Ralph Reed on Catholics: An Interview

Crisis wanted to talk to Ralph Reed, president of the Christian Coalition, about his plans to create a Catholic Alliance within the Christian Coalition. Crisis editor, Deal W. Hudson, talked to him at the Capital Building in Washington, D.C. about the history of American Catholicism and his vision of Evangelical-Catholic cooperation in public policy.

What’s the purpose of the Catholic Alliance?

It really has a two-fold purpose beginning with an outgrowth of what has been a major emphasis on outreach and bridge building with Roman Catholics. If you go back to our original mission statements, there was always a heavy flavor of ecumenism. We have been bringing in not only evangelicals, which is our traditional base, but people in mainline denominations who are with us on many of the issues, as well as Roman Catholics and also, later, Jews, to build an organization that would bring together people from different faith traditions based on a shared Judeo-Christian value system. We’ve tried to be ecumenical in the best sense of that word. That is to say, not trying to ignore or blur theological differences, not trying to deny the authenticity of these different faith traditions. But while acknowledging theological differences, coming together on the things that unite us. Things like school choice and defending the right to life, opposing euthanasia, providing care and compassion for the poor by non-governmental means, through intermediary institutions.

The 1993 school board races in New York City were a real breakthrough for us where we distributed voter guides, half a million total-100,000 of those in Roman Catholic churches in the New York Archdiocese. The Catholic Alliance is really the natural outgrowth of it.

We already have, according to our internal survey, 16% of our members who are Roman Catholic. That means that right now we have about a quarter of a million Catholics involved in the Christian Coalition—but we want more Catholics. We would like to see the percentage of Roman Catholic members of the Christian Coalition meet or exceed the national average, which would mean 25% to 30% of our members would be Catholic. The best way to do that is to have an auxiliary that is explicitly Catholic to let them know in effect that the door is open and they are welcome. But I want to make it clear that it is not a segregation of Catholics.

When they join the Catholic Alliance, they automatically become members of the Christian Coalition. They receive our literature; they get our mailings; they’re not treated any differently than any other member of the organization. They’re full members in good standing, and they’ll be invited to all of our conferences and be included in everything. I think ultimately it’s going to have the desired effect. Right now at our national conferences, I’d estimate we probably have somewhere between 300 and 500 Catholics at those conferences. Maybe even more. We’d like to get to the point where a thousand or more of those people are Catholics. By having people join the Catholic Alliance and the Christian Coalition together, we will have identified the Catholics in our membership file so that we can mail to them, call them, and get them more deeply involved.

The other reason for the Catholic Alliance is that in my experience the idiom, the vernacular, and the apologetic for a public witness of one’s faith in the political arena is different in Catholic tradition than it is in Protestant tradition. Not just theologically but in the very language and the very appeals that are made. And so, we have got a group of people sitting on an executive committee that are working up a document that will in effect be an explanation or an apologetic for why they’re involved in politics. I think we needed that in the evangelical community 15 years ago. I don’t think we do anymore. The truth of the matter is that if you went into an evangelical church in 1978 and said, “You need to get involved in politics,” first you would have had to spend two hours explaining why that wasn’t unbiblical. You don’t have to do that anymore. The Protestant/evangelical community is now thoroughly steeped in the ethic of public service and why political involvement is an extension of your faith. The Catholic faith community, conservative Catholic faith community, still needs to develop that apologetic so that people feel more comfortable being political actors. In other words, if you didn’t have a Catholic entity doing that, you wouldn’t be able to develop that uniquely and explicitly Catholic apologetic.

We all know that historically there is some tension between evangelicals and Catholics. Do you think your plans for an alliance will cause any tension among your membership because of the prospective infusion of Catholics into the organization?

