Right claims God is on its side

John Carlin in Washington meets the foot-soldiers of the Christian revolution
A SOUTH African rabbi from Seattle addressing the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" conference in Washington this weekend said it was laughable to imagine that Beethoven was descended from a baboon.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin was seeking to burrow his way into the graces of America's most powerful civil movement, the kingmakers of the political right, by mocking Darwin and propounding the theory that the Genesis version of creation was scientifically coherent. His logic went thus: "There is a heaven. If evolution is true, then there is no heaven. Therefore evolution is false."

Many of the 3,500 enthusiasts gathered at the Washington Hilton's subterranean International Ballroom looked a little puzzled. The language of logic, science - this was not the sort of fare their preachers delivered. But then they remembered. Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, had said they should be nice to the Jews. And, besides, they got the basic point: creationism good, evolution bad. So they stood up and gave Rabbi Lapin an ovation.

One could understand what Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan and other Republican grandees were doing at the annual gathering of America's organised Christian right. They were currying favour with an organisation that has 1.6 million zealously driven members, controls the Republican Party machine in 18 states and, having been derided at its founding in 1989 as a folkloric assembly of religious nutters, has more political clout today than the labour unions, the women's movement, gay rights campaigners, environmentalists and all the other liberal pressure groups combined combined.

But what was a rabbi doing there? After all, Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist (and failed Republican presidential candidate) who founded the Coalition, has a history of thinly disguised anti-Semitism, as do a number of his redneck devotees. Why did Mr Reed, who has taken over the Coalition's day-to-day operations from Mr Roberston, make a point of declaring in his opening address that the Christian foot soldiers assembled before him were the best allies the Jewish people had ever had?

Because to quote one of the congressmen who spoke at the conference, Republican John Kasich: "Ralph Reed is living in the world, not in a religious box." Under Mr Reed, an eerily boyish 34-year-old, the Christian Coalition has been transformed from a pulpit for Old Testament cranks into a formidable political force. Religion has been the instrument but power has been the objective: an impossible goal to attain in America if the Jewish lobby, with its money and friends in high places, stands in your way.

Whether it is Mr Reed's aim to transform America into a theocracy ruled by the Christian Coalition or simply to become president some day is unclear - although in a statement five years ago he did define his goal as converting America into "a country once again governed by Christians and Christian values".

As speaker after speaker repeated at the conference, the American way of life is disintegrating, the family is in decline, the institutions of state are in terminal demise. And the reason is that, 30 years ago "the radical left" took over the United States. Since Lyndon Johnson came to power, in other words, America has been a socialist state. The time, therefore, is ripe for revolution. Or at any rate, for "a revolutionary centrist", the phrase Mr Reed used to introduce Mr Gingrich to the conference.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, no less adept at telling an audience what they want to hear than his precocious host, blamed America's ills on "the liberals who made a pact with the devil". "We know that what has made America a country of extraordinary exceptionableness", he went on, "is that it was founded on a belief in God." Accordingly, "America is the last best hope for mankind", indeed "for the entire human race". As Mr Gingrich walked off stage, to a brassy musical accompaniment and against the backdrop of a massive Stars and Stripes, the audience responded as if they just had witnessed a first glimpse of the Second Coming.

The coalition is, above all, "pro-family", which means it is anti-abortion, anti-pre-marital sex, anti-gay and - judging from the response to presidential contender Phil Gramm's speech - anti-federal government and anti-taxes. Get rid of the above and paradise will be regained.

Who are the foot-soldiers of the Christian revolution? They are amiable middle-class Americans like Joy from Maryland who phoned home during a break to say that Newt had been "wonderful" and that, no, she had not forgotten to buy some Christian Coalition T-shirts; and like Earl from Arkansas who confided his fear that Britain would be "Balkanised" because Margaret Thatcher had gone and the Labour government had "destroyed the upper classes".

These are people whose understanding of the world is governed by myth not by fact. They are people of faith and, as Mr Gingrich and the canny Mr Reed know, faith in American politics moves mountains.