Ralph Reed is definitely back. Six years ago, the eternally smooth-skinned and exquisitely coiffed Georgia Republican was tainted by dubious dealings with the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, Reed appeared reborn, embraced with open arms at Grover Norquist’s First National Center Right Meeting — a kind of right-wing revival tent featuring conservative grand dame Phyllis Schlafly and Steven Law, president of Super-PAC American Crossroads.
Resplendent in a green plaid jacket and pink tie, Reed described his plans for registering over 9 million evangelicals in the coming weeks. He’s also aiming robocalls and door-knockers at nearly 2 million evangelical households in Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. We spent a few moments with Reed as he raced to his next event, talking about whether or not Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was a sticking point for born-again Christians. He was a very good sport.
NYM: Let’s just cut to the chase: Magic underwear.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha! The thing that people don’t understand is evangelicals don’t vote for people because they share their theology, they vote for people who share their values and policy positions.
But that’s not really true, is it?
It is true. It’s absolutely true.
Let me walk you through it. The movement began by defeating the most explicitly evangelical president since Woodrow Wilson. Namely Jimmy Carter, who was put on the cover of Newsweek — back when there was a Newsweek – and called it “The Year of the Evangelical” and he got up in front of the American people and said he was born again. And everybody ran around to find out what that meant. They voted overwhelmingly against him — to put the first divorced man to ever sit in the White House, in the Oval Office, who when he was asked if he was born again, said “we do not use that term in my church.”
Fast forward to 2008, they vote for John McCain who was, um, you know …
Previously divorced, was not an evangelical, and in fact had a historically tortured and tumultuous relationship to religious conservatives. He compared them to Louis Farrakahn and the Nation of Islam. They voted for him by a larger margin than they voted for George W. Bush in 2000.
The evangelicals have a history of being uncomfortable with Mormons.
Sure, that is certainly true. But there’s one thing that you’re not appreciating. If you understand the religious and cultural history of America, no religious minority group, to my knowledge, has ever been as thoroughly persecuted, discriminated against, chased from one end of this continent to the other because of opposition to their theology and, in many cases, religious bigotry.
I am proud as an American, and particularly proud as a conservative evangelical, that we have nominated a ticket that is the first ticket in U.S. history without a protestant on it. And, that ticket, with a Mormon, and a devout Catholic, is going to get more evangelical votes, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the vote, than any candidate in the modern political era.
You’re saying they’re a minority.
Well, they are a religious minority. Sure they are. I don’t share Paul Ryan’s theology by the way. And all you have to do, Joe, is rewind the clock 50 years and the things you were just saying about Mormons, people were saying about John F. Kennedy.
You’re saying they’re not voting on theology, and the value system trumps the fact that Romney believes that everybody gets their own planet after they die.
Have you ever looked at some of the things we believe?
You could do that to any religion. You could do that to — you’re not being fair. If you print this interview with the questions you’re asking me now, you’re going to be embarrassed on your deathbed. I like you, I think you’re a great reporter, but I’m going to give you a little business here. Would you sit down with me and ask me about a Catholic?
And say they believe —
But you’re not! Would you ask me whether Paul Ryan believes that the wine and the bread turn into the body and blood of Christ. Why don’t you ask people —
I’d like to. I don’t think people get asked these questions enough.
No, it’s un-American.
It’s un-American to ask about beliefs?
It’s un-American. The constitution of the United States says there is no religious test to serve. If there’s no religious test, then there’s no religious test. And John F. Kennedy, when he appeared before the Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960, said that if he had lost his right to be president on the day he was baptized, then not only was he the loser, then the entire country was the loser. The same is true of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
But why is it fair to attack and question the faith of Barack Obama?
I haven’t done that. It’s not.
Why is Phyllis Schlafly saying he has a war on faith?
I think he does. But that’s a policy difference. You asked two different questions. Your question is whether we’ve questioned Obama’s faith. I’ve never done that. I have always said that I cannot judge anybody’s heart. I don’t try to judge Mitt Romney’s heart, by the way — good or bad.
I do think it’s fair to say there has been a systematic insensitivity to — that at times has bordered on hostility toward — the expression of religious faith in this country by this administration. I think the HHS mandate –
The Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to include contraception as part of health insurance provisions, which upset the Catholics —
Not just Catholics. Liberty University, Ohio Christian University — [they are] going to be required to subsidize health services that in their classrooms, they teach is a sin.
The students don’t have to partake of these services.
I’m not talking about the students; I’m talking about the university and the denominations of the church behind it.
So you’re saying they’re paying for a service they don’t intend to use.
Yeah. Well, and that they believe is a moral evil.
But the government wages wars that we all pay for but many of us find to be fundamentally wrong on a spiritual and every other level. Isn’t that the same?
I don’t think it’s the same.
One is a personal choice that may end the life of an unborn child, the other is going to end the lives of thousands of already-born people.
No, not true.
How is that not true?
Because, well … because we allow for an exception, in the draft laws, for conscientious and religious objectors. No respected denomination in the history of this country, not the Quakers — when they were really committed pacifists, less so today — but I’m talking about during the 18th and 19th centuries. Look at the Revolution — where it was a big issue for Quakers. Nobody forced them to serve. It is true they were required to pay taxes, but no evangelical or Catholic is saying they should be required to pay taxes. You see? I think any fair-minded analysis in mainstream theology would say we’re all required to do that.
But there’s no draft, so this isn’t relevant. The government is waging war on my dime, whether I personally go to war or not.
All the Catholic bishops asked for was an exception [to the HHS mandate]. A religious exemption. And we know that was reasonable because we know from press accounts that [former White House chief of staff] Bill Daley argued for it, that Joe Biden argued — there were people within the administration; and Cardinal Dolan met with Barack Obama in the Oval Office and the president told him to his face, you don’t have anything to worry about, we understand your concern.
Why did they take a stick and poke this beehive? Can you figure it out? Because I could argue on policy and political grounds that it makes no sense.
Last question. The Bible says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Are the Koch brothers going to heaven?
Ha ha ha ha ha! I’m not responsible for their eternal destiny. Their eternal destiny is between them and their pastor and their God, but while they’re here, they’re clearly doing a lot of earthly good.