Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Christians in Coalition

James Skillen


May 12, 1997

Ralph Reed's decision to leave the Christian Coalition raises questions about whether the organization will be able to retain its high-profile influence under a new leader. It ought to raise the even more important question of whether the group has succeeded in advancing a Christian approach to politics.

What is it that Ralph Reed will be leaving at the end of August? Have American Christians finally found the correct agenda and the best means of handling big time politics? Or must we wait for other means and a different kind of coalition?

These questions have become even more important, in my estimation, as the result of a trip to South Africa from which I returned yesterday. Many Christians with whom I spoke there are looking for new ways to cooperate politically to help the poor, stop crime, and sustain the moral foundations of society. For many citizens, discouragement is eating away at hope. Some Christians who voted for Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) worry that the tightly controlled governing party will not make adequate room for a Christian voice. Should Christians, then, form other parties or simply try to influence the ANC from the inside? Should they form single-issue groups or build more diversified coalitions in order to lobby government?

When South Africans look to the United States, they see a diverse range of so-called Christian voices and groups. Many churches employ lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Single-issue groups abound on both left and right. The Christian Coalition is a multi-issue, conservative movement attached to the Republican Party. But what is Christian about any of these? By the looks of the organization that Ralph Reed built, Christian politics means a movement in support of conservative family values. Yet not only is there nothing uniquely Christian about such an agenda, there are many concerns about justice that this agenda does not address.

The great challenge in the months ahead, it seems to me, is not whether the Christian Coalition or any other group of Christian activists can find strong enough leadership to remain (or become) influential. Instead, the challenge is to discover what it means for Christians to be responsible in politics. Put in other words, what bearing does Christian faith have on the development of a public philosophy and a political agenda? What kind of political influence ought Christians, as Christians, to be trying to exert in politics? What are the criteria by which to judge what is properly Christian about political action?

Apart from an answer to this question, the label "Christian" means little or nothing. Bill Clinton and Ralph Reed are both professing Christians. Tony Blair, Britian's new Labor Party Prime Minister, and many of the Conservatives he trounced are professing Christians. Many members of South Africa's ANC are professing Christians, as are those in some of the country's smaller conservative parties.

Politics always includes jockeying for power. Christian citizens ought to be clear about the basis and terms on which they are doing their jockeying. If the Christian Coalition declines or even fades away (remember the Moral Majority) after Ralph Reed's departure, it may indicate that the organization is (was) little more than the product of Reed's tactical genius. If so, I hope South Africans can find better ways to coalesce.

—James W, Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”