October 2010 Church & State | Featured

Three days after stunning the political world with her upset victory over Republican establishment candidate Mike Castle in Delaware, U.S. Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell traveled to Washington, D.C., to bask in the Religious Right’s adoration.

The event was the Values Voter Summit, an annual conference sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC) and allied organizations, and O’Donnell was in her element.

Beaming before a 2,000-plus crowd at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, O’Donnell unleashed a stinging attack on the “ruling class elites” whom, she said, are determined to drag down the country.

“The small elite don’t get us,” O’Donnell told the crowd. “They call us wacky. They call us wing-nuts. We call us, ‘We the people.’”

“They don’t get it,” she continued during the Sept. 17-18 confab. “We’re not trying to take back our country. We ARE our country. We have always been in charge.”

The fired-up crowd couldn’t get enough of her. O’Donnell received a hero’s welcome, and even before she appeared on stage, speakers were dropping her name as an example of what Tea Partiers and Religious Right stalwarts can do when they work together.

The partnership between the two movements found a perfect candidate in O’Donnell, a Religious Right activist long before she became identified with the Tea Party. Her rapid ascension was reminiscent of 2008, when a previously little-known Alaska governor also excited Summit attendees. In fact, O’Donnell at times sounded like a poor man’s Sarah Palin – delivering lots of applause-generating rhetoric that captivated the ultra-conservative crowd.

Firmly convinced that President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are determined to destroy the country, Summit attendees reveled in the abuse heaped on the trio, to them a satanic anti-Trinity. At times it was hard to tell whom this crowd despised more – Obama, Pelosi and Reid or gays and Muslims.

The parade of enemies and white-hot anti-government rage had a purpose. Religious Right strategists clearly have big plans: romance the Tea Party and either co-opt or merge with that movement. Build an ultra-conservative majority. Mobilize fundamentalist churches. Cruise to victory on Election Day.

It won’t work unless the Tea Party plays along. Thus, the event had the feel of a two-day valentine to that loosely organized movement, with Summit organizers working hard to convince Tea Partiers that common ground exists.

The goal may not be too hard to achieve. According to a Zogby/O’Leary Poll, most Tea Party activists already share the Religious Right’s view of Obama. A whopping 71 percent said they do not believe the president has strong Christian values and that the values he does have are unacceptable.

That left Summit speakers with the task of assuring the Tea Party that the Religious Right activists share their fiscal outlook. So many speakers addressed this theme that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t choreographed.

“Ours is not so much a fiscal crisis, it is a family crisis,” asserted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. He asserted that family breakdown leads to poverty and spawns the far-right bogeyman of Big Government.

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) sounded similar themes. He told attendees, “You cannot be a real fiscal conservative if you don’t understand the importance of having a culture that is based on values.”

Government programs designed to help the poor, DeMint asserted, just make things worse. What people in need require is God, he said.

“If you look at the inner city, you see that a lot of drugs are bought with welfare money or food stamps,” DeMint said. Only people who are accountable to God, he added, have the type of strong work ethic needed to build a vibrant economy.

“When you get big government,” he observed, “you’re going to have a little God.”

DeMint, a popular speaker at Tea Party events, advised attendees to work alongside that movement – but he reminded the Religious Right’s culture warriors to remember their place.

“They don’t want to join us,” DeMint said. “They want us to join them.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) concurred, telling the crowd, “Our present crisis is not merely economic and political but spiritual.”

Pence insisted that economic concerns can never trump moral principles and vowed that the GOP will remain focused on opposing legal abortion, stopping same-sex marriage and protecting “religious liberty.” He apologized for the party losing its moorings during the Bush years and spending too much, pledging that would never happen again.

In case anyone missed the invitation to tea, a Friday afternoon panel featured three Tea Party activists, all of whom talked about their disgust over Obama’s health-care bill, adding a sheen of fundamentalist religion to their remarks.

Describing herself as “just a regular person, a stay-at-home mom,” Pennsylvania Tea Partier Katy Abram told attendees she was motivated to act after repeatedly waking up at 3 a.m., fretting about the state of the nation. She concluded that God was talking to her, a belief reinforced by Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck, who has also described early-morning wakings.

“I’m really convinced that it was God speaking to me every single night,” Abram said. “Know that God is with us. He is with us throughout this whole movement.”

A third insomniac, Billie Tucker, is also certain God wants the Tea Party to tackle social issues.

“I know that God did not wake me up at 4 in the morning for four months to say, ‘Billie, we got a tax issue,’” Tucker, founder of Florida’s First Coast Tea Party, said. “He woke me up to say, ‘My country doesn’t love me the way it used to love me.’”

God didn’t just merely rouse the women from their slumber; he offered a partisan political solution. As Abram described it, “Put down protest signs and pick up campaign signs…. You need to support these candidates. They need your time and your money. Volunteer for them. They need to go to Washington.”

Overseeing the marriage of convenience between the Religious Right and the Tea Party is a most unusual “minister”: the Heritage Foundation.