I honestly don’t. Having been trained as an American historian, I am intimately and painfully familiar with not only the religious experience but the religio-cultural isolation of Roman Catholics. As they came to the United States in the 1820s and 1830s and 1840s initially, and then flooded later, they needed to develop their own cultural institutions and effect their own Catholic culture within the broader Protestant culture of the United States. This was due to the hostility of evangelicals towards Roman Catholicism, which every American at least superficially understands. But until you’ve gone back and read the Protestant sermons of the 1830s and the 1840s when the first Irish Catholic immigrants came to the United States, you cannot fully appreciate the level of hostility with which they were greeted. It wasn’t just a matter of different theological views. There were fears the Pope was trying to dominate America through the legions of his servants that were being sent over here. There were allusions to the anti-Christ and things of that nature. This is a really tough, painful history—a dark spot on America’s past.

All this was exacerbated, of course, by the immigrant experience. Not the language barrier, at least for the Irish, although that came later with the Italians and the Eastern Europeans, just the marginalization of the immigrant experience was deepened by their religious differences. In some ways, then, as Oscar Handlin wrote, it was worse than for African Americans that came here on slave ships for the reason that they, even in their subjugated condition, were here from the beginning and therefore were not treated as much as an oddity. And also because, frankly, they were Protestants and evangelicals and so there was a sort of commonality that united whites and blacks. So Handlin makes the point, at least, that the passage across the Atlantic for the immigrant was as bad as for slaves who had come a century or two earlier.

Let’s talk about the Reformation just for a second. As you know, there’s been a flare-up recently over the signing of an Evangelicals & Catholics Together document. You have a membership of 1.7 million, most of them evangelicals. How can you be confident that an infusion of Catholic members isn’t going to cause a similar problem within your own organization?

I think there are three reasons why it’s not going to cause a flare-up. The first is pretty obvious. We’re not a church; we’re not a ministry; we’re not a denomination. We, as individuals, clearly have a call in our lives to share our faith and to witness to others. But as an organization, there is no such institutional obligation because we’re a public policy organization. So, we don’t get bogged down in the theological disputes—whether we should be trying to proselytize the Catholics before we go after the unsaved. We don’t have to confront that dilemma as an organization. Clearly there’s a diversity of views within the evangelical community on that issue and it would be a mistake to take any view on that and suggest that it is the dominant view among evangelicals.

I can speak only for myself and not for the Christian Coalition. I have found, in my experience as an evangelical, a deeper level of faith among many Catholics than I have found with some evangelicals—the depth of their commitment, the seriousness of their prayer-lives and so forth—so I would say that I think it is far more important to go out and seek to convert those who are lost than to try and convert each other. But I’m not speaking for the organization. That’s just my own opinion. And there are individual differences. I think there are some evangelicals who need to be converted. I guess it was the Puritans who had the doctrine of the visible church and the invisible church. And I think the truth is there are probably some Catholics who aren’t genuinely saved and there are probably some evangelicals who aren’t genuinely saved. We ought to be trying to convert anybody who isn’t genuinely saved.

That seems to be the common sense of the matter.

That’s the common sense of the matter. The second reason why I don’t think it’s going to cause problems has to do with this pope. I think that Pope John Paul II is clearly going to go down in the history of the Church as one of the most significant religious figures, not only of this century, but of all time. I think that when the history books are written, he will be a pivotal, if background figure, in the collapse of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe. And we now know that he was deeply involved in the Solidarity Movement and in assisting freedom-based movements which were all faith-based across Eastern and Central Europe.

Also there are two things that he has emphasized in recent encyclicals and pastoral letters that have had a tremendous impact on evangelicals. The first is the encyclical on human life, which probably had a greater impact on evangelicals than any other papal encyclical in my lifetime. The second is his emphasis on ecumenism and sort of cross-denominational cooperation in Ut unum sint. We’re going to quote from that in our document as to why we’re setting up the Catholic Alliance.

The third reason why I don’t think there will be a lot of division or conflict based on more Catholics coming into the Christian Coalition, is that I think that the right to life struggle has brought Catholics and Protestants together, not only as co-laborers on legislative and political issues, but as prayer-partners, as brothers and sisters, as soul-mates. The struggle to defend the innocent and to be a voice for the voiceless is ultimately—as Mother Teresa has reminded us far more eloquently than I can—is ultimately a spiritual struggle. It is ultimately a struggle against evil and against darkness and against death. There is no way to be engaged in that struggle as co-laborers across church lines and not grow to love one another with a depth that was unthinkable not only a century ago but even a decade ago. I think that that transformation is not fully appreciated. And I don’t think, for example, that the ECT could have happened before 1973.

