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At the Values Voter Summit, Wing-Nut Christian Right Plots Its Comeback

Religious conservatives, safely out of the public eye, let loose a string of shocking diatribes at the Values Voter Summit.
 
 
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Religious right activists frequently assert that communists in the Soviet Union invented the idea of separation of church and state.

But according to a speaker at the recent "Values Voter Summit," that's all wrong: It was really Adolf Hitler's doing.

Furthermore, Hitler also came up with the idea that churches should stay out of politics, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association told the crowd.

"Politics do not belong in the church, the church must be separate from the state -- these two mottos, these two slogans … came directly from the mind of Adolf Hitler," Fischer told an eager crowd of right-wing fundamentalists at Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel, shoving aside the views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. "Those two mottos, those two slogans, were official mottos, official slogans of the Nazi Party."

But Fischer was just getting warmed up. He also asserted that no state, city, township or political subdivision below Congress has to abide by the First Amendment, a proposition that would surprise just about any federal judge -- except possibly Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Fischer's over-the-top rant was just one of many extreme speeches at the Sept. 18-19 summit. Sponsored by the Family Research Council and other religious right organizations, the 2009 confab -- now the religious right's largest national political gathering -- was little more than an extended rally for the Republican Party, with several speakers plotting openly about how best to recapture Congress for the GOP in 2010 and the presidency in 2012.

But one big difference set this year's summit apart from years past: Barack Obama, a Democrat, is sitting in the White House. He ended up there after receiving more votes than Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in November.

And the religious right is furious about that.

Thus, Obama became a piñata over the course of two days. While plenty of speakers complained about his pro-choice stance on abortion, an interesting dynamic unfolded: By far the most-berated topic was health care reform. Few speakers failed to rail against it at least once, and many focused on it almost entirely.

Speakers also blasted Obama for pushing the stimulus package through Congress, for bailing out banks and even for the popular "cash for clunkers" program.

These are not normal topics for a religious right gathering, so what's going on here?

Two dynamics are likely at play: One, far-right anger over health care reform has fueled a growing conservative backlash. It's the biggest game in town right now, and the religious right is eager to hop aboard for the ride. The thinking is, "We are all tea partiers now."

Second, the religious right's loathing of Obama is palpable and intense. Health care dominates the political discourse, and for a religious right eager to bash the president, that issue is a bright and shiny stick.

During a "town hall" forum on health care, three right-wing members of Congress emphasized familiar conservative talking points -- most of which have been debunked.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., insisted that health care reform will lead to tax-funded abortions. He added, "I do believe 'Obamacare' represents the greatest threat since Roe v. Wade itself." Smith went on to call Obama "the abortion president."

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., portrayed health care reform as a government takeover, a line parroted by Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn. Like several other speakers, both warned darkly of "socialism" at the gates.

Claims of government takeovers were a constant at this meeting. Obama was repeatedly tarred as a socialist, and more than one speaker implied that he doesn't really love America, opposes God's will and kowtows to foreign enemies.

Numerous speakers stated that the very existence of the country is at stake.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said things have gotten so bad that, "It is at times a country that is almost difficult to recognize."

His solution? "Send a bunch of congressmen home next year," Huckabee thundered. (He also called for abolishing the IRS so that preachers would be free to endorse candidates from the pulpit.)

"Here we are gutting the integrity of the CIA and calling them liars, while at the same time treating suspected terrorists like rock stars and giving them refuge in Bermuda," Huckabee wailed. "Much of the problem in our nation today is that it's appearing that we've lost our way and forgotten who we are as a people."

House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., sounded similar themes, asserting that, thanks to the president, the very institutions of our nation are at risk.

"We do need your help right now," Cantor told the crowd. "The battle for our democracy is being fought today, this hour, in the halls of Congress and throughout 435 congressional districts across this country. We must win this battle to change the troubling course America is now on.

"Right now, millions of Americans are waking up and realizing that they don't recognize their own country anymore."

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (now an FRC staffer) used nearly apocalyptic terms to warn the crowd of Obama's plan to travel down "the European path of big-government socialism" and spark the "total demise" of the economy.

He implored conference attendees to change people by converting them to fundamentalism, adding, "If we don't do it, America, in its third century, will be redefined."

Star Parker, an African American conservative popular with the religious right, warned that people have to choose between God and government because Americans with a secular worldview cannot coexist with those who have a church-based worldview.

Prone to shout out her speeches and lace them with over-the-top rhetoric, Parker asserted that the country could be on the verge of a new civil war over abortion.

On health care, Parker said there really is no problem. Doctors, she asserted, are happy to treat the poor for free.

