Not long ago, a passing familiarity with Bible verses, a flair for rhetoric, and hunger for a following could be enough to land someone in a small-town pulpit. Today, it seems, they are the right stuff for a top-tier Republican candidacy, perhaps even for President.
This defining downward, and rightward, of conservative leadership is one lesson from the recent rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There Fox commentator and Mormon convert Glenn Beck kicked off the get-out-the-vote phase of the 2010 election with a revival aimed at the GOP base. He immediately faced questions from the New York Times about his interest in the Oval Office.
"Not a chance," said the grandiloquent new darling of the hard right, with a nod to rally co-star Sarah Palin. Beck may surpass Palin in on-screen exposure and a knack for mimicking the language and cadence of scripture, but he is her understudy in another skill-set now prized for Republican candidates: scapegoating.
Attacks and innuendo against immigrants and religious minorities, including the Christian faith of President Obama himself, have joined traditional diatribes against gay people in the GOP script for getting votes this year. They echo in the rally cries for Republicans now vying to take over Congress and storm statehouses. The added power of redrawing election districts to their long-term benefit hangs in the balance.
Leading the ranks of the gate-crashers are those responsible for the very unemployment crisis they like to blame on Democrats while on the campaign trail. Multimillionaire Republican Carly Fiorina, for example, sent more than 9,000 U.S. jobs overseas prior to her ouster as Hewlett-Packard CEO and her current Senate bid in California.
To the right of even Fiorina, who has called for overturning Roe v. Wade, are Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky who assail landmark laws against discrimination, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. A series of other GOP candidates, from Florida's Marco Rubio to Alaska's Joe Miller, espouse the extreme goals of fringe ideologues, such as ending Social Security.
They raise the stakes in this election. It's about far more than who kvells and who concedes on Election Night, November 2. It's about the direction of the country and whether the intolerant far-right will gain the upper hand.
Beck, despite his own status as a religious minority, prepped for his August 28 rally by playing on anti-Muslim prejudice in denouncing a mosque and community center planned for lower Manhattan. His bid to wave the bloody shirt of 9-11 victimhood foundered in the face of Beck's own confessions, revealed by Cenk Uygur on MSNBC, that "It took me about a year to start hating the 9-11 victims' families."
Palin's intolerance, by contrast, is more focused and more expert at playing on emotion for political advantage. She said via Twitter that plans for the community center so close to Ground Zero "stabs hearts," including her own. Perhaps assuming that the state of Alaska has matched her own drift downward and righward, she sought to locate herself "in the heartland." And she mistakenly called on "peaceful Muslims" to "refudiate" the facility.
Palin isn't the only conservative dressing up appeals to intolerance in a wardrobe of new words. Riding her coattails are a host of characters exploiting hard times, the power vacuum among Republicans, and a scarcity of reporters and editors well-versed in both religion and politics. The absence of scrutiny and silence by fellow Republicans eager for electoral gain are allowing the opportunists to remake themselves as standard-bearers for the right.
One extremist seeking mainstream standing is charismatic preacher Lou Engle. He likens his Kansas-City-based following to an army engaged in "radical prayer" and has called on Christians to engage in acts of martyrdom, similar to the 2009 murder of Kansas abortion provider George Tiller. The wife of Tiller's killer, Scott Roeder, has said her husband wanted to be such a martyr. Engle has touted a recent effort in Uganda to enact legislation that would authorize the killing of gay people. Last summer he performed an anointment of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, both of whom have appealed to anti-Muslim prejudice in remarks about the Manhattan mosque.
In the past, Engle claimed his followers' prayers helped George W. Bush win reelection in 2004. To scare up votes this year, he has called for a daylong fast starting today in Sacramento aimed at overturning a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The 5-to-4 decision denied a group of religious conservatives at a public law school in California the power to discriminate against gay students while still collecting university funds for their activities.
Engle and his ilk are fond of denouncing civil-rights protections as "special rights." But that's exactly what they covet when it comes to backing right-wing candidates for office through tax-exempt charities or the authority to discriminate on the public's dime, simply by using religion to justify bigotry or exclusion.
Another fringe figure fighting to gain stature is revisionist historian and peddler of Christian supremacy theories David Barton. He is set to appear with Ohio antigay and Republican activist Phil Buress at a pair of rallies at Buckeye State mega-churches just as early voting begins in Ohio on September 28. Barton's main target is church-state separation, a founding principle of America whose survival he likes to blame on the court rulings of Republican appointee and former U.S. chief justice Earl Warren.
A third extremist seeking renewed exposure is discredited anti-abortion and antigay activist Alveda King. King actually appeared with Beck and Palin at the D.C. rally but largely escaped scrutiny for her decades spent trying to defeat basic human-rights protections covering sexual orientation and gender identity. If there's a double standard afflicting news coverage of conservatives, as some allege, it's that their history of catering to intolerance rarely gets exposed.
Beginning in the early 90s, King took pay from anti-gay activists to travel around the country--to Cincinnati or Idaho or Maine or my own hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan--to trade on the name of her late uncle, MLK, and defend bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as a legal practice. In Traverse City, Michigan, in 2001, even former Republican President Gerald Ford took offense at the antigay amendment that King came into town to advocate. It would have left the city powerless in the face of harassment, vandalism, or other forms of mistreatment against gay people. The measure failed at the polls.
King stood to gain business from the burst of antigay ballot measures that Republican tactician Karl Rove helped place on state ballots in 2004, with the complicity of then-closeted, now-out former GOP chair Ken Mehlman. That was the last good election cycle for the GOP. For Republicans this fall, doing whatever it takes to gain a majority of seats in the U.S. House and the Senate could entail contracts with King to play on antigay sentiment in hopes of turning out enough votes to win tight elections.
Like the frenzy of McCarthyism that drove GOP gains in 1950 or the 1980 turnout that Jerry Falwell spiked with revivalist fervor, Republicans are eyeing 2010 as a once-in-a-generation chance to alter the political landscape. With the completion of the census and reapportionment now upon us, it could also furnish them authority to remake the maps of election districts in their favor.
Fluency in fringe ideology and appeals to intolerance now substitute for leadership among conservatives. The impact of Republican gains or majorities in Congress and state capitols would skew the course of decision-making rightward and backward. That means rehashed fights about posting of the Ten Commandments, citizenship and voting standards, enforcement of sodomy laws, access to contraception, and the legality of the clean-water and emissions standards, the minimum wage, and Social Security. It means a diminished state of our democracy and our standing in the world.
Progressives perturbed at the pace of change in federal law or the stances and statements of the Obama administration do not have the luxury of simply holding the president's feet to the fire. A very different fire is at hand. And there is no time to debate the temperature of the water that will put it out.