WASHINGTON, May 5 (JTA) — Ralph Reed quickly became the man the organized Jewish community loved to hate when he exploded on the national political scene eight years ago as executive director of the Christian Coalition. The Anti-Defamation League attacked the telegenic darling of the religious right as the leader of a movement that threatened religious freedom and pluralism in America. The American Jewish Congress ridiculed his legislative blueprint, asking whose American family he claimed to represent when his organization issued its “Contract with the American Family,” which called for school prayer, school choice and limits on the right to abortion. And this week, one of Reed’s top priorities — bringing prayer to public schools as part of a Religious Equality Constitutional Amendment — began its latest legislative journey when U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) introduced a bill on the House floor. Votes on the measure are not expected until early this summer. So now that Reed is leaving the Christian Coalition to run a campaign consulting company, one might expect a little rejoicing by the Jewish activists who have spent the past decade locked in battle against the premier religious right organization. But the only audible relief is reflected in the joke making its rounds among Jewish groups as activists wonder out loud how they will raise money now that they no longer have Reed to vilify. Instead, these activists fear that Reed will muster greater strength in American politics now that he has shed the yoke of restrictive federal rules by leaving the Christian Coalition. As a non-profit organization, the group cannot engage directly in electoral politics or contribute money to candidates. In his new role, Reed could rise as a formidable opponent in the campaign arena as he seeks to strengthen local, state and national candidates sympathetic to his agenda. But the big question is: How will the coalition move without Reed at the helm, once his departure goes into effect on Sept. 1. If the group sheds its compromising and pragmatic approach that has dominated its policies under Reed, the religious right could rapidly find itself losing influence. Under his guidance, for example, the group was the first to offer to compromise during last year’s acrimonious Republican Party platform debate on abortion. But the group could also find another leader willing to moderate positions in order to exert more influence. “We will be watching very closely who succeeds Reed,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the AJCongress. “I do not have the same confidence in Pat Robertson as I do in Ralph Reed,” Baum said, referring to the group’s founder and president. On Reed’s watch, the Christian Coalition grew to become a major player in the Republican Party. In a sign of its raw political power, Bob Dole delayed announcing Jack Kemp as his running mate in the 1996 presidential election until aides had secured the coalition’s blessing. Reed also led the group to apologize for what he called his constituents’ “embarrassing” history in the civil-rights movement. He also single-handedly sought to improve relations between Jews and evangelical Christians when he apologized for what he termed insensitive language and pledged to work to eradicate references such as “Christian nation” from the religious right’s vocabulary. Reed also won praise as a strong supporter of Israel. He most recently signing onto an ad in The New York Times, pledging support for a united Jerusalem under Israel’s rule. Founded from the grass-roots organization built during Rev. Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential campaign, the coalition boasts almost 2 million members. Once pledging to run stealth campaigns, the group has moved into the spotlight, distributing 45 million voter guides during the last election cycle at churches across the country. The guides targeted candidates who did not share the group’s views. Reed will leave the group just as a Federal Election Commission investigation into these activities as well as others reaches full steam. A decision is pending on whether the coalition violated its tax- exempt status by engaging in restricted political activities. But it is the legislative arena where Jewish activists will be focusing their primary attention when Reed moves on. Jewish groups from across the religious spectrum have opposed the coalition’s demand for prayer in public schools and a constitutional amendment banning abortion. At times, Orthodox Jewish activists have worked with the coalition to support school-voucher programs under which students receive government subsidies to attend private and parochial schools. While Reed will no longer run the day-to-day operations of the coalition, he will remain on its board and is serving on the search committee for his successor. For years, Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, has struggled to fend off charges that the Christian Coalition’s cozy relationship with the GOP endangered American Jews. “Ralph is pragmatic, and, in the world of the Christian conservative movement, wanted to build bridges and broaden the base,” Brooks said. “Unfortunately a lot of elements in the movement are not motivated by the same principles as Ralph. It’s going to be interesting to see which way they move.” For the National Jewish Democratic Council, there is no good way to move. “Ralph Reed’s pragmatic approach, if it was not just public relations camouflage, was never widely accepted by his community,” said Stephen Silberfarb, associate director of the NJDC. “He was a formidable opponent before, and we expect he will be one now.”
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