Many years ago I was working for the American Civil Liberties Union and made a foolish decision to appear on “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” a literal scream-fest featuring a chain-smoking, ultraconservative blowhard who made today’s television conservatives like Bill O’Reilly appear to be learned pussycats.
Downey placed guests like me, who he knew would be unpopular, as close as possible (as in, breathing down your neck close) to a sneering group of his barely post-pubescent audience of bellicose know-nothings.
The “Downey” show appearance was the only time in any public venue I felt at risk of being physically attacked – that is, until last month at the Values Voters Summit.
I’ve been attending Religious Right confabs for 25 years now without incident. This year, as I sat and took notes from the third row of the packed ballroom where Donald Trump was giving a major address, I felt as if I were in the middle of a lynch mob.
If Trump – or another speaker that weekend – would have said, “If somebody sitting near you doesn’t stand up for the National Anthem or seems to be snickering, please just punch him or her in the face,” I might have ended up with a black eye.
As I told television newsman Ed Schultz a few days later, the attendees this year seemed to be angrier and nastier than ever before. The rhetoric was more overheated and insulting. The general tone was one suggesting that this election was the last hope for America’s very survival.
How bad did it get? Let me just highlight a few of the popular orators there. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas (with whom I had a verbal confrontation during a House subcommittee hearing a few years ago) began with what conservatives believe passes for a comedy routine. Gohmert noted that Jesus would not have made fun of people with disabilities, but then chortled that Hillary Clinton was “mentally impaired” and has “special needs.”
The congressman summed up that Christianity is a “religion of love, unlike any other.” (Jews and Buddhists, whose adherents were on that subcommittee panel previously noted, are not promoting love, apparently.)
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest got worked up about transgender rights. He said it’s an effort to get “little boys and girls to shower together” and to push “the sexual revolution on all of us.”
In the early days of these conferences, critics often noted that Religious Right groups obsessed over things like sex while ignoring issues like poverty and war.
There was a consistency to the far right’s view, at least: They were against contraception and abortion, against civil unions and marriage equality, against “dirty” books and hedonistic pursuits in general.
This year, the Religious Right has attached itself to the candidate who has been married three times, who has bragged about sleeping with married women and who rarely darkens the door of a church.
Ironically, I would bet dollars to doughnuts that most of the people in that room still do not believe that President Barack Obama is a Christian, but their adoption of Donald Trump as a savior of “religious liberty” because of his Christian faith is indisputable.
Trump’s address was filled with examples of how “our Christian heritage” will be “defended like you’ve never seen before” during his administration. This apparently includes creating a mandatory school voucher plan, allowing churches to endorse candidates for public office and making the Supreme Court much more conservative.
Trump included a scriptural note, citing the Gospel of John. (No “2 Corinthians” this time.) He then wrapped up by vowing to make America “one people under one God saluting one flag.”
This suggests that Trump views his presidential role as including converting Americans to one faith under hyper-nationalism. He might want to rethink this view and accept the premise that one of the great things about this country is what emerges from our rich diversity of nationalities and origins – and the multitude of beliefs about religion we hold.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.