"It is an absolute lie that we don't have access for everyone who is sick," Parker said.

Amazingly, after howling at the audience for 20 minutes, blasting Obama repeatedly and calling the people who disagree with her "lewd leftists," Parker asserted that the grassroots needs to consider "toning down the anger."

The drumbeat continued.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, asserted that Obama's first eight months in office were "nothing short of breath-taking" -- he didn't mean it as a compliment -- and said the president wants to force everyone to put an outlet in their house for hybrid cars.

But there's good news, according to Boehner: "We're in the midst of a political rebellion in America!" People, he said, have had enough.

"They want their country back, and we can take our country back."

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., asserted that the country faces a crisis that is "moral in nature" and faces the possibility of "an avalanche of socialism." Luckily, Pence has a Boehner-like solution: "We will take this country back in 2010, and we will take this country back in 2012."

The appearance of Boehner, Pence, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and a bevy of other GOP bigwigs served to underscore the partisan nature of the event. In years past, religious right groups have occasionally put a conservative Democrat on the program. The FRC doesn't even bother.

This could be a tax problem for the groups that sponsored the event. The FRC, the Heritage Foundation, American Values and the American Family Association are all tax-exempt organizations under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code. As such, they are legally prohibited from intervening in partisan politics. (Heritage, a well-funded group known mainly for advocating limited government and low taxes, was making its first foray as a sponsor of the summit.)

One event cosponsor, FRC Action, is a 501(c)(4) group. Under federal tax law, such organizations may be more political, but partisan politics is not to be their primary aim.

Yet it seemed obvious that the entire confab was designed to get more Republicans into office in 2010 -- as one event especially made clear.

Summit attendees were invited to attend a Friday evening reception hosted by FRC Action PAC at a cost of $100 per person. PAC President Connie Mackey briefed attendees on the upcoming activities of the political action committee, which was created last year.

"We will pray a lot," Mackey said, "but if we don't change the numbers on Capitol Hill, and if we don't change the numbers in the state legislatures around the country, the Democrats are going to continue to do, to overtake us all with government." (Americans United obtained a recording of comments at the reception.)

This year, FRC activists have also created the Virginia Values Voter Political Action Committee, a special PAC for Virginia's closely watched elections. The move is significant, because campaign laws in that state are very loose. Both individuals and businesses can contribute to it and can apparently make unlimited donations.

Mackey said the PAC hopes to raise $60,000 to run radio ads against Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds in southern Virginia, attacking him over abortion and same-sex marriage. They're also targeting seven legislative seats. (Among the speakers at the reception were Ken Cuccinelli, GOP candidate for state attorney general, and Delegate Bob Marshall.)

Speaking of Virginia, Mackey said, "The Democrats, if we lose it, it will be such a trophy for them. And so we're doing everything we can."

Speakers during the general summit sessions echoed this partisan talk. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, predicted GOP victories in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey this year and said "the voters will speak in 2010."

Obama, Romney asserted, has already failed.

"He can spin a speech, but he can't spin his record," Romney told the crowd. "I'll bet you never thought you'd look back at Jimmy Carter as the good old days." (For good measure, Romney endorsed "intensive interrogation" techniques -- a euphemism for torture.)

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty attacked Obama on health care, taxes and other issues. He also toed the line of an assault on American values.

"Those values are under attack," Pawlenty said. "These are not just conservative values. Our values are American values … Our Judeo-Christian values are important, they are traditional, and they are the basis for so much of our country."

Pawlenty urged the crowd to fight even harder.

"Keep the faith and have heart, because remember, God is the God of all," he said. "He's the God of the White House, of the Congress, of state capitols, of school board meetings, city council meetings, all of it. So our job as value voters and concerned citizens is to get up each day, to be faithful, to work hard, and our job is to put in our best effort, and God owns the result, so do not lose heart."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an incumbent in a heated GOP gubernatorial primary contest with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, recommended a more radical approach. Demanding a return to "principles that originated in God's natural law," Perry said that states must assert a right under the Tenth Amendment to refuse to enact certain federal laws. Perry also attacked the oft-heard claim that government cannot legislate morality, labeling it "a great lie."

"As far as I'm concerned, you can't not legislate morality," Perry said. He wound up with a religious right favorite (if shopworn) line: "Freedom of religion is not to be confused with freedom from religion."

During a Saturday night banquet, religious right anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly, who was given an award named after Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, didn't even bother to pretend the Democrats might be a viable option.

During her career, Schlafly said, she learned "how important it is that we have a conservative party so we can nominate conservatives during the primaries and convention. And it surely cannot be the party of Nancy Pelosi or a president who thinks he can run the country with 34 czars."

