The Rev. Dan Fisher puts it right out there: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other Founding Fathers got it all wrong – there’s no such thing as separation of church and state.
“Friends, we’ve been lied to,” Fisher, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon, Okla., said recently. “We’ve been sold a bill of goods of separation of church and state, which is nothing more than a lie, twisted out of a misused phrase out of a Thomas Jefferson letter in 1802. It’s all a lie!”
Fisher’s fact-challenged history lesson came during the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC) and other Religious Right groups. He was speaking at a breakout session titled “Debunking the Myth of Separation of Church and State: Why Pastors Must Engage in Politics.”
The session was organized by the Rev. Rick Scarborough, a Texas pastor who enjoyed a brief moment of notoriety in the 1990s as a protégé of Jerry Falwell.
Scarborough, who runs a small Religious Right outfit called Vision America, opened the session by scanning the room, looking for Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.
“I keep waiting for my friend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to pop in,” Scarborough joshed. “He usually comments on what I have to say.”
Alas, Lynn didn’t attend this particular Summit session, so Scarborough and Fisher were unable to school the AU leader with their appeal for pastors to get involved in politics to lead America out of its “crisis.”
For Fisher, political activity includes violating federal law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. The Oklahoma pastor has intervened in elections in the past and vowed to do it again.
Scarborough even took some time to explain to attendees why it’s OK to vote for Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith is considered a cult by many evangelical Christians.
“We’re not electing a pastor,” he remarked. “We’re electing someone to lead the nation.”
That statement was a bit curious coming as it did at this conference. Summit attendees clearly do expect Romney, if elected, to behave as a pastor and implement a series of laws based on fundamentalist Christianity.
The Summit was designed to outline the Religious Right’s political demands and rally the troops around Romney, which was done not by highlighting Romney’s accomplishments or goals but by heaping abuse on President Barack Obama. Obama – or rather the fundamentalist movement’s characterization of Obama – spent two days during the Summit as a Religious Right piñata.
For attendees, a highlight of the Sept. 14-15 confab was an address by Republican vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). Also appearing were GOP governors Robert McDonnell (Va.) and Jan Brewer (Ariz.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), U.S. Senate candidate from Texas Ted Cruz, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a bevy of GOP House members.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli whom the crowd loves for, among other things, his harassment of abortion clinics, was on hand too.
Ryan, who spoke Friday morning, was a huge hit. He stood before the adoring crowd and launched into a fiery assault on Obama.
The president, Ryan said, lacks “moral clarity and firmness of purpose,” especially in foreign policy. He accused Obama of leading the nation down an economic blind alley and opined that thanks to Obama’s policies, “We are at risk of becoming a poor country.”
Romney did not attend the event in person – he sent a short video message – but Ryan, a conservative Roman Catholic beloved by fundamentalists for his strong stands for a ban on all abortions and opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, was a more-than-adequate surrogate.
During the 25-minute address, Ryan blasted the president as a failed leader and a proponent of big government who is a captive to the extreme left.
Ryan tossed the crowd red meat, calling for laws to protect “the most defenseless and helpless of human beings – the child waiting to be born.” He also blasted “unelected judges,” praised the Romneys’ marriage and accused Obama of being hostile to Catholic Charities, an organization he said “does more to serve the health of women and their babies” than any other.
Concluded Ryan, “We know what we’re up against. We know how desperate our opponents are to cling to power, but we’re ready…. Let’s get this done and elect Mitt Romney as the next president of America.”
There was nothing unusual about the partisan content of Ryan’s speech. In fact, its themes appeared again and again in the remarks blasting forth from a parade of speakers at the podium.
At times it seemed as if speakers were all relying on a central script: Speaker after speaker ridiculed Obama and portrayed the Democrats as a party afraid to even mention God in its platform. Obama was vilified as a weak leader who constantly apologizes for America overseas and who is eager to throw Israel under the bus and cozy up to Islamic terrorists.
The president was also accused of presiding over a wide-ranging “war on religion” – but to this crowd, his worst crime was getting health care reform passed. (The measure was never called anything but “Obamacare.”)
Numerous speakers openly called for Romney’s election, and several opined that this election is the most important one ever.
The FRC is a tax-exempt body, but it runs the Summit through FRC Action, a 501(c)(4) affiliate. This sleight of hand gives the FRC a little more leeway to be partisan, since (c)(4) organizations are allowed to endorse candidates. Several other groups that co-sponsor the event also do it through (c)(4) units, such as American Family Association Action.
But other sponsors are tax-exempt, like Liberty University, Liberty Counsel, the Heritage Foundation and American Values. (In previous years, these groups have claimed that they are only co-sponsoring the non-political portions of the event, but that would be impossible. There were virtually no non-political portions; the whole thing was a two-day rally for the Republican ticket.)
Over the years, the Summit has also taken on the feel of the Heritage Foundation at prayer – which is perhaps not surprising since the broadly conservative Washington, D.C., foundation is one of the event’s co-sponsors. There were regular calls for banning abortion and blocking same-sex marriage, but attendees were just as likely to hear denunciations of “Obamacare” alongside demands for tax cuts and reduced government regulation of industry.
