Ralph Reed

updated 02/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

RALPH REED, THE BABY-FACED DIRECTOR OF THE Christian Coalition, is extolling the virtues of John and Paul—but this is no Sunday sermon. "Sgt. Pepper was one of the most significant albums in the history of rock and roll," he says while strolling the immaculate lawn surrounding Founder's Inn, the sprawling Virginia Beach resort hotel run by his boss, TV evangelist Pat Robertson. "Lennon was a dark and troubled genius, and the Beatles elevated rock music to a kind of art form."

Reed, 33, doesn't quite fit the mold of Bible-thumping fundamentalist. As director of the Christian Coalition—the 1.5 million-member group whose get-out-the-conservative-vote campaign was widely credited with last November's Republican landslide—he speaks softly, steering clear of vitriolic, us-versus-them rhetoric.

But these days, Reed is wielding a hefty political stick. In January he met with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and pledged $1 million in coalition money to promote the Republicans' so-called Contract with America. Not long afterward he made the rounds of the morning talk shows to denounce the nomination of Henry Foster for Surgeon General. And earlier this month, Reed took his boldest stand yet when he declared his organization would not support any Republican ticket in '96 that does not consist of two antiabortion candidates. It was an unexpected, and potentially dangerous, move. "Making a litmus test of any one issue means you'll alienate people and lose voters," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Reed, he adds, probably won't stick to his guns. "His goal is to win. He's too pragmatic to jump off a cliff like that."

Reed's version of the religious right, in fact, is not driven by just a few basic issues. As he makes clear in his recently published book Politically Incorrect (which he calls the Feminine Mystique for the faith community), the Christian Coalition favors school prayer and opposes "special" treatment for homosexuals—all standard fundamentalist fare. But Reed won't stop there: He has broken new ground by directing his flock to take a stand on issues—including welfare reform and balancing the budget—that have nothing obvious to do with religion.

His critics find his single-mindedness threatening nonetheless. "It's laudatory to apply religious values to political decisions," says Democratic strategist Paul Be-gala. "It's a different thing to suggest there is only one acceptable Christian view on NAFTA or a balanced budget." Even more disquieting to some is the ruthlessness they detect behind Reed's smiles. "You sit down with him, and he's not someone who is angry and full of hate and blind to diversity," says Arthur Kropp, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. "But the fact remains that the coalition has opposed gay-rights legislation and is against affirmative action. They're appealing to people's bigotries, and that's scary and dangerous." Reed, who has met with black and Jewish religious leaders, insists the movement isn't intolerant. "We want to include our black and brown and yellow brothers and sisters," he says. "That will help our coalition have a friendlier face."

Even as a boy Reed reached far and aimed high. The second of three children born in Portsmouth, Va., to Ralph Sr., a Navy doctor, and his wife, Marcy, Reed led the peripatetic life of a military kid. An excellent student, he honed his persuasive powers in political discussions with his staunchly Republican parents. "He'd never jump in until he'd done his homework on an issue," remembers his mother. "Then he'd come into the kitchen with an outline. He was a wheeler-dealer—he always wanted to have the upper hand." Fascinated by the 1972 Republican presidential convention in Miami (where the family was then living), Reed went into politics in the eighth grade. He ran for student-council president at Cutler Ridge Junior High School and won "in a landslide" after demonstrating a flair for flattering his constituency. "I told them, 'A lot of people think you're not intelligent enough to vote for someone who's going to actually do something for you,' " he recalls. " 'I think you're better than that.' "

Majoring in history at the University of Georgia, Reed headed the College Republicans and debated issues like the death penalty as a member of the campus Demosthenian Society. Despite a reputation for being what fellow Demosthenian Rob Owen calls "divisive in his conservative politics," Reed was a funny, rowdy, popular guy. "He was a great guy to go drinking with," says college friend Alex Johnson. "There's many a campus leader who remembers putting Ralph up on a couch." Until he went cold turkey, that is. With characteristic resolve, the onetime Eagle Scout gave up booze and cigarettes in 1983. "I had never indulged that much, but I was concerned about the health risks, so one day I just quit," Reed says. "I'm decisive in every area of my life."

His turning to God that winter, when he was director of the College Republican National Committee (a student group in Washington that drummed up support for conservative politicians), was equally unhesitating. Raised a Methodist, Reed says he had grown away from religion during college. "Then one night I saw a very pro-family, traditional-values congressman with someone he wasn't married to and drinking to excess," he says. "It was such hypocrisy. I decided that my private life should be in full harmony with what I advocated politically." Soon afterward, he looked up a number of evangelical churches in the phone book, picked one and went the next day. "I'd gotten to know a lot of evangelicals in politics," he says. "They were in tune with my value system."

For a man who had emulated what he calls the brass-knuckled, hardball politics of Lee Atwater—the Republican operative who later became campaign manager for George Bush—conversion entailed some changes. "It altered the way I treated people," Reed says. "I gained respect and love for people with whom I had political disagreements." A year later, in 1984, Reed headed for Raleigh, N.C., where he started Students for America, a pro-Reagan campus organization. At a victory party for Sen. Jesse Helms that fall, he met Helms campaign-worker Jo Anne Young. "She was very good-looking," he says, "and it struck me that somebody so young—she was only 16—was that interested in politics." Reed waited more than a year before dating her, and they wed in 1987. Jo Anne dropped out after a year at the University of North Carolina and followed Reed to Atlanta, where he was studying for a Ph.D. in American history at Emory University.

Reed kept up his political ties, but he was planning an academic career when he ran into Pat Robertson at George Bush's Inauguration in January 1989. Much to his surprise, the evangelist—wrhom Reed had met during the New-Hampshire primary campaign the year before—offered him the chance to mastermind a new Christian advocacy group. "It was unusual, and I was flattered," says Reed, who was working as a waiter while finishing up his doctorate. "I thought, 'Gosh, we need change for the good of the country.' And I got excited about the huge potential of such an organization."

Today, Reed makes $122,500 annually running his crusade, which has its headquarters in Chesapeake, Va., a half-hour drive from his new redbrick home. There, in an office as plain as the white shirts and gray suits he favors, he communes by phone with the likes of Gingrich, Bob Dole and, of course, Robertson, whom he consults routinely on coalition business. When he isn't relaxing or going to church with his wife and children—Brittany, 5, Ralph III, 4, and Christopher, 2—Reed unwinds on the golf course.

He'll need the down time. Reed is driving harder than ever to put Christian Coalition values—what he calls the pro-family movement—into the mainstream. "Our group is blessed with having a large megaphone, and we can set the tone for the country," he says. "We're out to change society." Some who know him wouldn't bet against it. "I don't share his viewpoint, but I admire him," says James Roark, who taught him history at Emory University. "Ralph Reed is so good, it's disturbing."

LINDA KRAMER in Washington

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