Although founded by Religious Right activist Paul Weyrich in 1973, the Heritage Foundation quickly drifted away from social issues and became a tool of the big-business wing of the GOP, urging low taxation, pushing an end to welfare programs and advocating deregulation of commerce.

But lately, Heritage has been sweet on the Values Voter Summit, even cosponsoring it for the past few years. During last month’s event, attendees watched four slick Heritage videos in which support for religious freedom (as the Religious Right defines it) was deftly interspersed with calls for small government, property rights, deregulation and voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.

Why the big push from Heritage? The organization’s corporate overseers probably sense an opportunity to win a flock of new converts if the Tea Party and the Religious Right get cozy. Much of the crowd at the Summit consisted of men and women well into their senior years. Under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to persuade people who benefit from Social Security and Medicare to join an anti-government crusade – unless that same government was also portrayed as a collection of radicals out to destroy religion in America.

Fomenting fear of Big Government is a Heritage specialty. When it came to attacking other Religious Right bogeymen, a bevy of usual suspects was drafted.

Several speakers – Newt Gingrich, former Education Secretary William Bennett and Religious Right leader Gary Bauer – ranted against Islam.

Islamic culture, Bauer insisted, “keeps millions of people right on the verge of murder and violence 24 hours a day.” He blasted the idea that Muslims have contributed anything to American history, pointing out that the “Creator” is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and snidely adding, “That’s not Allah.”

Bauer shrilly advised New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to stop insisting on religious tolerance.

“Next time you want to give a speech on tolerance, try giving it in Mecca,” he shouted.

Bauer invoked the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, several times, shamelessly exploiting the memory of the heroic passengers who lost their lives aboard United Airlines Flight 93 to shill for Republican candidates.

Always a crowd favorite, Bauer never fails to reach for the most lurid rhetoric he can find. The mysterious group known as “the elites” is one of his favorite targets. These elites, Bauer asserted, love to lecture normal Americans on what to eat and drink and what cars to drive. What’s more, he said, they “treat the Constitution like toilet paper.”

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) was drafted to attack the Religious Right’s other chief target: gay people. Inhofe pleaded with attendees to call their senators and demand that the ban on gays serving openly in the military be retained.

Referring several times to the prospect of “open gay activity,” Inhofe beseeched the crowd to “get on the internet and get everybody active.”

Added Inhofe, “If you do this, you’ll be doing the Lord’s work, and he will richly bless you for it.”

Not to be left out, FRC President Tony Perkins joined the gay bashing during a special panel on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Perkins was accompanied by an FRC staffer who served in the military many years ago and a sergeant who is currently on disability because he was hit by two roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

All three asserted that allowing gays to serve openly in the military would destroy unit cohesion. None offered any evidence to back this up. Perkins’ main contribution was an offensive joke: “It’s going to be difficult for some of these transvestites to know which uniform to wear.”

And it wouldn’t have been the Values Voter Summit without lots of calls for mixing church and state. A merger of the U.S. government and fundamentalist religion remains the ultimate goal of the Religious Right.

Bryan Fischer, a public policy analyst at the American Family Association, helpfully outlined how church and state ought to interact. Fischer, who has become a cult figure in the Religious Right for his radio rants and outrageous columns (a recent one called on the government to block all new construction of mosques), denied that he favors theocracy. The problem is, what he wants doesn’t sound much different.

“I’m not talking about an arrangement where God rules the nation through the church,” he said. Rather, Fischer added, he wants to see a legion of “Christian statesmen” who will “align the public policy of the United States with the will of God.”

Fischer did not explain how these statesmen would determine God’s will or what would happen if they disagreed about it, but he did warn the crowd that things can’t go on like they are.

“We must choose between the homosexual agenda and religious liberty, because we simply cannot have both,” Fischer intoned.

As usual, the Summit was overwhelmingly partisan. With many activities conducted under the auspices of FRC Action, a 501(c)(4) organization that is allowed to be heavily political, no one even bothered to pretend that the event was anything but a GOP rally. In fact, a “reception” (fundraiser) was held by FRC Action PAC for O’Donnell and other candidates.

Partisanship is more problematic for other Summit sponsors, however. Liberty University and the Heritage Foundation are both 501(c)(3) organizations strictly barred from campaign involvement.

Late on Friday afternoon, Dale Peterson, a garrulous cowboy from Alabama, appeared on stage with a folksy rant against Obama and the Democrats.

Peterson sought the GOP nomination for Alabama agriculture commissioner this year. His ads, featuring himself on a horse brandishing a rifle, were popular on YouTube, but there was one drawback: He lost the primary. Peterson now traverses the country, lining up votes for the GOP.

“This is the most crucial election in the history of America,” Peterson enthused – a claim that might have some relevance if Summit speakers didn’t say it every election year. For good measure, he added a “birther” element to the proceedings, mentioning “little feet on that birth certificate” and saying in reference to Obama, “I don’t know what he is.” (In an interview with another media outlet after his speech, Peterson admitted that he does not believe Obama was born in the United States.)

