The morning session of the Freedom Federation Summit, like last night's event, was sparsely attended. The morning event at Thomas Road Baptist Church was on "Israel, the Middle East, and Military Readiness," and featured video addresses by Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Likud MK Danny Danon, who thanked evangelical Christians for their unyielding support for Israel (even as speakers here in Lynchburg emphasized the Christ-focused nature of both their domestic and foreign policy advocacy). After the session was over, I asked Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University Law School and the head of the affiliated legal group Liberty Counsel, about the turnout. He said they had hoped for a larger turnout, but that it was difficult to turn out students on a weeknight (last night) and many people had other competing events, including the tea parties. Still, despite many speakers last night lauding the tea parties, Staver was emphasized, "this is completely separate from the tea parties," and said that it had been the works even before the tea parties got off the ground. He said that the Freedom Federation was more about different organizations working in partnership "learning about each others’ core values and how to message and mobilize their constituences." This is the new religious right: trying to be less white and male and old, and not focusing on one or two charismatic leaders who are the faces of the movement. It's more about sharing messaging and mobilizing and then sending different foot soldiers out to disseminate that message and mobilize new constituences. One of those new constituencies is Latinos, as evidenced by Liberty's new "strategic partnership" with Sam Rodriguez's National Hispanic Leadership Conference. Rodriguez, who was once touted as a "new" and "centrist" evangelical, has clearly thrown his lot in with the religious right (some of which appears to be warming to his advocacy for immigration reform, although he is unclear on the specifics). Rodriguez delivered the convocation at Liberty's basketball stadium this morning, and that event was well-attended by several thousand students, although that is a mandatory thrice-weekly event. Many of the students appeared mostly unmoved by Rodriguez's fiery preaching about their generation instigating a new revival -- it seemed that they so regularly hear this sort of thing that they could chat among themselves or check their text messages while he was on the stage. Staver emphasized that tea parties are about protesting, and the Freedom Federation is about messaging -- a distinction he suggested might explain the more intense media interest in the tea parties. Still, he insisted, these messaging and mobilizing gatherings will bear fruit when different organizational leaders (he pointed to Ron Luce of Teen Mania, who spoke last night, as a prime example), take that messaging to their own constituencies after the conference is over. I asked Staver why Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition wasn't part of the Freedom Federation. "Ralph’s organiation is very much consistent with what we’re doing," said Staver. "We just had a meeting with Ralph this week. We’re going to be bringing in a lot more people and groups and organizations so this will grow in a big way." Cross-posted from Religion Dispatches.
The Freedom Federation Summit taking place April 15-16 at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia was billed as the next Great Awakening, the inaugural gathering of "a new movement [that] is forming in America comprised of people of all races, ethnicities and generations." With the mobilizing power of dozens of religious right organizations behind it, why was the first night attended by only a few hundred people? I'm not sure what the organizers were thinking, but kicking off this thing on tax day, knowing that tea parties were mobilizing around the country, was obvious poor planning. Last night's activities took place inside Thomas Road Baptist Church, which seats several thousand, but only drew a few hundred spectators, and when I first arrived there were only a few dozen. This could not have made many of the first night's top speakers -- including the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli -- very happy. Some of today's activities are slated to take place in the University's basketball arena, which seats 10,000, and it would be remarkable if Liberty and/or Thomas Road aren't able to send out an ABP to get some more warm bodies in the place. That the Summit conflicted with the tea parties was clearly on many speakers' minds, and there appeared to be an ambivalence about whether to embrace the tea parties or present the Freedom Federation as an alternative to them. But given that the purpose of the Freedom Federation is to market the religious right in a new way -- basically as more than just a bunch of aging white guys -- some of the black speakers took up the issue of the whiteness of the tea parties, and charges of racism. Tim Johnson, the vice-chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, the first black person to hold that post, who moderated a panel, The Values, Politics, and Messaging of the Black Community, sought to dispel "rumors" that the tea party movement doesn't "welcome blacks." Yet while they endorsed their tea party friends (who had apparently depleted their audience), other speakers made clear that perhaps the tea parties needed a little more of the holy ghost. "We need the tea party movement with a Christian imperative," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "That would be a movement and a revolution on steroids." Obviously there are plenty of religious right figures who have embraced and spoken at tea parties, including some of last night's speakers. And while they spoke highly of their tea party friends -- because who could harbor ambitions of being the next big thing in the conservative movement without doing that -- they were insisting that they were something more: religious, of course, but also "multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational." Since the deaths of Falwell and D. James Kennedy and the aging of other iconic religious right figures, people inside and outside the movement have pondered who would be its next leader. Last night Mat Staver, dean of Liberty's law school, made clear that the movement is no longer about "individual voices" but that "God is deepening and widening the movement by bringing individuals with various voices. . . . That’s what unites us rather than divides us." The sponsoring organizations here are a combination of old guard religious right steeped in political organizing and mobilizing, like the Family Research Council, and charismatic evangelical organizations motivated not by voter lists and recruiting precinct captains but by prophecy, spiritual warfare, and creating a new generation of apostles to engage in battle and bring about revival. This alliance is long in the making -- in 2008, for example, some of the same organizations, like Lou Engle's The Call, teamed up to fight for Proposition 8 in California, and last year mobilized against health care reform, which they depicted as part of the "culture of death." The religious right is trying to find its footing in the tea party environment. It isn't dead, by any stretch of the imagination, last night's moribund activities here notwithstanding. Still, judging from last night's lackluster performance, it hasn't quite figured out how stage a revival when the tea parties have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Cross-posted from Religion Dispatches.