Kenneth Blackwell thinks the Religious Right needs a pep talk.

Blackwell, a senior fellow for the Family Research Council and the controversial former Ohio secretary of state, told the “Family Impact Summit” in Tampa that religious conservatives must remain politically engaged. Speaking from the pulpit of Bell Shoals Baptist Church, he urged an audience of around 300 to not become discouraged by political setbacks.

“The fact is,” continued Blackwell, who lost his 2006 bid for Ohio governor, “we can’t let a momentary setback or a momentary victory be the endgame. Because the Devil doesn’t sleep and neither can we. And that’s why this conference has been so important. It’s because the human condition is not a spectator sport. You either act or you’re acted upon.”

Blackwell’s cheerleading and other activities at the Sept. 20-22 Florida summit may reflect Religious Right strategy for the approaching 2008 elections. The gathering featured appeals for continued grassroots activism and a heavy emphasis on gays and their alleged threat to society.

The summit, sponsored by state, local and national Religious Right groups, leveled many of the same, increasingly tired attacks on America – the nation has become too secular, the public schools are hostile to Christianity, Hollywood is poisoning the minds of youth and wrecking America’s image overseas, and feminists and secularists are the driving forces behind all that’s wrong with the country. But conference coordinators sought to raise interest in the forthcoming general elections by heavily focusing attention on gays and the need to “protect marriage” from them.

Florida happens to be a key battleground for the 2008 presidential election; the Associated Press has dubbed the state a “presidential swing state.”

The Florida Family Policy Council, an affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and a co-sponsor of the Tampa conference, is spearheading an effort to place a constitutional amendment on the 2008 ballot that would ensure gay marriage would not be legally recognized in Florida. Council President John Stemberger conducted a workshop called “The Importance of Protecting Marriage in Florida.”

During his workshop, Stemberger maintained that his group needs around 13,000 signatures to reach the more than 611,000 required to place the anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot. The amendment states, “Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.”

Stemberger provided little detail, but said his group had done polling and is confident that the proposal will be successful in Florida. Twenty-seven other states have passed constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage. According to the Associated Press, similar drives are underway in Massachusetts and Indiana.

“No society needs gay marriage,” Stemberger told summit attendees in a small trailer room on church grounds. “All societies, however, need natural marriage.”

Stemberger’s discussion of Florida’s alleged need for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage (the state already has a law recognizing marriage as solely between a man and a woman) centered largely on familiar attacks on gays.

“Same-sex marriage subjects children to a vast, untested social experiment,” he maintained. “It is critical that when we create a same-sex marriage, we are simultaneously creating a same-sex family. Kids need a mom and dad; it’s just that simple.”

Stemberger rolled out the “slippery slope” argument, saying that recognition of same-sex marriage would undoubtedly result in many states rushing to grant legal status to polygamy and other “aberrant forms” of relationships.

Terry Kemple, president of the Community Issues Council, a local Religious Right group and primary sponsor of the conference, warned his audience that the family is “under attack” in America. He said it is his hope that the conference would provide attendees with the information and tools to help them “inform, ignite and impact” society. He added a dire warning that if evangelical Christians “don’t stand, we will fall.”

The conference also included a “Homosexuality/Ministry” workshop led by Alan Chambers and Christine Sneeringer, two people who claim to be living heterosexual lifestyles after years of being gay. Nancy Heche, author and mother of film actress Anne Heche, also appeared. She is a frequent speaker for Focus on the Family’s efforts to convince gays that they can become straight.

Chambers, president of Exodus International, a group that promotes “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” called the gay community he knew the “best counterfeit I had seen.” But he claimed the panelists were not out to deride a “homosexual agenda,” but to prove that many gays are struggling to find Christ.

Heche, who claimed to have all kinds of gay friends, said she wanted the “gay community to want what I have. We want them to fall in love with us. We must eat with the sinners. Go befriend a gay person, build a relationship.”

The summit highlighted yet another panel discussion regarding gays and their alleged threat to traditional marriage, dubbed, “Defending Marriage: What’s at Stake.” The panel included Stemberger, the Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg and Dale O’Leary, a writer for a Catholic-based Web site called

O’Leary argued that many gays really don’t want marriage rights, but are more interested in subverting the institution of marriage.

“I research; that’s what I do,” O’Leary claimed. “What I did, and what I continue to do, is to read what they [gay activists and pundits] write. I go and read their stuff and then keep it under lock and key.”

Not divulging exactly what it is that “they say,” O’Leary declared, “There is no body of real evidence, which supports what they say. They lie.”

And all those liars, O’Leary maintained, now control medical associations such as the American Psychological Association. The “underlying goal” of gays, O’Leary asserted, is to subvert Christian values and culture.

O’Leary went on to claim that her research shows the majority of gay men are prone to psychological problems, drug abuse and sexual dysfunction. She also claimed that “gay men in particular” don’t expect their relationships to be permanent.

“They are not faithful; they don’t expect to be faithful,” O’Leary continued.

She argued that “among the men, the ones that are in long-time relationships, the frequency or even occurrence of intimacy drops after about five years. And one of the writers said, ‘Well, by ten years it’s rare, unless, of course, we’re drunk or another person is involved.’

“I realized,” she continued, “that the reasons these relationships are sustained is ’cause the people become friends. And the sexual urge goes down, the friendship increases – they don’t feel threatened by their friend going off and having another relationship, unless that relationship becomes a friendship. This is the sort of dynamic behind this and was far more common than I had originally suspected and wasn’t very much in the literature.”

