Editor’s Note: Church & State Assistant Editor Rob Boston has been writing about the Religious Right since 1988. In this article, he gives a personal perspective on the recent Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council and other Religious Right groups.
I knew I was in for an interesting two days when I arrived at the “Values Voter Summit” Oct. 7 and spotted a man dressed in colonial garb carrying a musket and a flag. He was regaling a crowd of onlookers – in a very bad imitation of an English accent – with tales of how he and George Washington had vanquished “the left.”
And Halloween was still three weeks off! But as I was soon to learn, things were only to go downhill from there.
A crowd estimated at nearly 3,000 gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Omni Shoreham Hotel for the sixth annual Summit Oct. 7-8. As a veteran observer of these events, I knew what to expect: A steady drumbeat of attacks on President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders mixed with denunciations of same-sex marriage, legal abortion, public schools, secular government, “Obamacare,” the United Nations, social programs and other bugbears of the Religious Right.
I wasn’t disappointed. A litany of speakers stuck to a tried-and-true script: God is not happy. The fate of the nation (and indeed the entirety of Western Civilization) hangs in the balance. Faith and family are under attack. And, above all, you absolutely must vote for the GOP in 2012.
Obama was indicted for many crimes, chief among them failing to provide jobs, adding to the national debt, passing health care reform, refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court and apologizing for America overseas (something he never did, by the way).
This year’s Summit, coming in the midst of a fiercely competitive and highly fluid Republican primary, gave attendees a chance to preview the hopefuls. All of the leading contenders were there to shill for votes and make their best pitch. They were joined by top GOP congressional leaders and other elected officials – uniformly Republican.
The Summit has become so partisan over the years that the Family Research Council (FRC) and its tax-exempt cosponsors – the American Family Association, American Values, Liberty University, Liberty Counsel and the Heritage Foundation – do a little side-step to avoid running afoul of federal law. FRC Action, a 501(c)(4) group that is allowed to engage in partisan political action, is anointed as lead sponsor.
Attending the Values Voter Summit is like falling into a weird parallel universe where the normal rules of logic and reason simply don’t apply. Thus, a speaker can simultaneously claim to support science while denying the reality of evolution. A speaker can portray all government programs as bumbling and ineffective – and then praise the military and call for a larger Defense budget. A politician can demand states’ rights and local control – and then insist that abortion and same-sex marriage be banned in all 50 states.
“Patriots” are lauded for their fealty to the Constitution, even as they seek to trash that document’s core promises and essentially rewrite it by adding a litany of amendments – to ban abortion, to limit marriage to heterosexuals, to promote school prayer and religious displays on government property, etc. (I came away convinced that for this crowd, “The Constitution” is little more than a fetish object, a thing believed to impart certain magical powers and fix all problems, if only it were followed. Many speakers talked about the Declaration of Independence in similarly mystical terms.)
It was taken as a given that the nation is on the brink of spiritual, moral and financial ruin – and that only Summit attendees can save things by pulling the proper levers in November of 2012.
“I believe that the winds of change are beginning to be felt by the political establishment,” FRC President Tony Perkins told the crowd during opening remarks, later adding, “This is a contest of values – whose values will lead us into the future or lead us into the history books that record the nations that were.”
Bringing Down The House
Perkins was followed by two of the most powerful men in Washington – Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who offered nearly interchangeable diatribes about the dangers of Big Government and overregulation peppered with vows of fealty to the goals of the Religious Right.
Boehner pleased the crowd by vowing to oppose abortion, fight for the Defense of Marriage Act that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage and make certain that health care reform is “never ever fully implemented.” Cantor promised to defund Planned Parenthood. He also took a shot at the Wall Street protestors, remarking, “I, for one, am concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street” and “the pitting of Americans against Americans.”
(Other speakers picked up this theme, portraying the protestors as a dangerous, unwashed rabble. Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, who spoke later in the day, summed it up this way: The protestors need to shower more often, she said, opining that after the protests, most of them “go to their parents’ basement” and “they’re on Craigslist all day.”)
Boehner and Cantor were the first of a parade of speakers, most limited to 15 or 20 minutes, and just about all of them striking the same themes of out-of-control government and raging debt in a nation whose morals are in severe decline.
