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This conservative leader is trying to make white evangelical politics less white

Ralph Reed prays on stage during a Donald Trump campaign event courting devout conservatives by combining praise, prayer and patriotism, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Alpharetta, Ga.
John Amis
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AP
Ralph Reed prays on stage during a Donald Trump campaign event courting devout conservatives by combining praise, prayer and patriotism, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Alpharetta, Ga.

NASHVILLE — At a recent gathering of thousands of religious conservative activists held by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, one thing immediately stood out: the crowd isn't as white as it used to be.

That's not an accident, according to founder Ralph Reed.

"Our goal is, over the coming decades, to build a genuinely multiracial, multiethnic, faith-based movement that changes the demographic location of our movement," Reed said during a lunch roundtable with a handful of reporters.

Attendees listened to Christian worship music — at times sung in Spanish — and attended sessions on how to turn out the vote in this year's midterms. The message, and the movement, is resonating with Black pastors like W.J. Coleman from Lewisville, Miss.

"Many realize they are conservative, but the word 'conservative' and 'Republican' have been made an evil word," he told NPR. "But if you take that out of the equation, many more minorities would find themselves being that."

Social conservatism is having a moment

The Supreme Court is handing down recent decisions in their favor — against abortion rights and in favor of public prayer — and the Republican Party's rising stars, like Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, are eagerly taking on the progressive politics of corporate America.

Reed has been an activist in evangelical GOP politics for three decades. He runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition now, but he is best known for starting the Christian Coalition back in the early 1990s. He has been a controversial figure at times. In the mid 2000s, he got caught up in the Washington scandals involving disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but Reed was never charged with any wrongdoing.

He found his way back to national prominence after he embraced Donald Trump in 2016 and helped turn out the white evangelical vote in his favor.

Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed at the White House on Sept. 26, 2020, after President Donald Trump introduced Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court. It secured a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court and fulfilled a key promise Trump made to white evangelical voters in 2016, when Reed became a political ally.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed at the White House on Sept. 26, 2020, after President Donald Trump introduced Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court. It secured a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court and fulfilled a key promise Trump made to white evangelical voters in 2016, when Reed became a political ally.

Reed's stock is once again on the rise as Republicans see a red wave coming in the fight for control of Congress this November. "We are focused like a laser beam at turning out the largest faith-based evangelical and pro-life vote that we've seen in a midterm elections in our lifetimes," Reed said.

He noted that when he started the Christian Coalition, the outfit built a database of 8 million voters. Today, Reed's database measures at 46 million voters. "We will knock on more doors, touch more voters at the door, not only than we have ever touched in the history of the organization, but than I believe have been touched by any outside organization on the center right in my career," he said.

If Reed sounds optimistic, he has reason to be.

His organization has become a touchstone for any Republican candidate seriously considering a run for president. Trump spoke at his Nashville gathering last month. Plus, the decisive sway of evangelical voters in primary politics has ambitious politicians making moves to win them over.

Florida's fight with Disney was a 'watershed moment'

One of those presidential hopefuls, Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, recently went after the Walt Disney corporation's special tax status in his state after the company opposed a new state law prohibiting educators from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with children before the 4th grade. Reed said that was "a watershed moment" for the conservative movement.

"For that to not only happen, but for it to happen like that, and for DeSantis to do it and not only pay no political price, but I would argue become a political beneficiary, and then for Disney to basically go radio silent and just take it, was unbelievable," he said.

The Disney fight has emboldened activists to more aggressively take on institutions that have been their traditional political allies. Disney did not respond to a request for comment.

"If the Disneys and the Deltas and the Coca-Colas of the world are not careful, they're going to take the best friend they've ever had when it came to economic policy and regulation — and policies that would benefit their ability to grow their companies — and turn them into adversaries," he said.

Reed sees culture war issues as a draw for nonwhite voters

Reed sees issues involving sex and gender and parental rights as a new avenue for the Republican Party to make inroads with Black and Latino voters who attend church at higher rates than White voters do, according to the Pew Research Center.

"They really, really play and resonate powerfully in these minority communities," he said. "Not among everybody, but it would be a minimum of 25% in the black community, and it would probably be a minimum 30% in the Hispanic community."

Reed spoke to reporters days before the Supreme Court handed down the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, though the outcome was expected after the draft opinion was leaked. He did not think that abortion would be a major issue come November, noting historically only about 5% of voters list abortion as their number one reason for voting.

"I think this election is going to be about what we all know it's going to be about, which is the economy, inflation and high prices," he said.

The impact, come November, could be a Republican controlled Congress emboldened to advance a more socially conservative agenda.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.