November 2006 Church & State | Featured

Long-time right-wing activist Connie Marshner has an interesting ap­proach to organizing a church on behalf of a political candidate: It’s OK to lie if you have to.

Speaking at a workshop during the Religious Right’s “2006 Values Voter Sum­mit” in Washington, D.C., Marshner distributed an 18-page manual that en­courages activists to use church directories to find out potential voters’ views on the candidates. She recommended getting a friend to call everyone listed in the directory, posing as a non-partisan pollster.

Her manual suggests the following script, “Hello, I’m with ABC Polls. We’re calling in your area to find out the level of interest in the upcoming…election. I promise this will only take two minutes.”

The fact that “ABC Polls” does not exist and that the call is designed to benefit a candidate apparently does not bother Marshner. She told attendees not to admit they were using a church directory and said finding an outsider to make the calls is vital.

“It’s very important that the person doing the initial calls is not known to the person being called,” she said. “Get someone from outside the church.”

When a person in the audience asked what to do if the caller were asked directly if he or she were using a church list, Marshner replied, “I haven’t heard a perfect answer to that question. It’s a delicate answer.”

Marshner also dissembled when asked what to say if someone asked the caller if he or she were representing a candidate, remarking, “Just say I’m collecting information about the candidates.”

Marshner’s endorsement of deceptive tactics was a summit low point – and unfortunately it wasn’t the only one. For a crowd that claims to be dedicated to high morals and Christian values, the Sept. 22-24 event, sponsored by an action arm of the Family Research Council, was chock-full of name-calling, extremism and partisan politics.

The conference was already on the low road before it officially kicked off. During a pre-meeting breakfast with pastors, Religious Right warhorse Jerry Falwell compared U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to Satan. Playing the role of political prognosticator, Falwell assured his audience that the Republicans will keep control of the House and Senate this year, adding, “I think the Lord’s going to take care of that.”

Then Falwell moved on to 2008, remarking, “I certainly hope that Hillary is the [Democratic presidential] candidate. I hope she’s the candidate, because nothing will energize my [constituency] like Hil­lary Clinton. If Lucifer ran, he wouldn’t.”

Falwell obviously never intended his incendiary words to become public. But his remarks were turned over to the Los Angeles Times by Americans United and made a big splash in the national media. On this extremist note, the rest of the event was off and stumbling.

Over the next 48 hours, attendees heard a rapid-fire succession of speakers, nearly all drawn from the most far-right quarters of the religious and political spheres. An estimated 1,700 attendees crammed into a cavernous ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel not far from the famed Washington Zoo. Speakers blared from a giant podium bedecked with American flags and patriotic bunting, flanked by two jumbo TV screens. Aside from lunch and dinner, there were no breaks.

The effect was mind-numbing. The revolving door of speakers left little time to process what was being heard. Making matters worse, many speakers hit the same themes – spewing invective at Democrats, “liberals, “the secular left,” gay people, reproductive-rights supporters and advocates of church-state separation, often Americans United specifically.

The crowd devoured it and asked for more. The shrillest rhetoric and most outrageous endorsements of the extreme positions – often ones that contradict all known facts – brought attendees to their feet. On day two, former education secretary and alleged “virtue czar” William Bennett endorsed torture – one among many speakers to do so during the event.

“If waterboarding will save American lives, then I’m for waterboarding,” Bennett bellowed as the crowd leaped to its feet, clapping and whooping.

At times, attending the conference was like blundering into some sort of parallel universe where reality has no meaning. Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity took listeners on a Twilight Zone-journey where right-wing wishes have supplanted the real world. Hannity asserted that Iraq “has been liberated,” and that the army there is now ready to keep the country secure. He praised President George W. Bush for his handling of Hurricane Katrina and lauded President Ronald W. Reagan as a “genius.”

Hannity tossed the rapturous crowd big chunks of right-wing red meat. Although well delivered, his remarks had the feel of boilerplate ripped from far-right blogs: He ridiculed the French, bashed the United Nations, labeled Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton sex maniacs, dismissed global warming with the wave of a hand and asserted that God placed Bush in the White House because the nation needed him.

Republicans, Hannity told the crowd, are “normal Americans” while “liberal woodenheads” just yearn to pay more taxes. He asserted that anyone who dares to criticize Bush is disloyal.

“It is destructive,” he said, “at a time when we’re at war and our troops are out there fighting.”

Hannity was not the only speaker to express that view. During a panel discussion on church involvement in politics, the Rev. John Guest, a British expatriate who noted over and over again that as a child he survived the Blitz in London, told the crowd to much approval, “I tell my congregation it is treacherous and traitorous to be condemning our president in a time of war. All you’re doing is setting the stage for the kind of misery we saw in England during World War II.”