The politicians and would-be presidents who addressed the throng know that the Religious Right’s priorities remain the same: banning abortion, rolling back gay rights, lowering the church-state wall, shoehorning fundamentalism into public schools, striking a blow against secular government, etc. Even political figures known chiefly for championing other concerns (low taxes, minimal government regulation, no state involvement in health care) took care to stoke the fires of the culture wars.
Thus, there were constant reminders that life begins at conception, that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, that faith belongs in the “public square” and a host of other nostrums that reflect Religious Right obsessions. Perkins and other theocracy-minded leaders must be pleased at the power they hold. Some very important people want to keep them happy.
This dynamic was reflected in the speeches given by a litany of presidential hopefuls. Every half hour or so, another one would surface. After preliminary assaults on taxes, the national debt or “Obamacare,” they would become culture warriors, offering a blast against Planned Parenthood, a pledge to overturn Roe v. Wade, a slam against a court that dared to uphold church-state separation, an insistence that the Founding Fathers would have welcomed a generous mix of religion and government.
Several pointed out that they have always backed this agenda. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, running low in the polls and dogged by poor name recognition, reminded the crowd that he had been their champion on issues like abortion and marriage a decade ago.
Santorum implied that some of the other candidates in the race are only into social issues when it’s convenient. He didn’t name names, but told the crowd, “You know that I have never put social issues and values issues on the back burner. I have been out there fighting and leading the charge. We fought together, and we changed the country.”
Santorum made an odd recommendation: He said voters should judge a candidate by “who they lay down with at night and what they believe – who is the person by their side who has the closest counsel for that person,” asserting that his wife, who later joined him on the stage, was his most faithful counselor.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, making his first appearance at the Summit, promptly hit a snag – although not one of his own making. Perry was introduced by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor and longtime fundamentalist zealot, who decided to use part of his time at the microphone to blast former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Jeffress didn’t mention Romney by name, but it was hard to escape his meaning when he criticized candidates who are only “skilled in rhetoric” and called for a president who is “a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Following the awkward introduction (which would reverberate the next day), Perry smiled tightly and squinted under the lights as he began his testimony. Perry pleased the crowd by outlining his anti-abortion record and blasting a “culture of self-indulgence” that leads to teen pregnancy, divorce and high rates of incarceration.
The Texas governor scored government spending but a moment later vowed not to cut military funding. He accused Obama of abandoning Israel and falling down on border security. He also boasted about defunding Planned Parenthood in Texas, which brought a round of cheers.
Obama’s policies, Perry said, have “failed our nation. America needs a new leader.”
Santorum and Perry won polite applause, but neither man generated a groundswell of genuine enthusiasm. That was left to Georgia pizza magnate Herman Cain, who dazzled the crowd with a stem-winder that deftly blended details of his hard-scrabble upbringing with an attack on Obama and affirmation of the social goals of the Religious Right.
Cain vowed to always be a straight shooter, telling attendees that he believes life begins at conception and that marriage is between one man and one woman. He praised conference attendees, remarking, “I want to thank you for being here because that means that you get it. You know how important this upcoming election in 2012 is, and you’re not going to let the liberals take the country down.”
Cain read a passage of the Declaration of Independence that refers to the right of the people to “alter or abolish” a government that has become destructive.
“We’ve got some altering and abolishing to do!” Cain cried.
He exhorted the crowd to stay involved, remarking, “My challenge to you is stay informed because we are up against a lot of stupid people in America.”
By the time Cain was through, the crowd was on its feet cheering wildly, and he exited the stage to a prolonged standing ovation punctuated by whoops and whistles.
Blast From The Past: Newt Gingrich
What followed had elements of pathos. The final speaker of Friday afternoon, Newt Gingrich, ambled onto the stage. He immediately began delivering the same anti-judge rant I’ve heard several times over the past 10 years.
If the speech did nothing else, it established Gingrich’s radical reinterpretation of the very Constitution he claims to treasure. Blithely dismissing the separation of powers, he expounded on his lust for an imperial presidency fueled by executive orders and a campaign of intimidation against judges. Grimacing at the crowd, Gingrich vowed to issue 50-200 executive orders on his first day in office.
