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Tuesday 11 April 2017

Political Ethics and Conservative Christians: The Ralph Reed Controversy

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 29th January 2008

US Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed
The New Zealand Christian Right needs to realise that the Electoral Finance Act is about insuring democratic accountability and transparency. Take the case of US Christian Right and Republican activist Ralph Reed, for example.

I do not think that the Maxim Institute has thought through the implications of opposing electoral finance reform. To be charitable, I would gather that may be connected to their absence of interest in issues of business ethics and wider concerns about the ethics of political conduct. They appear to have a single item on business ethics, from UK Orthodox former Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits.

Let me expand on this. The EFA regulates and limits campaign finance donations and expenditure during election campaigns. It is necessary because the Exclusive Brethren tried to subvert our domestic sovereign political affairs through purchasing influence and buying most National MPs votes against the Civil Union Act.

Like many other supporters of the EFA, I fear that this may be a slippery slope. If it becomes acceptable for powerfully funded interest groups to buy influence in the context of so-called 'moral issues' when they arise, then it may be a relatively short time until the same principle pervades the rest of political culture. In the United States, it became commonplace for wealthy corporates to lobby the Republican federal Congress for kickbacks and diminished regulatory overview, ultimately leading to collusive deregulation and the enablement of deceptive business practices. In the early years of this century, the Enron and Worldcom scandals erupted within the US energy and telecommunications sectors as a consequence, and Arthur Anderson went under as an accounting firm due to its questionable auditing practice.

So, why hasn't the US (or New Zealand) Christian Right pursued the issue of business ethics and political corruption more vigorously? One reason may well be the fact that because the US Christian Right delivered its fundamentalist constituency to the Republicans, its key lobbyists found they were capable of securing lucrative rewards themselves. One shouldn't bite the hand that feeds one, after all.

Take the case of former US Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed, for example. Reed moved on to other things, founding his own Century Strategies lobbying and public relations firm. Unfortunately for him, he has subsequently become mired in the Jack Abramoff scandal, which involved scaring Indian tribal casino owners into thinking that the US Christian Right was about to go on the warpath against its own lucrative sources of revenue.

Reed's involvement is a matter of controversy. He may have been genuinely unaware that Abramoff was acting for Indian tribal casino owners who stood to lose out when and if new Indian tribal licenses for gaming were granted in Alabama and Texas. In any event, Abramoff asked him to assemble a coalition of organisations for exactly that purpose. These consisted of Focus on the Family, which does oppose all gambling, albeit without biblical warrant for their position according to some libertarian Christians. However, one other such group, the US Family Network, appears to be nothing more than a shell group for financial transactions.

Anyway, this fundamentalist antigambling coalition scared the current Indian tribal casino owners into paying Abramoff $US 82 million. To render matters still more murky, one of Reed's Century Strategies clients opposes the prohibition of Internet gambling. As matters stand, Reed insists that he did nothing illegal under current US campaign and donor finance legislation, and didn't know about the origins of the original funds that were paid to him from an intermediary, acting from a coalition of Indian tribal casino owners. Some might observe that there are outstanding ethical questions, however.

The Abramoff scandal was not the only one that beset the ill-starred US federal Republican Congress over its decade of ascendancy, however, and due largely to the diligence of liberal investigative journalists and the Campaign for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, cumulative scandals led to the demise of that ascendancy in November 2006. It continues to poison the prospects of the current US presidential frontrunners, moreover.

All this leads to an important question. It may be merely that the New Zealand Christian Right are merely naive and hopelessly underqualified when it comes to considering questions of business ethics and the ethics of political conduct. After all, they are more obsessed with attacking inclusive family policies, women's reproductive freedom and children's rights.

However, the alternative possibility is that given that they are highly dependent on the US Christian Right for rhetoric, propaganda, tactics and strategy, they did know about the above. Reed may be innocent of any wrongdoing in the case cited above, or there may be genuine ethical questions about his conduct, if not legal ones.

If New Zealand does not maintain our own Electoral Finance Act, and ignore self-interested business and fundamentalist Christian lobby groups, we may risk a similar situation here, or worse.


Centre for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (centre-left public advocacy anti-corruption group)

Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies and the Buying of Washington, by Peter Stone: New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: 2006.

Craig Young - 29th January 2008

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