The Religious Right Goes to Washington

Republicans are staking their hopes of holding on to power in the November elections on looking tough on terror. But at the Family Research Council's first "Values Voters Summit" in Washington last week, billed as the most important political event in the Christian Right's history, a showcase of 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls, and, tellingly, the president's own spokesman, all focused not on terrorists or war or global jihad, but on the threat posed to America by two men getting married. Under the stress of possibly losing its grip (on power), the party of the so-called "values voter" has collapsed under the weight of its own moral dishonesty.

Speakers at the conference fired up the audience, but there was virtually no mention of the occupation of Iraq, spiraling health care costs, a huge housing bubble, or the daily economic struggles many Americans face. Those things pale in comparison to the real threats: a declining culture, and the shadowy network of feminists and Hollywood executives that are responsible for its fall.

Bishop Wellington Boone, a black preacher, distributed a pamphlet entitled, "The Rape of the Civil Rights Movement: How Sodomites Are Using Civil Rights Rhetoric to Advance Their Preference for Sexual Perversion." Jenn Giroux of Cincinnati's medievalist Citizens of Community Values denounced feminism and proclaimed, to enthusiastic applause, "We want to be protected by men! That doesn't make us weak!" Don Feder, the anti-Hollywood provocateur and founder of Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation, said that George Clooney hates George W. Bush the way Hamas hates Jews. An unrepentant George Allen was canonized as the victim of "the worst gotcha journalism we've seen in recent years."

It is by now old news that the Perkins-Dobson-Wildmon-Bauer quartet is hysterical, close-minded, and out of touch with all but a vocal minority of religious fundamentalists who think that the ACLU has laid waste to America and that everything could be fixed if all gay people turned straight and Christians were just allowed to preach the Gospel in every corner of America's public squares. But while the movement lacks what many would consider virtue, its virtue to Republican bean counters is the durability of its leaders' predictability. Every two years, Republican strategists, sensing an election about to slip away, beg the Christian Right to mobilize its voters. The Christian Right complies. And about a year and a half later, like a jilted lover, the Christian Right complains loudly that the Republicans have betrayed them, have forgotten about their issues, have led the nation astray by allowing crazy judges to let two men get married. So they organize a conference. The Republicans show up. The Republicans pretend there is nothing more pressing in the world's greatest democracy than preventing certain citizens from having families. Relieved, the Christian Right (and, illegally, some of its tax-exempt pastoral foot soldiers, too) tells its followers to vote Republican. And it will go on this way until a collective wave of moral spine -- from Republicans, Democrats, and just regular, nonpartisan people who think statements like "Sex and the City" "is one of the most damaging shows of our generation" are just plain ludicrous -- stands up against the bullies at the pulpit.

The warmest reception of the day was reserved for the president's proxy, Tony Snow. If there was any doubt that he had perfected the art of turning every day into opposite day while shilling for Fox News and the Bush White House, he laid that doubt to rest with his sickening homage to the president's "humility." While some people might view Bush's hypercompetitive bike rides through the blistering Texas heat as an effort to humiliate others, Snow cited them as an example of Bush's humility as he gives "glory to a Creator." (More dictionary and less Bible might be in order.) Snow described the bike rides as an example of Bush's ability to "indulge in the glories of life and [not have to] apologize for things that give our lives shape and meaning."

Shamelessly, Snow repeatedly invoked 9/11, lacing his words with innuendo of Bush's divine intervention, such as the "miracle" of his appearance at Ground Zero on 9/14, his "fighting evil and professing good," or that America has "reinvented the world," post-9/11, and "we've given people the capacity to form big dreams and live them." While standing on the stage that later would be occupied by Ann Coulter, and where other conference speakers said things like "the ultimate child abuse is placing a child in a gay home," or that conservative activists need to "confront" and "neutralize" the press, and where Rush Limbaugh was repeatedly lionized, Snow had the audacity to talk about "decency," "civility," and "humility."

Whether the GOP addiction to the Christian Right vote will work for Republicans in this year's midterm elections remains to be seen, but at least in some critical parts of the country, fault lines are beginning to appear between lifelong Republicans and the moralizing interlopers who have wrested rhetorical control of the party. But that was not apparent listening to the parade of Republican presidential aspirants speak to the crowd of nearly 2,000 political activists from around the country on Friday.