Speaker after speaker celebrated the prospects of the Republicans capturing the House and Senate next month and defeating Obama in 2012 – and begged Summit attendees to help make it happen.

A parade of potential GOP presidential candidates trooped to the podium – among them Huckabee, whose lackluster speech, replete with the requisite Obama jokes, felt canned. It was notable mainly for his assertion that requiring health-insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions interferes with free enterprise.

Gingrich railed against “Islamists,” the “elites,” the “thought police” and the “secular socialist machine led by Obama, Pelosi and Reid.” He also called for a federal law barring courts from any use of Islamic sharia law.

Other would-be presidents speaking were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Pence, DeMint and Rick Santorum.

One potential candidate was notably absent: Palin. Although she was listed as an invited speaker on early drafts of the program, Palin was a no-show, speaking in Iowa instead. Perhaps the FRC didn’t feel like shelling out a $100,000 speaking fee for 20 minutes of work.

Palin’s failure to appear may have hurt her in a presidential straw poll the FRC sponsored. Although idolized by the FRC in 2008, Palin came in far back in the pack with just 7 percent of the vote. Pence topped the poll at 24 percent, with Huckabee close behind at 22 percent. Romney took 13 percent and Gingrich 10 percent.

Palin did better as a possible veep, capturing 15 percent, Pence was first with 16 percent, Santorum captured 10 percent, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan garnered 7 percent and DeMint and Huckabee each took 6 percent.

(Attendees were also asked to rank their top five issues. Although abortion was number one, the influence of the Tea Party was evident as deficit reduction and “Obamacare” took second and third. “Religious liberty” was fourth, with national security rounding out the list. Despite all of the gay bashing, same-sex marriage and allowing gays in the military failed to place.)

To get the right men and women in office, the FRC and its allies will be relying on a tried-and-true formula: mobilize fundamentalist churches and distribute biased “voter guides.”

Although alleged to be “non-partisan,” the guides routinely make Republicans look like saints and Democrats like imps of Satan. The distribution of such material in houses of worship – a strategy pioneered by TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in the 1990s – is ethically questionable and legally dubious, to say the least.

But FRC Action knows its tax exemption won’t be on the line if the Internal Revenue Service comes calling. The churches will bear the brunt.

Kenyn Cureton, FRC vice president for church ministries, insisted that church-based political activities must be non-partisan. A few minutes later, however, he gave away the game, remarking, “We don’t want people to just vote for the sake of voting. We want them to vote their Christian values.”

He defined those values as life, marriage and religious freedom – Religious Right euphemisms for banning abortion, denying gays access to civil marriage and lowering the wall of separation between church and state.

Cureton added, “We’re not just encouraging people to vote however. That’s what happened in the last election. That’s how Obama got elected – a bunch of stupid evangelicals who didn’t even use their biblical values when they went in the voting booth.” Cureton called on attendees to be prepared to wage “a spiritual battle.”

“The battle that we’re fighting is not just a political and cultural battle, it’s a spiritual battle,” Cureton said. “When you think about it, you know, the real enemy is not the poor, deluded souls who are advancing these evil agendas. Really, they’re just simply pawns in the hands of their malevolent master. They’re simply doing the bidding of the devil, OK?

“The devil is the enemy,” he continued. “So this is a spiritual battle that we’re fighting. And to the victor goes the prize of the America our children will inherit. So it’s a fight that we dare not lose.”

At a session that followed on increasing voter turnout, Patricia Simpson of the right-wing Leadership Institute was equally blunt: “We want the people who are not voting with us to think Election Day was moved to Wednesday. That’s what we want.”

The Summit concluded with a banquet honoring Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, for his 30-year crusade to clean up television.

Wildmon, a Methodist minister based in Tupelo, Miss., was feted as one of the most important religious leaders of our time. Appearing by video, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (yet another possible presidential aspirant), hailed Wildmon as “one of the greatest moral leaders of our generation.”

Charles W. Colson, a Watergate figure turned fundamentalist activist, and Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson also sent video greetings featuring similar overblown acclaim. U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) even dropped by in person.

Praise of the aging Wildmon, now semi-retired and visibly frail due to illness, was fulsome. No one bothered to point out an inconvenient truth: Wildmon’s chief mission failed miserably. TV is just as risqué as ever – “Jersey Shore,” anyone? – with cable and satellite channels and the internet beaming all manner of salacious programming into American living rooms.

Several Americans United staffers attended the Summit to gather information and provide comments to reporters covering it. Prior to the event, AU issued a press statement noting the growing ties between the Religious Right and the Tea Party.

“I think Religious Right strategists want to hop on the Tea Party express and ride it into power in Washington,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.

Added Lynn, “Religious Right leaders are frustrated that their issues have been placed on the back burner, and they’re hoping to get back in the game by joining forces with the Tea Party. We’ll see if that marriage of convenience takes place.”