O’Leary concluded her comments on her research of gays with a declaration: “If God says something is wrong, I can go to the research and prove He is right.”

Sprigg, vice president of policy for the Family Research Council, tried to argue that animus toward gays in general is only part of the reason for opposing same-sex marriage. But before expounding on what the other reasons are, he conceded, “I do, in fact, oppose homosexual behavior, and I think we should discourage it.”

He added, “But, opposition to homosexual behavior – while it is a good reason to be opposed to same-sex marriage, because legalizing same-sex marriage would constitute an affirmation of homosexual behavior – but it is not the only reason to be opposed to same-sex marriage.”

He maintained that “this debate is certainly about homosexuality, that’s a factor of it that we don’t want to run from, but this is also about the institution of marriage itself and what it means.”

In a prior panel discussion on the so-called homosexual agenda, The Tampa Tribune reported that Sprigg explained his opposition to homosexuals as being religiously based, saying that homosexuality is “immoral, unnatural, and dangerous to the public health and to their own health. We do affirm that it is a sin.”

The Florida summit drew several national Religious Right figures, including the Rev. Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Gary Bauer, head of American Values; and Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Dobson’s Focus on the Family. (Former U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris was also on the agenda.)

Minnery spoke on the conference’s opening night.

“The country was founded,” he said, “on a belief that freedom is an inalienable right that comes from the hand of God himself. That freedom is not a freedom to do what you want; that’s anarchy. It is a freedom to do what you ought to do.”

Speaking at a luncheon on the conference’s second day, Wildmon urged the attendees not to become complacent in  the political arena.

“We have a thoroughly secular, hedonistic society,” he declared. “Our children know more about rock stars and drugs, than they do about American history. Fifteen years from now, these are going to be our leaders.

“We’re not going to turn this thing around in 24 hours, 24 months, probably not in 24 years,” he continued. “And if we go much further than that, we’re going to find that all our children and grandchildren are going to live in a society where they will be punished for being Christian.”

Southern Baptist lobbyist Land participated in a panel discussion on “Religious Freedom.”

As he frequently does, Land claimed that secularists are bent on shutting evangelical Christians from the public square.

“We must,” he said, “confront those trying to keep us from the public square.”

He added that the nation “was founded by Christian men who believed Christians should use their faith to make public policy” and that Americans United for Separation of Church and State has “mythologized Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation.”

Land was joined on the panel by Alliance Defense Fund attorney Rebecca O’Dell Townsend, and Liberty University law professor Rena Lindevaldsen.

Both women joined Land in arguing that the First Amendment principle of church-state separation has been wildly distorted by Americans United and that distortion had been perpetuated by the media, law schools, federal courts and the public schools.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins gave the final lecture of the conference and, like many of the speakers before him, sees a nation in grave moral danger.

“Our nation is in trouble,” Perkins told the audience in the Bell Shoals sanctuary. “Spiritually, I would have to tell you, the walls of our nation are torn down. We need to begin to cry out to God in behalf of this nation, before it is too late.”

While the Family Impact Summit was supposedly nonpartisan, a host of local organizations, including the Hillsborough Republican Party, were also active at the event. Strewn throughout the main lobby of the church were tables provided by summit sponsors, and the Hillsborough GOP was described in event literature as a table sponsor.

The Republicans’ table was lined with pro-Bush bumper stickers, a stuffed elephant and lots of political propaganda. One pamphlet touted Republicans as the only political party that supports fighting crime and terrorism, advocates educational opportunities for families and believes in God.

The one-page handout titled, “THERE’S A HUGE DIFFERENCE,” claimed that, “REPUBLICANS BELIEVE, as the founding fathers before us, that God was a major factor in the creation of this nation and that efforts to remove Him from society altogether must be reversed.”

The forces fighting God, according to the Republican document, are “Liberal Democrats” and extreme left-wing elements who think that “God should be totally excluded from public utterances.”

Conference emcee Bill Bunkley, a host for local Christian radio station WTBN, suggested that the Family Impact Summit could be a replacement for the late Florida TV preacher D. James Kennedy’s annual “Reclaiming America for Christ” conference.

During a pitch for more donations from the conference attendees, Bunkley said, “We are praying that possibly this conference would be something to take the place of the annual Reclaiming America conference.” (Kennedy died in early September after spending many months in rehabilitative therapy for a heart arrhythmia.)

On the final evening of the conference, Bunkley touched on the summit’s main concern, saying that the fight for the Florida anti-gay marriage amendment is a “part of a cultural battle that is ticking down to 2008.”

The Family Impact Summit drew opposition from Equality Florida, a local gay rights group. The organization coordinated a press briefing that included clergy, civil liberties activists and others.

The Rev. Cedric Harmon, Americans United associate field director for religious outreach, was among the participants.

Harmon scored the summit’s “rehashing of pronouncements from the lexicon of exclusionary theology and divisive religion.”

In contrast, he concluded, “We will stand for religious and spiritual freedom for all. We applaud and welcome the ongoing dialogue within denominations and communities of faith as they come to their own understandings about same-gender marriage and full participation of LGBT persons in the traditions and life of their faith. And we will defend the constitutions of the various states and the U.S. Constitution from pre-empting this dialogue with flawed ‘marriage amendments.’ We will defend constitutional principles, as well as call for justice for all.”