Reed, Abramoff and the Christian Right

Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, is accused by Senate investigators of taking money from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. How does this charge affect the Christian right? John Dickerson wrote about Reed for Slate. He shares his insights with Madeleine Brand.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, vultures circle over NASA's space shuttle launch. First, though, we look at the changing political fortunes of evangelical Christians. As the November elections get closer, Congressional Republicans have been bringing up issues important to many evangelicals, think ban on gay marriage. But there are signs that conservative Christians are starting to look beyond the usual hot-button issues and the GOP.

Joining us is John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, and first, John, let's talk about Ralph Reed. He was the head of the Christian Coalition. He's now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia. And there was a recent Senate report, a pretty scathing report, detailing Reed's dealings with the infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Tell us about that.

JOHN DICKERSON reporting:

That's right. Well, Ralph Reed hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, but what came out in this report is that he was paid $5.3 million to contact his grassroots evangelical friends to inveigh and weigh in against gambling in various locations, and it turns out what he was doing is pushing against gambling on the one hand, but he was being hired by Abramoff to - in the interests of his gaming clients, these Indian tribes that owned existing casinos.

So the Christian evangelicals who Reed was using were actually working against their own interests. Reed says he didn't know what was going on, and the committee report doesn't suggest that he did, but it is a situation in which you had evangelicals working, essentially without knowing it, for the gambling interests they are so against.

BRAND: And it doesn't cast a good light on Ralph Reed for the evangelicals, right? I mean, they may be looking at him askance now?

DICKERSON: Absolutely, that's exactly right. Evangelicals have always, in the last 30-40 years that there's been this rise of this voting block, there has been a portion that's always worried about getting involved in politics because there is something about politics that is worldly and debasing, and this is an example of that, and so there have been many who have argued, even at the height of the evangelical power in the political process, who have argued, Look, we should stick to the local, changing hearts one at a time, and in our churches, and just not get involved in the political business because, inevitably, it's going to lead to this kind of business.

BRAND: So are they looking to other leaders, aside from the James Dobsons and the Jerry Falwells of the world?

DICKERSON: That's right. The old-line political leaders have lost some standing in the evangelical movement, and now when I talk to people who are deeply religious people, they talk about pastors like TD Jakes or Rick Warren, that's the Saddleback Church in California, who are working on big, global issues, and they're not so involved in the gay marriage and abortion and school prayer debates that go on in Washington.

BRAND: What are these big issues?

DICKERSON: Well, the big issues they're working on are poverty, and not just in the United States, but globally, AIDS in Africa, and also now a group of evangelicals are working on global warming. They say that one of the things God calls us to do is to be good caretakers of His earth, and that's caused a bit of a split, or at least a public spat within some of the - or among some of the evangelical leaders, as those who say global warming is an important issue get into an argument with others who say that takes focus away from issues like abortion or stopping gay marriage or making sure there can be prayer in schools.

BRAND: President Bush has always been a favorite among evangelicals, and his personal story of religious conversion appealing to them. Any potential Presidential candidates, Republicans, that are similarly appealing to them?

DICKERSON: Well it depends. In the frontrunners, you have John McCain and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and evangelicals have trouble with both of those candidates. John McCain sort of openly criticized this portion of the GOP constituency, and Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and there are many evangelicals who have big problems with the Mormon faith. However, Mitt Romney talks a lot about what he has in common with evangelical Protestants and is trying to break that down.

Mike Huckabee, the Governor of Arkansas, used to be a Baptist minister, and so he would be one that would certainly be a favorite. The problem is he's a big long shot for the Presidency.

BRAND: Well, is it a possibility that the evangelicals will just not be as strongly aligned with the GOP?

DICKERSON: This is the great question, and there are a couple of options. Either evangelicals can decide that they'll be sort of transactional, that they'll go along with a frontrunner that they may not really love but they still want to be in a part of the conversation. Some may just leave and not be involved in politics at all, or some may back these kind of long-shot candidates like Huckabee, and they'll participate in the process and they'll get their man some votes, but in the end not determine who gets the nomination. But how that all shakes out remains to be seen.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate. Thank you, John.

DICKERSON: Thank you.

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