As for the judges, any who upset Newt will soon be out of a job. He singled out U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, who this summer dared to follow Supreme Court precedent and strike down official prayer during a Texas public school graduation ceremony (in a case brought by Americans United).
“That particular judge should be summarily removed from office,” Gingrich glowered.
According to the former House speaker, members of Congress have the power to fire judges who displease them. Failing that, the judges’ budgets can be reduced to zero, their staffs handed walking papers and their office light bills left unpaid. They can also be summoned before Congress for a grilling.
“The judges who knew that when they were radically wrong they will be hauled in front of Congress would immediately have a sobering effect about how much power they have,” he said. Current U.S. legal theory, Gingrich added, is “profoundly ignorant” and “profoundly wrong.”
There was something sad about Gingrich’s lecture, mingled as it was with the usual combination of smugness and arrogance for which he has become famous. Gingrich undoubtedly believes it, but his talk had little passion. Coming on the heels of Cain’s rhetorical blast, it had all the power of a recitation of a grocery list. It wasn’t just that I’ve heard it all before – though I have – it was the sense that Gingrich is a political ghost who haunts the race because, well, he’s always wanted to run, and he doesn’t have much else to do.
The crowd sensed this. Gingrich wasn’t two minutes into his drone-fest before dozens of people began streaming for the exit. When I departed the hall after Gingrich finally clammed up, I learned where many of them had gone: They were standing in a long, snaking line that ran down the hall and into the hotel lobby, as people queued up to buy signed copies of Cain’s book.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) rounded out the candidates for the day. Speaking late on Friday night and going way over her allotted time, Bachmann vowed to mix religion and politics if elected. She told the crowd, “I consult the Lord through prayer on almost every decision I make.”
For good measure, Bachman tossed in some dubious history as well, asserting that President John Adams, a man who did not believe in the Trinity, “was a Christian and he had a deep understanding of the role that Christianity plays in our nation.”
Attack Of The Paul Brigades And The Romney Fuss
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) led things off Saturday morning. Paul packed the conference hall with legions of adoring fans who regularly erupted in applause and hoots. His speech, featuring bland delivery and often lacking in focus, was mostly libertarian boilerplate with occasional sops for social conservatives.
Paul has a reputation for speaking his mind, a tendency that probably did not endear him to many in the crowd when he insisted that more laws are not the answer to moral problems. Although Paul’s legions were pleased, most of the crowd, which firmly believes in legislating morality, was not moved.
Romney spoke later that morning. By this time, Jeffress’ comments from the day before had blossomed into a full-blown controversy when newspapers reported that outside the conference hall, Jeffress had gone much further, labeling Mormonism “a cult” and “not Christian.”
Jeffress’ broadside led former Education Secretary William Bennett to attack the pastor by name from the podium.
“You did Rick Perry no good, sir,” intoned Bennett, “in what you had to say.” (Bennett might want to take his own advice about the need to be civil. During his remarks, he ridiculed the millions of Americans who support Obama, saying, “If you voted for him last time to prove you are not a racist, you must vote against him this time to prove that you are not an idiot.”)
Although Perry had praised Jeffress’ introduction after it was delivered, his staff must have sensed a PR disaster in the making. Perry’s campaign quickly issued a statement pointing out that it had not chosen Jeffress to give the introduction. (Jeffress, meanwhile, promptly violated federal law by posting his endorsement of Perry on his church’s website.)
When Romney (who was given a lengthy introduction by American Center for Law and Justice Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow) mounted the dais, he chose to remain above the fray and did not mention the kerfuffle, aiming his ammo instead at Obama and vowing to issue an executive order nullifying health care reform. He also had tough words for China and sought to shore up his conservative bona fides on social issues by vowing to defend traditional marriage and pledging to welcome religion in the public square. He also promised to return the issue of abortion to the states.
Near the end of his remarks, Romney issued an interesting warning.
“Our values ennoble the citizenry, and they strengthen the nation,” he said. “We should remember that decency and civility are values too. One of the speakers who follows me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause. It’s never softened a single heart or changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate.”
