Everyone enjoys being proven right from time to time. It’s validating, it puts a little spring in your step, and it allows you to redouble your efforts, knowing that you are heading down the right path. But the experience of being proven right is rarely so crisp, or so quick, as the version I was fortunate enough to have last week, which was bestowed upon me by an unexpected source: conservative Christian political consultant Ralph Reed.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about leading figures in the Christian nationalist movement adopting en masse a new communications strategy to defend their political gains: gaslighting. In recent months, movement leaders have taken to various platforms to declare that the term “Christian nationalism” is simply a smear tactic used to bully Christians out of participating in politics, that no such movement exists. In that column, I argued that the Christian nationalist leaders engaging in this form of gaslighting are not doing so because they think the arguments they are making are sound, but that they’re gaslighting us in the hopes that their gaslighting will cause the critics of Christian nationalism to ease up. 

Last week, Ralph Reed proved my point with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Reed, a longtime fixture of the right-wing, made his name as the leader of the Christian Coalition through the 1990s, before tarnishing that name as a key player in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal of 2005, and remaking it as the head of the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition since 2009. His job at the latter is to maintain and strengthen the bond between white evangelical Christians and the Republican Party, a role he effectively inherited from James Dobson, the longtime leader of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. Yet, despite coming from such an experienced operative, the op-ed Reed published last week – running fewer than 800 words in total – was no masterclass. It was just another plodding entry in the new style of Christian nationalist gaslighting: weakly argued, writhing with unspoken motives.

Colorado-based former Trump attorney, Jenna Ellis, with Reed (right) and conservative Christian author Eric Metaxas (left)

Nevertheless, the piece warrants examination – not necessarily for what it argues, but for how it argues it, and for why Reed felt the need to argue at all. It shows us that the gaslighting tactic has been embraced by the highest echelon of Christian nationalist leaders; and it shows us that even that top tier of leaders cannot defend their own movement in good faith. In short, Reed’s piece is an example worth studying because it is a bad argument, but one made for a clear purpose; flawed in its particulars and self-evidently insincere, but nonetheless trotted out by one of the movement’s most powerful figures, in one of the nation’s most esteemed newspapers. 

Reed’s argument in the op-ed was not original. Though delivered with a shade more sophistication than the variations churned-out by his provincial acolytes, Reed’s central thesis was the same as the examples I cited in my previous piece on the matter: “Christian nationalism” is a slur used to make Christians sound extreme and delegitimize their participation in politics. Opposition to the Christian nationalist movement is “a fashionable but insidious bigotry,” Reed wrote, “that seeks to marginalize and disqualify from our civic discourse tens of millions of Americans who take their faith seriously.”

Reed cited polling data from Pew, but took issue with similar data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). “A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly half of Americans believe the Bible should have some influence on U.S. laws,” Reed wrote. “Are they extremists for sympathizing with such values as helping the poor, showing compassion for immigrants, and reforming the criminal-justice system?” Despite apparently accepting Pew’s methodology (at least when it produces results he can work with), Reed argued that PRRI’s survey methodology – which divides respondents into four categories regarding Christian nationalism, based on their answers: adherent, sympathizer, skeptic, and rejecter – is used to “construct” the “notion of ‘Christian nationalism.”

But Reed, according to Reed, knows exactly where all of this vitriol is coming from: Democrats. “The modern Democratic Party…is now so captured by secular progressivism that it views religious folks as alien and dangerous to the American experience,” Reed wrote, calling opposition to Christian nationalism – or support for religious pluralism – “crass politics by an unpopular party eager to eke out an election victory by demonizing churchgoing Americans.”

These are flimsy arguments, which I suspect Reed knew when he conjured them. To take them one by one:

Reed claims that support for pluralism and opposition to Christian nationalism is a “fashionable but insidious bigotry” which seeks to “disqualify from our civic discourse tens of millions of Americans.” But nothing could be further from the truth – and, more to the point, Reed knows it. I know that Reed knows this because of the data he cited in his piece. Both the 2020 Pew survey he referenced, and each of PRRI’s annual surveys, show that most of the views championed by Christian nationalists are not majority views among American Christians. Christian nationalists are, in fact, a minority sect of American Christians. Reed cited the Pew finding that “nearly half of Americans believe the Bible should have some influence on U.S. laws,” but ignores the findings in that exact same chart which show that only 35% of American Christians believe the Bible should have a great deal of influence on laws – not to mention the findings showing that more than 60% of respondents under the age of 50 feel that the Bible should not influence laws, or that Catholics are evenly split on the issue, or that majorities of many non-white Christian communities reject the idea. Reed is trying to make “Christianity” synonymous with beliefs held almost exclusively by older, white protestants, and then saying that anyone who disagrees with the older, white protestants is “attacking Christianity.”

