The Values Voter Summit, the year's biggest political gathering for the Religious Right, took place in Washington, D.C. this past weekend. Every Republican presidential candidate with the exception of Jon Huntsman addressed the summit, evidence of the continuing importance of Religious Right activists and political groups to the GOP. Ron Paul's campaign brought in enough voters to win the straw poll, but it would be wrong to say he was the favorite of the Values Voter crowd. It was up-and-coming candidate Herman Cain who won the loudest cheers (and took second place).
Two days of speeches from presidential candidates, congressional leaders, and Religious Right activists painted a clear picture of where they'll try to take the country if they are successful in their 2012 electoral goals. In the Religious Right's America, banks and corporations would be free from pesky consumer and worker protections; there would be no Environmental Protection Agency and no federal support for education; women would have no access to abortion; gays would be second-class citizens; and for at least some, religious minorities would have to know their place and be grateful that they are tolerated in this Christian nation.
Here's a rundown of some major themes from the conference.
Religious Bigotry on Parade
In one of the most extreme expressions of the "Christian nation" approach to government, the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer has stated repeatedly that the religious liberty of non-Christians, including Mormons, is not protected by the First Amendment. Before the conference, People For the American Way called on Mitt Romney to take on Fischer's bigotry, which he did, albeit in a vague and tepid manner, criticizing "poisonous" rhetoric without naming Fischer or explaining why his views are poison. Getting greater media attention were comments by Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, who in his introduction of Texas Gov. Rick Perry insisted on the importance of electing a "genuine" follower of Christ. Following Romney at the microphone, Fischer said that the next president has to be a Christian "in the mold of" the founding fathers, calling this religious test for the presidency a "political test."
Beating up on Obama
A major theme of the VVS was attacking President Obama and his policies. Perhaps the nicest thing anyone said about the president was Mitt Romney's snide remark that Obama is "the conservative movement's top recruiter." Less nice, from virtue-monger Bill Bennett: "If you voted for him last time to prove you are not a racist, you must vote against him this time to prove you are not an idiot." Rep. Anne Buerkle, one of the Tea Party freshmen, said flat out that the president is not concerned about what is best for the country. Many speakers denounced "Obamacare," and most of the presidential candidates promised to make dismantling health care reform a top priority. Many also attacked President Obama for not being strong enough in support of Israel, and repeated a favorite right-wing talking point by pledging to "never apologize" for U.S. actions abroad.
Gays as Enemies of Liberty
It is clear that a Republican takeover of the Senate and White House would put advances toward equality for LGBT Americans in peril. Speaker after speaker denounced the recent repeal of the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers in the armed forces; many also attacked marriage equality for same-sex couples. And many portrayed liberty as a zero-sum game, insisting that advances toward equality posed a dire threat to religious liberty. Predictably, the AFA's Fischer was most vitriolic, declaring that the nation must choose between homosexuality and religious liberty and insisting that the country needs a president "who will treat homosexual behavior not as a political cause at all but as a threat to public health."
Loving Wall Street, Hating Wall Street Protesters
On the same day that moving pictures of Kol Nidre services at the sight of Occupy Wall Street protests made the rounds, VVS speakers portrayed the protests as dangerous and violent. Others simply mocked the protesters without taking seriously the objections being raised to growing inequality and economic hardship in America. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor denounced the protesters as "mobs." A number of speakers promoted Christian Reconstructionist notions of "Biblical economics," with Star Parker declaring that "this whole notion of redistribution of wealth is inconsistent with scripture" and calling for the selection of a candidate with commitment to the free market according to the Bible. Ron Paul said "debt is not a biblical principle." The AFA's Fischer said that liberalism is based on violating two of the Ten Commandments, namely thou shall not steal, and thou shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. Liberalism, he said, is "driven by angry, bitter, acquisitive greed for the wealth of productive Americans."
No Love for Libertarians
A major theme at last year's Values Voter Summit, and heard again this year, was an effort to make social-issue libertarians unwelcome in the conservative movement by insisting that you cannot legitimately claim to be a fiscal conservative if you are not also pushing "traditional family values." First Things web editor Joe Carter took a shot at gay conservatives, saying it was not possible to be conservative and for gay marriage -- it simply made you a "liberal who likes tax cuts."
Crying Wolf on Religious Persecution
Religious Right leaders energize movement activists with dire warnings about threats to religious liberty and the alleged religious persecution of Christians in America, which retired Gen. William Boykin said is worse than ever. Crying wolf about persecution of Christians in America is offensive given the very real suffering of people in countries that do not enjoy the religious freedom we do. Several speakers addressed the case of a Christian pastor facing death in Iran. That is persecution; having your political tactics challenged or losing a court case is not.
America is Exceptional; Europe Sucks
We heard plenty of talk about at VVS about "American exceptionalism," a favorite GOP campaign theme in 2010 and apparently for 2012. Rep. Steve King, for example, said "this country was ordained and built by His hand," that the Declaration of Independence was written with divine guidance, and that God moved the founding fathers around the globe like chess pieces . Many speakers contrasted a freedom-loving, God-fearing America to socialist, post-Christian Europe, which Gen. Boykin declared "hopelessly lost."
Smashing the Regulatory State
The anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor of billionaire right-wing funders like the Koch brothers was on vibrant display at the VVS. Without the slightest nod to the fact that regulating the behavior of corporations' treatment of workers, consumers, and the environment is in any way beneficial, a member of a Heritage Foundation panel said conservatives' goal should be to "break the back" of the "regulatory state." Some presidential candidates vowed to halt every regulation issued during the Obama administration. Michele Bachman said her goal was to "dismantle" the bureaucracy.
Judging JudgesMany speakers criticized judges for upholding abortion rights, church-state separation, and gay rights. Newt Gingrich took these attacks to a whole new level, calling for right-wing politicians to provoke a constitutional crisis in which the legislative and executive branch would ignore court rulings they didn't like. He called the notion of "judicial supremacy" an "affront to the American system of self-government." Aside from Gingrich's very dubious constitutional theory, the speech seemed out of place at a conference in which speakers had been calling for the Supreme Court to overturn the health care law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama.
Deconstructing the 'Pursuit of Happiness'
VVS speakers love quoting the Declaration of Independence, but some are clearly a little troubled with the notion that the "pursuit of happiness" is an inalienable right, one that might apply, for example, to happy, loving gay couples. Rick Santorum said that the founders' understanding of "happiness" meant "the morally right thing" and doing what God wants. Steve King said the pursuit of happiness was not like a tailgate party, but the pursuit of excellence in moral and spiritual development. Michele Bachmann has equated the pursuit of happiness with private property.