "the churches that have been providing an abundance of service to the poor and disadvantaged and to the thousands of men and women who labor every day to provide services."

The Interfaith Alliance view, said Langston, is that churches cannot possibly fill "the gaping void left by the government's welfare actions. As an organization representing thousands of clergy, our concern is that we cannot provide the services that will be necessary, and political leaders should not assume we can fill the service gaps they created."

According to Reed, this will not be a Christian Coalition short-term, high-profile gimmick to garner publicity. "To this we do commit," said Reed. "We will stay in this battle and we will remain engaged in this struggle as long as there is one child who is a victim of drugs or gangs, as long as a single boy or girl attends an unsafe school that does not work, as long as a single young man in the inner city hungers for a father and role model. We can do no less."

Wallis, an organizer of Call to Renewal, a more liberal movement of Christians seeking political change, told NCR he wanted to distance himself from the liberal organizations that "rushed in to say, 'Ralph Reed can't be trusted, they aren't serious, don't believe this.' It's a problem for people who have been doing it for a long time when somebody says, 'I want to do something about poverty and racism.'

"I think it's a mistake to attack them," he said, "and we invite Ralph Reed to the table to join with the rest of us who are in that struggle. It's important, because they have little or no experience in this area, that they join with Christians who do. They have a lot to learn."

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997