Right-wing telepundit Ann Coulter, not heretofore known as a commentator on religion, made a similar argument. In hurried remarks, Coulter blasted liberals as soft on terrorism, calling them a “treason lobby.”

Coulter’s penchant to spew bile and her deliberate use of over-the-top rhetoric has led many conservatives to keep her at arm’s length. Earlier this year, for example, she was roundly condemned for asserting that several 9/11 widows were glad their husbands died. None of that dampened the enthusiasm of these values voters. The crowd clearly adored Coulter, and after her speech, many conference attendees were trapped in the main hall for 20 minutes because of the press of people outside lining up to buy autographed copies of Coulter’s latest screed, Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

(For more on the extreme rhetoric at the summit, see “Toxic Talk,” page 7.)

Speaker forays into terrorism and the Iraq war were to be expected – after all, Bush is vulnerable on these points and the purpose of this gathering was to shore up the president by helping House and Senate Republicans seeking reelection this year – but it’s social issues like legal abortion, same-sex marriage and the role of religion in politics and public life that remain the bread and butter of the Religious Right.

The proper role of churches and politics took up a lot of time at this meeting – and for good reason. Summit sponsor Family Research Council Action and its three cosponsors – Focus on the Family Action, American Family Association Action and Americans United to Preserve Marriage – were at the time desperately trying to mobilize right-wing churches to help the GOP keep its congressional majorities.

 These groups must have realized their vulnerability: All are classified as 501(c)(4) organizations, which means they may legally take on more overtly partisan work. Yet they were laboring to mobilize houses of worship, all of which are 501(c)(3) entities. Houses of worship are flatly forbidden from intervening in partisan races and distributing the type of skewed “voter guides” produced by (c)(4) groups like FOF Action and FRC Action.

Days before the Values Voter Summit, Americans United unveiled a major campaign to warn churches about the dangers of partisan politicking. AU announced it would send over 117,000 letters to every house of worship in 11 states that have been targeted by FOF, FRC and others.

The effort infuriated the leadership of these organizations, and several conference speakers heaped abuse on Ameri­cans United and specifically AU Execu­tive Director Barry W. Lynn.

Lynn attended the event and was at one point singled out by FOF founder James C. Dobson, who accused Lynn of seeking to silence churches. Dobson and other speakers raised the old chestnut that Americans United has warned churches not to speak about political issues.

In fact, AU has never said this. Every mailing AU has ever prepared on church politicking notes that it is perfectly legal for pastors to address public issues. But the letters do point out that church-based endorsements of candidates and other actions designed to elect or defeat candidates are not legal.

Several speakers seemed obsessed with Lynn and called him out from the stage repeatedly. Things got so bad that one speaker, the Rev. Herb Lusk of Philadelphia, chided others for mentioning Lynn so much.

“The enemy is out there. . .We know who our enemy is,” Lusk shouted. “The more you call the enemy’s name, the larger he becomes.”

(Lusk has a good reason to be no fan of Lynn’s. In 2000, AU reported Lusk to the Internal Revenue Service after he en­dorsed Bush from the pulpit of his church during a speech that was relayed via satellite to the Repub­lican National Con­ven­tion.)

Another speaker on the same panel as Lusk, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, urged pastors to simply throw out Americans United’s letters. (For more on this topic, see “Special Delivery,” page 11.)

Conference organizers were eager to trash AU’s project because they know it has the potential to sink their plan to politicize churches. Pulpit-based politicking is central to the Religious Right’s grand vision of controlling all three branches of government. Thus, the summit also featured a bevy of speeches by leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, the event was something of a beauty pageant, designed to give attendees a chance to look over several prospects.

But only certain GOP hopefuls were welcome at the event. Pro-gay rights and pro-choice Republicans like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki were nowhere in sight. Instead, attendees heard from a steady stream of social conservatives, in­cluding U.S. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), George Allen (R-Va.) and (via DVD) Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Govs. Mitt Rom­ney (R-Mass.) and Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) also spoke, along with former House Speaker Newt Ging­rich, who has been sending strong signals about an ’08 run.

Most of the would-be presidents stuck to the familiar social-conservative script: Begin with an attack on same-sex marriage, accuse liberals of being soft on terror­ism, endorse the Ten Command­ments and throw in a few lines about the horrors of legal abortion and/or stem-cell re­search.