Reed’s sleight of hand is even more evident in the bone he picks with the PRRI data. In the op-ed, Reed cites the PRRI finding from February that “​​three in ten Americans qualify as Christian nationalism adherents or sympathizers.” As Reed surely knows, more than six in ten Americans are Christians. So, with only three in ten qualifying as Christian nationalists under PRRI’s methodology, Reed is once again attempting to define Christianity-as-a-whole by the beliefs held only by a fraction of Christians. According to the same PRRI study Reed cited, majorities of white non-evangelical protestants, black evangelicals, white Catholics, and Hispanic Catholics do not qualify as Christian nationalists. Reed claims that this data is used to “construct” the notion of Christian nationalism; in reality, the data is observational, measuring and describing a phenomenon which exists independent of it. The data does not construct the idea of Christian nationalism, it helps people understand it. And that, I assume, is why Reed is so hostile to it.

Finally, Reed claimed that all opposition to Christian nationalism stems from a nefarious plot by the Democratic Party – that there could not possibly be actual Americans actually concerned about the erosion of religious liberty, or who actually seek to defend pluralism. Rather, Reed postulates, such opposition could only be a political strategy “​​by an unpopular party eager to eke out an election victory by demonizing churchgoing Americans.” It’s an argument which attempts to make “Democrats” synonymous with “secularism,” and to position them in opposition to “churchgoing Americans.” While this might be the divide as it exists in Reed’s mind, it is not the divide as it exists in reality: according to Pew, 63% of Democratic voters are Christians.

But Reed’s facile arguments are only half of why I believe his recent op-ed is worth examining. His political activities, and the inescapable air of insincerity they lend to his gaslighting editorial, are the other half. Because, to be clear, Reed’s goal in writing the piece was not to defend Christians from the “slur” of Christian nationalism; it was to defend Christian nationalism from the effects of being understood. As each of the polls Reed cited show, the beliefs which constitute Christian nationalism are minority views not just among many Christian cohorts, but among all Americans. In a democracy, that matters. 

In his op-ed, Reed postures as if his sole intent is to defend the poor, meek Christians who, as he tells it, have been all but eliminated from the public sphere by the scourge of secular progressivism. But that’s not what he’s doing at all. Reed’s true aims are more visible in his ongoing political work than in the 739 words he spat out for a friendly newspaper.

Ralph Reed is a major political player, arguably the most effective consultant the Christian Right has ever had. When Reed talks about political communications strategies – like the one he asserts that Democrats are using to “demon[ize] churchgoing Americans” – he knows what he is talking about. In fact, he knows it so well that it’s near-impossible to reasonably conclude that Reed actually believes his own assertion about the Democratic Party being behind the opposition to Christian nationalism. Not only is an operative of Reed’s caliber familiar enough with polling data to avoid the rookie misrepresentations made in his op-ed, there’s simply no way that a man who has worked against the Democratic Party for 40 years could possibly believe that the party is capable of crafting or deploying so intricate a strategy. The only people who think that political parties actually have such perfect coordination and far-reaching influence are the ones who have never worked closely with one. Reed has been doing it for decades.

Reed’s op-ed was not about identifying a political communications strategy used by his opponents; it was about deploying one of his own. And he has a good reason for doing so. Right now, Reed is at the helm of a massive national effort to ensure that white evangelicals deliver the presidency to Donald Trump in November. According to Politico, Reed’s Faith & Freedom organization is gearing up to spend $62 million between now and November to support the former President, with plans to put 10,000 staffers and volunteers into the field, and distribute 30 million pieces of pro-Trump literature at more than 125,000 churches. It is a plan which could see the Christian nationalist movement (which has grown dramatically among evangelicals over the last four years, according to the above PRRI study) brought to the zenith of its influence, and which could allow Ralph Reed to finally accomplish the goal he has openly espoused: not freedom of religion, not pluralism, but Christian supremacy.

Reed has not been shy about that goal. In 2020, he declared that it was vital to reelect Trump to “make sure that Christians are the head and not the tail, are the top and not the bottom, of our political system.”

The relevance of Reed’s op-ed is not that it broke new ground, or that it put forward an effective new spin on the movement’s gaslighting technique. It did not do either of those things. The salient takeaway is that Reed felt the need to write the op-ed at all. 

The relevance is that Ralph Reed, armed with a $62 million warchest to spend between now and November, seems nervous.

If I were in Reed’s shoes, I’d also be nervous: his movement’s animating ideas are unpopular with the electorate. The better voters understand the Christian nationalist movement, the less they like it. That’s why the movement has hidden behind Trump thus far. The plan was never to put Christian nationalism on the ballot. The plan was always to use Donald Trump as the vehicle for Christian nationalism’s rise: to harness his vanity and popularity for their ends, and then animate his second administration by backfilling the void left by his lack of ideas with their own. A kind of pragmatic parasitism. And it could work. Millions of voters will cast their ballots for Trump without ever hearing anything about the movement hiding behind him. Some would cast the same ballot even if they knew. Others would not. 

That’s what Ralph Reed knows, and it’s why he wants to gaslight the conversation back down to a manageable size. If the movement becomes too well understood, too soon – if the swing voters spot the queue of theocrats lined up behind the adulterous real estate developer before their ballots are cast – it might be enough to jeopardize the movement’s rise. It might be enough to swing votes away from Trump. It might be enough to ruin the whole plan.