What I Saw At The Revolution: A Report From Values Voter Summit 2017

I attended my first Values Voter Summit this weekend, the annual event hosted by the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., that aims to “mobilize citizens to preserve the bedrock values of traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government.”

After two full days spent in the constant presence of representatives and supporters of more than a half-dozen organizations identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups for their anti-LGBTQ or anti-Muslim views, I left Saturday night feeling dismayed, exhausted – and more than a little befuddled.

The event is attended primarily by conservative, evangelical white Christians, so I expected to hear a lot of gloating since the presidential candidate they overwhelmingly turned out for last year won. I expected to hear a lot of praise for President Donald Trump and his recent attacks on religious freedom that cater to this fundamentalist base seeking the right to use religious beliefs as justification for discrimination. And I expected to hear a lot “faith-based” strategies offered for accomplishing the far-right’s goals of rolling back the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, religious minorities and others.

Don’t get me wrong, there certainly was some of that. Most speakers mocked Hillary Clinton’s loss and denounced former President Barack Obama. But the event didn’t have the expected feel of a victory celebration, especially considering these folks not only have the president they wanted, but he’s got a Republican majority in Congress and the opportunity to stack the federal courts with conservative judges.

Instead, this crowd was angry – and a large share of their ire was directed at Republicans in Congress. U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was denounced more than conservatives’ usual whipping girl, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Right now, it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and chairman of conservative Breitbart News, told the crowd Saturday. Bannon was introduced by Sebastian Gorka, another former Trump adviser, who declared, “This is the year Steve has declared war on the RINO (Republicans In Name Only) class, as have I, and we must tell them we have had enough.”

You’d think this crowd would have much to celebrate, given the policies offered by the Trump administration at their behest in the weeks before the summit: new regulations that will allow bosses and universities to cite religious beliefs as an excuse to deny women access to birth control coverage; guidelines that offer a blueprint for using religion to discriminate against just about anyone; and an expanded Muslim ban that now indefinitely bans people from six Muslim-majority countries.

But the birth control rules and the discriminatory guidelines were hardly mentioned. And while there were several speakers who went to great lengths to incite fear and anger over Muslims, their focus was aimed more at the Muslim Brotherhood (which Bannon said Trump would declare a terrorist organization this week) and celebrating Trump’s threats to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement.

President Donald Trump offered his expected "religious freedom" talking points at the Values Voter Summit 2017.

The only mention of the Muslim ban was by conservative radio host Bill Bennett, who erroneously claimed the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld it in the previous week, when actually the high court just declined to hear a case challenging a previous version of the Muslim ban because Trump had just issued Muslim Ban 3.0. (The latest Muslim ban already is facing court challenges – in fact, AU and our allies will be in court today requesting a preliminary injunction that will stop the new ban from going into effect Wednesday.)

Don’t get me wrong, there were presentations decrying abortion and speakers supporting business owners and lawmakers who want to be able to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against same-sex couples and transgender kids. But those speeches seemed almost to be afterthoughts. Are you wondering what issue came up most often and was addressed by just about every single speaker? Here it is: football players taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice and police brutality.

About the only speaker who didn’t surprise me at all was Trump. He was the headliner for the Friday morning session (which was about the only time the audience was remotely full in the ballroom where the main part of the conference was held). He repeated the same talking points he’s consistently used to pacify his Religious Right supporters.

He invoked the maxim, “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God,” which he first tweeted in July – totally ignoring the First Amendment that grants us the right to worship any god or no god at our discretion. He again touted his “religious freedom” executive order issued on the National Day of Prayer in May, claiming it prevented “the horrendous Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights” – a claim that’s simply erroneous. Not only did his order do nothing to impact the law, but it’s also wrong because the Johnson Amendment doesn’t curtail the rights of faith leaders to speak about political or social issues.

Trump once again claimed the Little Sisters of the Poor – one of several religious groups challenging the Affordable Care Act’s provision that employees and students have insurance coverage for birth control – had “won” their lawsuit in light of the birth control regulations he issued earlier this month. But not only is the nuns’ lawsuit still ongoing, there is new litigation challenging Trump’s discriminatory rules; Americans United and allies soon will be filing one of those lawsuits.

And of course, no speech by Trump to a group of Christians would be complete without his claim that he has somehow ended the non-existent “War on Christmas”: Trump’s declaration, “We’re saying Merry Christmas again,” drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

While it was exhausting to listen to folks spew hate against women, the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, the media, people seeking racial justice, progressives and so many others for two solid days, none of their views were surprising.

What did surprise me was the anger of the crowd. Dana Loesch, a conservative radio personality and spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, pretty much summed up the atmosphere. For the better part of 20 minutes, she railed against feminists, professional football players, anti-discrimination laws, Hollywood, Democrats and others. Loesch admitted that often she just wants to unload on those who disagree with her, but then she encouraged the audience to show grace, remarking, “You don’t see a lot of grace in today’s world … but everyone has it.”

If there’s one thing I never felt during the Values Voter Summit 2017, it was grace.