Romney recounted his struggle against same-sex marriage and gay rights generally, lauding the state’s decision to use a 1913 law designed to curb interracial marriage as a tool to keep out-of-state gay couples from getting married in Massachusetts and forcing other states to recognize the union.

Romney asserted that same-sex marriage presents a grave threat to religious liberty, noting that in Massachusetts, Catholic Charities decided to get out of the adoption business rather than place children with gay couples.

Brownback spent most of his time blasting legal abortion. He likened the anti-abortion movement to Civil War-era abolitionists and confidently predicted, “We’re going to win this fight. Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned in the future.”

The Kansas senator was not shy about seeking political support for a possible run at the White House.

“If we do a straw poll here, I’d appreciate your vote,” he said.

Allen cast a slightly broader net, reiterating his support for parental notification laws but quickly shifting gears to call for no retreat in Iraq and then de­manding a fence between the United States and Mexico (to much applause). He also promised to lower taxes and, for good measure, blasted the federal judiciary.

It was left to Huckabee to dare to introduce some unexpected themes. The Arkansas governor, an ordained Baptist minister, started off predictably with a blast against same-sex marriage – but then went on to chide heterosexuals for their high divorce rate. Huckabee decried the nation’s abortion rate, but a moment later called on conservative Christians to do more to help families raising children in poverty.

Challenging the audience to “get as interested in all of life,” Huckabee endorsed ideas like better public schools, improved sanitation in poor areas, food programs for the poor and even better roads for those trapped in rural pockets of poverty.

“We need,” he said, “an evangelical version of shock and awe.” Huckabee, however, did not endorse any new government spending, instead saying churches need to pick up the slack in this area. In essence, he argued for a greatly expanded “faith-based” initiative.

(Santorum’s remarks, delivered via DVD because of an unspecified family emergency, were short and rather dispassionate. Sitting in front of an unspectacular backdrop of metal window blinds, Santorum appeared to be sequestered in a cheap hotel room. He complained of being attacked by liberals for his traditional views and then moved on to a short rant about the dangers of “Islamic fascism.” He also blasted the “radical secular humanists we’re dealing with in the United States today.”)

But the prime spot for a would-be Republican president went to Gingrich, who addressed the closing banquet Saturday night. His role as keynoter could be a sign that Dobson likes him best of the flock.

Oddly enough, Gingrich failed to make the best of it and offered fairly muted remarks that brought polite ap­plause but no rousing enthusiasm. Clad in a tuxedo, the acerbic ex-Speaker of the House mounted the dais to assure attendees that the “secular left” is all wet: the founders never meant for this to be a secular nation.

“America is defined by its relationship to God,” he said. “It is impossible to define America if you eliminate God from the school and the society.”

Gingrich’s proof for an officially religious American government was rather curious: It springs not from our officially religion-free Constitution but is found in the deistic reference to the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence.

For good measure, Gingrich threw in a few comments about the Jefferson Memorial. The monument is etched with the words, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

To Gingrich, this is a weapon to use against church-state separationists. He is apparently unaware that it does the opposite. Jefferson said it, after all, about the Federalist clergy of New England who opposed his election to the presidency because they feared his advocacy of full religious freedom for all and knew he would break their cozy relationship with the government.

Another irony was probably lost on many attendees: Throughout the event, several speakers attacked President Bill Clinton for his dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky. Yet the chief speaker at their “pro-family” event has been married three times. Gingrich left his second wife after an affair with an aide 24 years his junior whom he later married.

Gingrich concluded by endorsing boot-strap capitalism for the poor – a concept of limited interest to this high-dollar crowd decked out in their evening finery.

The parade of GOP presidential hopefuls – and total absence of Democrats from the line-up – is solid evidence of this group’s partisan leanings. Other evidence abounded. During a supposedly non-partisan panel on the political outlook for 2006, pollster Kellyanne Con­way derided the Democrats for having no ideas and said their national slogan might as well be “Got Milk?”

Even the event’s opening invocation was pro-GOP: The Rev. Frank Pavone, a Catholic cleric who heads Priests for Life, called on God to give attendees the courage to back “righteous candidates” with no fear of the IRS.

Some politicians openly shilled for votes and cash from the stage. U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), invited to speak about same-sex marriage, instead carped that “millionaires and billionaires” were funding her Democratic opponent and pleaded for help.

Appearing on the same panel as Musgrave, Robert P. George, a law professor at Princeton University and frequent speaker at Religious Right meetings, warned the crowd that New Jersey’s Supreme Court may soon uphold same-sex marriage and that gay couples will try to force other states to recognize their unions. George exhorted attendees to donate money to Musgrave to help her retain her seat.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), who is seeking to move up to the Senate, offered the crowd her personal religious testimony and begged for support. Harris, down 20 points in the polls at the time, insisted she would win and that God would deserve the credit. (Harris also told attendees that separation of church and state is a lie and that 34 percent of the Constitution comes from the Bible.)

