Dockery on Page

In a recent op-ed by Margaret Carlson, David Dockery had some insightful things to say about the new face of evangelicals in the U.S., and the role that the election of Frank Page could play in reshaping the agenda and tone of Christian political activism.

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Reed’s Defeat Shows Evangelicals Getting Wise: Margaret Carlson

July 27 (Bloomberg) — I first met Ralph Reed in the early 1990s, when he was a political kingmaker as head of the Christian Coalition. By age 33, he was heralded on the cover of Time Magazine as “the Right Hand of God,” helping elect members of Congress and anointing presidential candidates.

We’ve been on panels since — he the picture of smooth affability taking credit for morality, motherhood and apple pie, and me getting blamed for vulgar TV, scantily clad teenagers and flag burning.

But I saw Reed’s veneer crack at an event in Hartford, Connecticut, last year. His rosy cheeks went ashen when he was asked about his fees (now totaling $5.3 million) from clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Back then, Reed could still galvanize millions of Christian soldiers even though he’d morphed into a wealthy Washington dealmaker. Yet multiple investigations were threatening to pull back the curtain on Abramoff. Would they also reveal the dark side of Reed’s dealings, and would his soldiers start to decamp? They would and they did. Reed, 45, earlier this month lost his first election for political office.

Like labor bosses in stretch limos ignoring the rank and file, e-mail messages between him and Abramoff revealed that Reed forgot who brought him to the party. E-mails setting up a ruse to hide who was paying Reed revealed a guilty heart. One seeking business — “I need to start humping in corporate accounts!” he wrote to Abramoff in 1998 — revealed a lost soul.

Feeding the Tumor

Hearings held by Senator John McCain’s Indian Affairs Committee nailed the fact that Reed, who once called gambling a “cancer” on the body politic, was feeding the tumor. Instead of being paid by God-fearing anti-gambling forces to mobilize his grass-roots followers against casinos, Reed was paid by established casinos trying to kill the competition.

Reed suffered a 12-percentage-point defeat on July 18 by an obscure state senator in his race for lieutenant governor of Georgia. The interesting question about his loss is whether it’s primarily attributable to his association with Abramoff, as opposed to what the investigation revealed about his hypocrisy. Or was the vote a sign that evangelicals have caught on to the hustle by latter-day Elmer Gantrys who’ve taken their money and votes and only occasionally their beliefs to Washington.

Vulnerable Republicans

It’s hard to say which is worse. If it’s Abramoff, expect a slew of Republicans to lose elections. He’s already claimed David Safavian, a former White House official and Abramoff ally who was found guilty of lying and obstruction of justice, and prompted a wave of lawmakers to return contributions from the lobbyist. And there are lawmakers such as Senator Conrad Burns of Montana and Representative Bob Ney of Ohio who’d rather talk about death and destruction in Iraq than their ties to Abramoff.

On whether Reed’s loss has meaning for the evangelical base, I turned to Dr. David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and chairman of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. I find Dockery a quiet voice of reason among religious leaders, and not just because when I came to speak at the university, he didn’t blame me for vulgar teenagers or the swill on cable.

`Beltway Fever’

Dockery said “some of the leaders in the evangelical world have been infected with Beltway fever” and chased the “Kingdom of Man rather than the Kingdom of God” without a lot to show for it.

He pointed to another recent race as more important than Reed’s loss. It was the election of Dr. Frank Page, an apolitical pastor, to head the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the U.S. with more than 16 million members. Dockery says Page puts “a kinder, gentler face” on evangelicals.

Page is the opposite of the fiery political preacher, calling himself a “normal” pastor in search of “sweet spirits” and dedicated to missionary work and help for struggling churches. Not a word about impeaching judges or boycotting Disney for offering benefits to partners of gay employees. “I believe in the word of God,” Page said, “I’m just not mad about it.”

No Gale Force

Of course, he didn’t say he wouldn’t get involved in social issues, but those who lost surely would have. Page beat Ronnie Floyd, a megachurch pastor from Arkansas, and Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Two Rivers is one of the most politically active congregations in the country, having hosted Justice Sunday II last August, where then- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist railed against activist judges.

The Christian right will remain a force in Republican politics, just not a gale-force wind. Rich Galen, the former director of GOPAC, a conservative political action committee, says, “There are lots of evangelicals and lots of Republicans, but the religious-political connection is not nearly so cohesive now as it once was.”

Says University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato: “The heyday of the Christian right is over. Even if there were another Reed, the era coming after Bush won’t be hospitable to him.”

If the Christian right becomes less vocal about its disgust with Senator Edward Kennedy, gay lifestyles and the “war on Christmas,” there’s a chance the public will hear their voices on urgent issues such as poverty in Africa, genocide in Darfur and world health. Who knows, they may even save a few souls.

In remarks after winning the first contested election of the convention in several decades, Page said everyone has known for a long time what conservative Christians are against. “It’s time to say, ‘Please let us tell you what we’re for.”’ Even Reed, as he licks his wounds, might say Amen to that.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column:
Margaret Carlson in Washington at

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