The Gospel of Life of course combines a biblically-based morality with a natural law morality. There has been some question about how much Evangelicals can take advantage of the natural law. Do you think they’re open to that, and do you think it would be helpful in the political sphere to do that?

Absolutely, there is no question about the fact that the Roman Catholic idiom in debating and discussing social and political issues is far more amenable and tends to be less abrasive against the democratic ear of Americans because Catholics employ natural law theology. In fact if you look at somebody like Clarence Thomas—even though he now worships in an Episcopal Church—his training, his theological, and even broader education, was in the Catholic natural law tradition. The same with Robert Bork and Justice Scalia. The reason is historical. Unlike evangelicals, Catholics had to encounter a hostile culture and engage that culture on a moral level, bringing their faith to bear and doing it in a way that didn’t scare people, because they were the minority. Evangelicals have never had to do that until recently and so their rhetoric has tended to be triumphalist and arrogant, kingdom-oriented rather than natural law based.

I often joke with both my Catholic and evangelical friends that when we released the Contract with the American Family, one of the things I was most happy about was that it was drafted by a Roman Catholic, a Notre Dame-trained lawyer in our office named Susan Moska. And even though it was a very long document, it was probably the least edited document we have ever produced because of her natural law training and her Catholic background.

I think that the possibilities for cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics depends upon the mutual use of natural law language.

Yes. I think evangelicals need to be exposed to that language and insofar as they have not developed it themselves, they need to borrow from the Catholic tradition to be effective.

Do you have any favorite Catholic writers or saints?

I don’t know that I have any favorite Catholic saints. Somebody gave me the book about the first bishop of Baltimore, John Carroll. Your typical evangelical or even somebody like me who’s trained in history doesn’t fully realize what a major impact he had on America and what a difficult task he had and what a central figure he was in helping to bring Catholics to America and creating a place for them. With regard to writers and thinkers, without a doubt the most influential on me has been Bill Bennett. I think that he, not only as a Catholic but as a former liberal, has a way of thinking about these issues and writing about these issues and using language that that I think is the most effective in conservative American politics today. He’s had a huge impact on me, and he wrote the forward to my book which I’m really grateful for. And you know there are just so many others. I wouldn’t want to start playing favorites but there are many.

How do you respond to people who describe the Christian Coalition as scary? How do you respond to those who say that you’re imposing a private morality into public space or have labeled you the religious right?

Well, I think that we are probably no different than any social movement that is moving from marginalization to full integration into the public life of our nation. I think the first thing we have to do is to overcome the stereotype which in the infamous phrase of the Washington Post is “poor, uneducated and easy to command.” The notion that these are a lot of sort of ignorant fundamentalist hicks coming out of the bog, the Mencken-like character, the Sinclair Lewis-generated caricature—a stereotype which is deep and abiding in the 20th century.

We need to let people know who we are demographically, that, for example, 62% of religious conservatives are women and only 38% are men. That they tend to be upper middle class. The average household income of our members is $45,000 a year which is almost a third above the national average. Twelve percent of our members have earned advanced degrees, either a medical degree, a law degree, or a Ph.D. That compares to only 10% of the national average. When you begin to find out who these people really are demographically, they’re very mainstream and you see it isn’t scary at all.