The reference to a speaker “who follows me” was to Bryan Fischer, a staffer at the American Family Association who has become notorious for issuing screeds in print and on the radio (such as insisting that Muslims have no rights in America, that gay rights activists are Nazis and that Mormons are not Christians).
Fischer, who spoke directly after Romney, did not mention the candidate by name. Instead, he chose a more subtle form of attack. Fischer outlined his vision of the perfect candidate, insisting that the Religious Right should only back a hopeful who has a “sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith.” Fischer also insisted that the GOP nominee must reject evolution, a concept Romney has said he accepts.
As always, Fisher liberally tossed out hunks of rhetorical red meat. He attacked the “mythical separation of church and state” and called evolution “a bankrupt theory,” asserting that our country is not safe in the hands of a president “who believes we descended from apes and baboons.” He went on to assert that 81 percent of mosques in America preach jihad and told attendees that the reason the nation has not had another major terrorist attack is that people are singing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games.
(Fischer was hardly the only speaker to express extreme views. For a sampling of some others, see “Unholy Harangue,” November 2011 Church & State..)
Straw Poll Shenanigans
As the main conference sessions wrapped up on Saturday afternoon, attendees were given some surprising news: The results of a presidential straw poll that the FRC had conducted were announced, and Ron Paul had won easily with 37 percent of the vote. Cain came in second with 23 percent, with Santorum taking third with 16 percent. (Perry and Bachmann each captured 8 percent; Romney had 4 percent and Gingrich 3 percent. One percent marked “undecided.”)
It just didn’t make sense. While Paul opposes abortion and sponsored school prayer amendments years ago, these days he’s known mainly for his obsession with the Federal Reserve Board, “sound money” and other libertarian bromides.
So what happened? In a meeting with the press, Perkins pointed out that about 600 people had signed up to attend the Summit on Saturday only. Perkins didn’t explicitly connect the dots, but it’s not hard to figure it out: Many of the day-trippers were Paul boosters who packed into the hall to hear their hero, stayed to vote for him in the straw poll and then went back home.
I had noticed a stream of Paul supporters – mostly men in their early 20s – marching into the hotel when I entered on Saturday morning. They brandished signs and sported stickers, and they did indeed fill the room – but only for a while. They did not stay, and by the time Bennett took to the podium, the room was noticeably emptier.
The Summing Up: What’s It All About?
What is one to make of all of this? It’s easy to criticize the peculiar blend of theology and politics preached at this event. But say what you will about them, the members of this crowd know what they want – and are aware of how to get it. Speaker and after speaker basked in the 2010 election results, with some acknowledging their allies in the Tea Party. They placed the GOP’s success squarely on the shoulders of those in the room and implored a repeat in 2012.
They also know how to do the work of politics. Grassroots activism is important, but these days money is a necessary ingredient as well. The FRC, which already runs two political action committees, announced during the Summit that it would form a new “super PAC” – the Faith Family Freedom Fund. Such entities can raise and spend unlimited funds from corporations and individuals. (The FRC also plans to tour the country in a “Values Voter Bus” right up until Election Day.)
Despite their prejudices, despite their fears – despite the fact that, in many ways, Religious Right leaders don’t seem to like America much (too decadent, too secular) – this is a group with friends in high places, a political movement with enough muscle to summon top congressional leaders; they are a constituency that cannot be ignored. They must be given things.
What will those things be? They could range from the next Supreme Court justice to a slew of new anti-abortion laws to a Justice Department that reverses course and defends DOMA.
They could include a government that tells courts that church-state separation has gone too far, a government that rethinks the very idea of a secular government.
They could be a thousand cumulative and meaningful things – from a legal brief supporting prayer in schools to a new federal regulation that limits Americans’ ability to get birth control through health care plans. They could be executive orders slashing population control programs overseas to policies covering what children learn (or don’t learn) about evolution and sex education in public schools.
They could be subtle (or not-so-subtle) attacks on the very concept of religious diversity as a positive good. They could take the form of many actions that advance government favoritism to a narrow, ultra-conservative slice of the Christian faith.
That’s what the Religious Right wants. After spending some time at the Summit, it’s what I’m convinced some of our leaders would be happy to give them – much to the detriment of your rights, my rights and the rights of every American who values religious liberty and the separation of church and state.