Bush administration speakers were in short supply, although attendees did get one big sop: White House Press Sec­re­tary Tony Snow addressed the gathering, substituting for Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez who cancelled.

Snow offered up a collection of cloying remarks essentially amounting to hero worship of Bush and a discourse on how cool it is to stand alongside him in the Oval Office. Wasting no time invoking Sept. 11, Snow said the president showed “will and determination in the face of terrorism.”

The press flack then proceeded to bash his carefully constructed straw man, blasting “those who say maybe if we don’t do anything it will go away.” (Snow never bothered to name the political leaders who have suggested doing nothing about terrorism.)

Bush, Snow assured the crowd, “doesn’t give a rip about polls.” That’s probably convenient, as Bush was pulling a 37-percent approval rating at the time the meeting convened.

Snow also regaled the crowd with tales of Bush as a he-man, insisting that the president en­gages in power biking at Camp David so intense that members of his staff and the press corps cannot hope to keep up.

This audience clearly worshipped Bush, but it regards him mainly as a lesser divinity in a pantheon that includes Ron­ald Reagan. But neither Bush nor Reagan can compare with this crowd’s true Zeus: Dobson himself.

The FOF founder was spoken of reverently by several podium speakers, and each time his name was mentioned the conferees erupted in applause and cheers, often spontaneously leaping to its feet in adoration.

Dobson appeared on stage just once. On Friday morning, he took part in an informal discussion with FRC President Tony Perkins and Alan Sears of the Alliance Defense Fund. Wielding wireless microphones, the three men perched on stools and talked among themselves, later deigning to take a few questions from the audience.

During his remarks, Dobson admitted that he is still not satisfied with all the Republican leadership has done for him. He said he was not sure he would get involved in the elections this year but after spending time last summer in Wash­ington, he returned to Colorado Springs and decided to hit the campaign trail.

“I came home absolutely convinced that there is no choice because the alternative is terrible,” Dobson said. He told the crowd Bush is not perfect but quickly added, “He is the most pro-life president we’ve ever had, and when it comes to the war on terror, he gets it.”

In an attempt to lighten things up, Perkins asked Dobson about a recent hunting trip in Canada. Dobson went with his son, Ryan, during which both men killed bears. Dobson regaled the crowd with a tale of how he stared down a bear that did not want to leave him alone.

“He got about 15 feet from me, and I shot him,” Dobson said. He admitted that animal-rights groups had tried to talk him out of taking the trip but added, “Those of you who don’t like hunting, and if that story offends you – get over it!” (Perkins made light of the incident, asking Dobson if it was “a liberal bear,” to which the FOF head replied, “It’s a dead one now!”)

Dobson agreed to take some questions, but the effort went awry when the first man to reach the microphone began expounding on his belief that the American government is modeled on the Book of Exodus. Dobson and Perkins declined to comment on the daft theory, and instead Perkins went off on a diatribe against Americans United, calling the organization “Ameri­cans Uni­ted for the Division of the Country” and vowing, “We tell people to get involved, and then they’re going to vote for the candidates who stand on those issues.”

During the session, Dobson called out AU’s Lynn by name and requested a meeting with him. Lynn connected with Dob­son’s staffers at the event and attended a 40-minute private meeting with the FOF leader and Perkins. Most of the discussion was about church politicking.

During the confab, Lynn ex­plained to Dobson and Perkins that Americans United has never said that churches cannot address public issues. He requested that speakers at the summit stop spreading this falsehood. Lynn also ex­plained the dangers of 501(c)(4) groups giving slanted voter guides to churches. Finally, he presented Dobson with an autographed copy of his new book, Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Liberty.

Lynn said he doubts the book will change Dobson’s mind, but he told the Focus leader he appreciated the opportunity to meet with him. Lynn described the discussion as frank but cordial.

“It wasn’t pleasant sitting through two days of such extreme and often hateful rhetoric,” Lynn told Church & State after the summit. “But I take solace in the fact that Americans United is having an effect.

“The constant attacks on our organization during the conference prove that top Religious Right leaders are clearly worried about AU,” he continued. “They know we stand in the way of their scheme to forge a church-based machine in evangelical churches and that we will vociferously oppose their attempts to control all of our lives.”

Concluded Lynn, “All AU members should be proud of that.”