Despite all of the talk about health care and socialism, some speakers made sure to serve up the "culture war" red meat the religious right loves to consume. The job of blasting gays and same-sex marriage, for example, was turned over to Bishop Harry Jackson.

Jackson, who pastors a megachurch in Prince George's County, Md., a suburban area northeast of Washington, briefed the crowd on his efforts to block the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia. He opined that same-sex marriage proponents "are easily led" and thus fall for claims by gays that they are discriminated against.

Insisting he is neither Democrat nor Republican but a "Christocrat," Jackson energized the crowd by leading them in a chant: "Let God arise and his enemies be scattered." (The passage comes from the Psalms 68:1. The following lines are a bit more ominous: "As smoke is driven away, so drive them away. As wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God." In a sense, you might say it's imprecatory prayer lite.)

Members of the overwhelmingly white crowd were told to stand and shout it three times. Then, he said, "We're gonna lift up our hands like we're in a black Baptist church" and offer personal prayers.

But Jackson was an exception, as speaker after speaker returned to themes of health care, the federal deficit and bank bailouts. The emphasis on these issues was clearly designed to curry favor with the "tea party" crowd in the hopes of tapping into the activism of this rowdy crew.

Speakers constantly praised tea party agitators, as well as the raucous protestors who ran amok at town hall meetings this summer. A special session was held on how to host your own event.

The FRC and other religious right groups are obviously pinning a lot of hope on tea and curmudgeons, and they may need that help. FRC President Tony Perkins claimed that more than 1,800 people registered for the event. A rough estimate by Americans United, however, points to a crowd of about 1,000. Furthermore, despite heavy promotion, fewer than 600 people voted in a straw poll of 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls.

To boost its numbers, the FRC planned a number of special events for young people during the summit.

Among the speakers was Lila Rose, a college student who has made a career out of traveling to Planned Parenthood clinics posing as a teenager made pregnant by an older man and secretly taping staff responses. She is wildly popular with the crowd, which hails her as the vanguard of a new generation.

Jim Daly, the newly appointed president of Focus on the Family, lamented the fact that Americans between the age of 18 and 29 voted overwhelmingly for Obama. He invited a 26-year-old FOF staffer on-stage to discuss the problem with him, but the young woman only compounded the problem by insultingly asserting that 20-somethings who voted for Obama really don't know why they did it.

In an effort to add some youth star power to the event, summit organizers invited Carrie Prejean, a 22-year-old California woman who became a celebrity in the world of the religious right after she criticized same-sex marriage during the Miss USA pageant.

Prejean tearfully told attendees that her failure to win Donald Trump's beauty pageant was a test from God. She also assured the crowd that there's a better crown awaiting her in heaven.

The audience loved her. Prejean was even compared to the biblical heroine Esther, a Jewish girl who marries the king of Persia after a beauty contest and persuades him to spare her people from annihilation.

An additional complication for the religious right is that the movement lacks a national political leader. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was idolized during last year's summit, even though she didn't show up, snubbed the FRC again and didn't accept its invitation to speak.

Summit organizers were hoping it would turn out differently, and Palin was listed as a tentative speaker on the final program. But it didn't happen, and the crowd may well have reacted to her no-show: Palin failed to win the straw poll. Huckabee came in first with 170 votes, while Romney, Pawlenty, Palin and Pence picked up 74, 73, 72 and 71 votes respectively.

There was plenty of right-wing star power even without Palin. On Friday night, Fox News Channel personality Bill O'Reilly received a "Media Courage Award." O'Reilly, who insisted to the crowd that he is politically independent, made brief remarks, mostly attacking the media for being too liberal. He insisted that the press be barred from the event.

The summit also featured special breakout sessions highlighting a grab bag of right-wing themes. Titles included "True Tolerance: Countering the Homosexual Agenda in Public Schools," "The Threat of Illegal Immigration" and "Global Warming Hysteria: The New Face of the 'Pro-Death' Agenda."

Prior to the summit, Americans United issued a report titled, "The religious right in 2009: Less Pious, More Partisan." The document noted that the religious right continues to function as an "amen corner" for the Republican Party, an observation borne out by the event.

"The religious right's immediate objectives are defeating the Obama health care proposals and electing more of their friends to public office," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, noted. "Their long-term goal, however, is a nation where their religious beliefs are the law of the land."

Lynn added: "This is a fundamentalist political operation thinly disguised in 'family values' garb. religious right leaders want to ban all abortions, deny gay people basic civil rights and undercut church-state separation wherever they can."

Rob Boston is a senior policy analyst with Americans United for Separation of Church and State .