These days, it seems, Jesus is a confirmed bootstrap capitalist.
Aside from the pols, a retinue of fading Religious Right figures also surfaced at the Summit. Chief among them was Oliver North, an ex-Marine who became a hero to the Religious Right during the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 and has somehow managed to make a living on the far-right lecture/media circuit ever since.
Star Parker, an obscure African-American woman who makes her living shrieking anti-welfare screeds to audiences of white conservatives, also appeared. (Parker’s big applause line this year came when she attacked Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student who has been advocating for women’s access birth control. Parker called Fluke “a national icon for sexual promiscuity” and added, “[We] should not be forced to cover her sex life.”)
Celebrity power this year was lacking, represented primarily by Kirk Cameron, a c-list actor who came to flog his new film “Monumental,” an alleged documentary that purports to explain the “Christian” roots of America’s founding.
In this election year, the Summit rhetoric quickly went over the top, and some of the allegations bore only a passing resemblance to the truth. Obama was constantly portrayed as an appeaser to “radical Islam” who traipses the globe, apologizing for America and refusing to acknowledge “American exceptionalism.”
A generous dollop of Islam bashing was tossed into the mix. Controversial House member Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called Obama a tool of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. This shadowy organization, Bachmann warned darkly, seeks to impose Islamic law on all nations, even those without large Muslim populations. Part of its scheme is to instill “Islamic-enforced speech codes” in America.
“They intend to force us to kiss our freedom of speech and religion goodbye,” Bachmann said. A moment later she added, “We’re quickly losing a sense of who we are as a nation.”
Blasting Obama as a proponent of “apology and appeasement,” Bachmann told the crowd, “It is my belief and my opinion that Barack Obama has been the most dangerous president we’ve ever had on foreign policy. We cannot sustain another four years of Jimmy Carter-like policies.”
Gary Bauer, president of American Values, called radical Islam “the cancer growing in the middle of that faith” and insisted that the “creator” referred to in the Declaration of Independence “is not just any god – that god is not the god of the Quran.”
Among the speakers was Kamal Saleem, a man who carries the unlikely job title of “former terrorist.” Saleem claims to have been tied to the Palestine Liberation Organization and to have worked alongside Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan.
In fact, Saleem, whose real name is Khodor Shami, is a former employee of TV preacher Pat Robertson who has been exposed by several journalists as a likely fraud.
A session on alleged “persecution” of religious groups featured a discussion of a lawsuit filed by Americans United in Castroville, Texas, to block school sponsorship of prayers during school events. FRC President Tony Perkins made a big deal out of the fact that a federal appeals court allowed a student to make religious remarks during graduation.
No one bothered to point out that the case was later settled out of court in a manner favorable to Americans United, including a court order barring school officials from initiating, soliciting or directing prayers.
The session quickly fell down the rabbit hole when Perkins asked William G. “Jerry” Boykin, an ex-Army general who now serves as FRC’s executive vice president, why he thinks liberals so often attack religion.
Boykin matter of factly replied, “I want to remind you all to remember that one of the terms they used for Adolf Hitler was ‘a progressive.’” After invoking the worst mass murderer in history, Boykin piled on with some Red baiting.
“They are following to the letter the philosophy of Marxism,” Boykin said. “They would not call themselves Marxists, so they do it under the label of ‘progressive’….What you’re seeing happening in America today is Marxism. They don’t call it that, but it’s Marxism.”
Boykin then asserted that the long-range plan of liberals is to get religion out of society so people have to depend on government.
A cult of victimization also pervaded the Summit. Conservative Christians, attendees were told, are “persecuted” by nefarious forces to seek to silence them. This was coupled with a rampant disdain for the media and that ever-popular right-wing bogeyman know as “the elites.”
Former U.S. senator and failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum sparked some unintentional amusement when he bemoaned, “We will never have the media on our side, ever, in this country. We will never have the elite, smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.”
The Summit’s relentless partisanship was reflected at the FRC Action PAC’s members-only reception. The event is an opportunity for candidates to seek campaign support and express their personal faith and their political views. According to FRC Action PAC President Connie Mackey, each had been “vetted” by the FRC.
Every politician who spoke was Republican, among them U.S. Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), as well as aspiring officeholders such as Jim Bridenstine, who is running for a U.S. House seat in Oklahoma; Tim Fox, who is running for Montana attorney general; and Sher Valenzuela, candidate for Delaware lieutenant governor.
Prior to the Summit, AU’s Lynn issued a media statement urging politicians to reject the Religious Right agenda.
Lynn, who has attended every Values Voter Summit (and many Christian Coalition “Road to Victory” Conferences before that), observed, “Candidates have knelt at the altar of the Religious Right much too often. The American people do not want religion brought into partisan politics or politics brought into the sanctuary. Poll after poll reaffirms that point.”
He concluded, “I’d like to hear candidates make a profession of faith in the Constitution and church-state separation.”