But the second thing we have to overcome is ourselves. Some of the barbs that are directed at us are based on bigoted stereotypes but there is also an element of truth in it. We have our own history that we must bear as evangelicals—having demonstrated a hostility towards Catholics and immigrants when they first arrived, the fact that white, evangelical Protestants were on the wrong side of the struggle for racial justice throughout American history, but especially in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. And that again, I want to underscore, is why the Catholic presence in our ranks is so absolutely critical. Because unlike conservative, white, evangelical Protestants, Catholics were on the right side (most of the time) of those struggles for social justice on issues like child labor and the rights of the poor. I don’t mean entitlements and welfare, but I mean taking care of those who are poor and the most vulnerable as well as those who suffer discrimination. They’ve always been on the right side of the struggles so when Catholics pour into the public square, which cuts against the grain of what they’ve been taught to do historically, because they fear inciting anti-Catholicism, they do so with a tremendous amount of moral capital because they were involved in these other struggles. Whereas when Evangelicals say we believe that we ought to be involved in politics to save the unborn baby, the left says, “where were you in Birmingham? Where were you at Selma? You were preaching against our being involved in politics.” So that is a burden that we have to overcome and I think we’re doing a good job but we have a way to go.

What is your black representation?

Our minority representation is 10%. About 3% or 4% of that is African American. About 3% is Latino and about 2% or 3% is Native American. So it doesn’t quite reflect the national average but it’s higher, frankly, than we thought it might be.

What do you say to those who share your concern that Christian charity should be a guiding principle of our politics and that’s why the welfare system in this country should not be dismantled?

I don’t think we should completely dismantle it, and I don’t think the Christian Coalition has ever taken the position that the government has no role in helping to take care of the most needy among us. Our objection is not to the idea of a limited role of government in the work of charity. It is the idea of a bloated, corrupt, counter-productive, failed, modern liberal welfare state. We’re trying to reform a welfare state that has had the opposite of its intended effect upon everyone—upon the inner cities that it was supposed to turn into cities of alabaster and gold, upon the poor and the needy whom it was supposed to lift out of poverty, but instead has consigned to intergenerational poverty. To the children who it was supposed to save and instead it has consigned them to a life of hopelessness and violence and ignorance.

We think the welfare state has failed and what we want to do is take the resources that have been invested in the welfare state and do two things with them. The first thing we want to do is to shift them to government at the lowest possible level. Take it out of Washington and send it back to states, back to communities. Remove the notion of a federal entitlement and allow local governments and state governments to administer those programs closest to the need. We also propose a notion of subsidiarity or non-governmental vehicles of compassion, such as churches and synagogues, private charities, traditional vehicles like the Salvation Army and others. Gertrude Himmelfarb talks quite a bit about this in her notion of the Victorian ethic. No one, I think, is suggesting that this is the whole answer to the problem of poverty. But what we are suggesting is that traditional Victorian notions or traditional Judeo- Christian notions of charity certainly didn’t make matters worse. The illegitimacy rate in the late 19th century when private charity was handling many of these issues didn’t go up by three-fold in a couple of decades. The divorce rate among the poor didn’t skyrocket. You didn’t have all of these fatherless households.

Why do you think that so many people fail to understand clearly the kind of compassion you articulate?

I think the reason is that we, as a movement, frankly, haven’t done enough of it, and that’s clearly part of the problem. There is a lot going on, but not enough. There aren’t enough relief efforts and charitable efforts out of the church. If every church in America adopted just one family on welfare there would be nobody on welfare rolls anywhere in the country. So there isn’t enough of it going on. And there needs to be more. We need to make it a challenge to our community. Particularly as the problem of the deficit forces Washington, whether it wants to or not, to send a lot of this off to charitable and private and faith- based agencies.

But the second thing is, the only time the media is interested, the dominant media, is interested in covering people of faith is when they are trying to, allegedly, take over a political party or dominate a political issue. They almost never cover the quiet, unheralded things that we do every day to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, and to clothe the naked. They’re just not interested. I can speak personally about this because Pat Robertson, who’s the head of our organization, is also the head of one of the country’s leading broadcast ministries—and one of its leading relief organizations. Operation Blessing, which he heads, distributes about 2 million pounds of food every month in the inner city. They’re currently outfitting an L1011 airplane to be a fully mobile surgical hospital that will be able to fly anywhere in the world, to go into places like Zaire during the Ebola virus and provide state of the art surgical care to those in the most furthest flung corners of the world. It’s almost impossible to get anybody in the media to cover those aspects of what we do. So I think that’s the reason.

I’d like end on that note and I appreciate your talking with me


  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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