The day was not without moments of unintended hilarity, much of it related to the musical selections accompanying the introduction of each speaker. Even though seemingly endless oxygen was spent bashing Hollywood's "anti-Christian" bias, the theme from "Rocky" accompanied Perkins and Dobson to the stage, made only more amusing by Dobson's girly outrage at being spurned for the first 18 months of the second Bush administration. And even though homosexuality is the greatest threat to civilization, the panel "What Feminist Majority? American Women and the Values Agenda" took the stage to the gay anthem "I Will Survive."

To the Republicans, nothing was more important than satisfying the crowd's anti-gay zealotry, even if it meant ridiculing your own blue state or making the nutty assertion that gay marriage represents the greatest threat to civilized society, while not mentioning terrorism, genocide, or the two Americas (the John Edwards version, not the George Allen version).

Uttering the word "Massachusetts" to this crowd was akin to speaking of Sodom, provoking titters, boos, and hisses from the crowd throughout the day. Mention of the New York Times (which at one point Perkins cited as the anti-Bible), Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Rosie O'Donnell, or CNN inspired similar venom. Even Mitt Romney, who has now surpassed John McCain in sucking up to his party's rightist fringe (enough to delight Bill O'Reilly), felt compelled to join in with ridiculing the state of which he is chief executive. But more telling of Romney's unfitness for the presidency was his absurd prioritizing of the nation's most pressing issues. Topping Romney's list, of course, was gay marriage, which he ranked ahead of jihadists, the Asian challenge to America's economy, excessive government spending and our overconsumption of oil on his list of top five issues facing America.

Has the Republican Party fallen down a rabbit hole? Could Jack and Joe threaten us more than an al Qaeda hydra? Could Mary and Caitlin and their turkey basters pose a greater challenge to America than the world's dwindling supply of fossil fuel? Is King and King scarier than a fatwa? Wouldn't a presidential platform naming gay marriage the number one threat to America be, uh, weak on terror?

Others were less single-minded than Romney, but no less oblivious to real moral issues like poverty, political corruption, climate change, war, or torture. Sam Brownback, who unabashedly announced he wanted "a much bigger room" in 2008, named just one piece of legislation he was intent on passing, which would require doctors performing abortions to advise the mother of pain to the fetus and offer anesthesia (to the fetus). Like other speakers, Brownback decried excessive government spending, but didn't utter the words "Iraq," "earmark," "lobbyist," "cronyism," "corruption," or, heaven forbid, "DeLay," "Abramoff," "Ney," "Burns," or "Halliburton." Nor did they take responsibility for said spending, despite the fact that they legislated it. For Brownback, it's enough to just say you're from Kansas to prove you represent the values of the heartland.

George Allen was trotted out as the victim of a Washington Post that was downright obsessed with his innocent little macaca remark. Terry Jeffrey, the editor of Human Events, said the coverage of the macaca slur treated it like an affront equivalent to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. (Otherwise, nobody discussed Abu Ghraib or torture.) Allen moved the crowd by telling of God's guidance to him on an abortion parental notification law while governor of Virginia (see, even though he's from California, he's a real Virginian now, while Romney, who originally hails from Michigan, must justify his transplantation to Sodom). Allen said that while he was praying about whether to veto that parental notification law, which he considered weakened by a loophole, he saw an American flag ("a sign of integrity"). In a tale implausible even by the standards of people accustomed to claims of direct communication with God, Allen took the American flag as a sign that he had to veto the bill. And if he had seen his Confederate flag, that would have been a sign of what, exactly?

The most telling moment of the afternoon, though, came during the remarks of Mike Huckabee, Mr. Covenant Marriage and Governor of the Other Sodom, Arkansas. Huckabee was the only person, all day, to discuss poverty, health care, housing, hunger, or Katrina, to obligatory applause. But when Huckabee implored his audience to "prove we don't have closed minds, but open hearts and hands that will lift people up," he was met with stone cold silence. He had suggested, blasphemously, that his audience work with feminists to end pornography, with proponents of gay marriage to combat AIDS, and with unions to make better workplaces. While nearly everything anyone said was met with thunderous applause, when these words came out of Huckabee's mouth, the room was so quiet you could have heard people thumbing through their Bibles to see if what he said was sanctioned by God. But they didn't. Not a soul even tried to start a chain reaction of applause with a single clap.

If the Values Voters Summit 2006 proved anything, it was not, as its organizers intended, that voters -- or even Republican voters -- care more about the "culture" than other issues. It did not prove, although later events might, whether Dobson and Perkins have enough followers to help the Republicans cling to power this fall. It proved only that the Republican Party has run out of ideas, innovations and any sense of decency.


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