TAMPA, FLA. -- It was to have been the day before the commencement of the Republican National Convention, but the hand of divine providence swept in, batting a storm called Isaac toward the site where the G.O.P. is to gather, delaying the convening for at least a day. But that didn't stop leaders of the Republican right wing from hosting no fewer than four events meant to rally the faithful to turn out the vote for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose name was barely mentioned from any of the four podiums.
In fact, there was one name that was mentioned far more than all others: that of President Barack Obama.
Two of the events were called by Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an organization dedicated to turning out the vote among both religious and secular members of the Republican right -- a melding of the religious right with the broader Tea Party movement.
Reed kicked off the day with a $50-a-plate V.I.P. luncheon that brought together such secular players as the renowned and powerful anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist with religious luminaries like Pastor Jim Garlow, one of the activists who helped quash same-sex marriage in California via the Proposition 8 ballot measure.
The other two events -- a prayer rally and a "Unity Rally" -- featured former G.O.P. presidential candidate Michele Bachmann as a headliner, and took place in a non-denominational evangelical megachurch on the outskirts of town. The prayer rally at River Church enjoyed sponsorship from the Florida Family Policy Council and Citizenlink (both affiliates of Focus on the Family*) and Salem Communications, a religious right radio network.
Bachmann made a return engagement in the evening for a "Unity Rally" at which she and her former presidential primary opponent, Herman Cain, were the big draws. Tea Party Nation, together with the Western Representation PAC and Cain's new venture, Job Creators Solutions, co-sponsored the event.
While each event had its own distinct character, there was unity aplenty in the overarching theme: Defeat Barack Obama, not simply because his policies stand in opposition to right-wing ideology, but because, speakers said, he is a very dangerous man.
At an exhibit table inside River Church, a painting in an elaborate frame featured an image of an angry-looking Obama with a copy of the Constitution in flames in the foreground. The signs held by attendees inside the church for the evening rally were largely home-made, and several people waved large flags, both the U.S. flag, and the yellow Gadsden flag that has become the trademark of the Tea Party movement.
But downtown, inside the ornate, Art Nouveau-style Tampa Theater in which Reed held his rally, activists had a more uniform look, with preprinted signs that read: Pro-Family, Pro-Faith, Pro-Freedom, while in the grottos that flanked the stage, statues of scantily-clad goddesses looked on.
Here are some highlights from a Sunday spent among the foot soldiers of the right, and those who seek to lead them to the polls on November 6th.
Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman's V.I.P. Luncheon
Ralph Reed, Chairman, Faith and Freedom Coalition
At Reed’s luncheon, he said it was urgent to "bathe the entire week with prayer" and dedicate the fall election to "the Lord."
"We feel very strongly that America hangs in the balance," Reed said.
As dire a threat as Reed claimed Obama poses to America, the FFC chairman was brimming with optimism that his efforts will turn the tide. “Every current poll is wrong and I’ll tell you why: because they think the same number of us who showed up four years ago is going to show up again. And it’s going to be bigger than anything they’ve ever seen.”
Former G.O.P. Chairman Ed Gillespie
Gillespie echoed Reed’s optimism for the Republican presidential ticket, saying that Obama is polling below 50 percent in every one of the swing states and declaring that the Republicans have been “on a roll” since the Paul Ryan-as-running-mate announcement. But he claimed that “the other side is going to fight very hard, very dirty.” With no irony intended, despite his affiliation with a party intent on inventing a voter fraud scandal that could suppress the vote, Gillespie said of the Democrats, “[T]hey’re going to try to manufacture turnout.” Gillespie was one of many speakers during the day who said that while the economy may be the dominant issue in the electorate at larger, many Christian voters will be motivated by abortion, marriage, and “religious liberty.”
Will Weatherford, Speaker-elect of the Florida State House of Representatives
Weatherford, who will become the youngest House speaker in Florida history next November, said all the Obama administration wants to do is grow government, raise taxes, attack the family, and take away personal freedom.
“Here’s the problem with President Obama, it’s very simple…here’s the main problem," Weatherford said. "The president has a problem with the American idea. He doesn’t believe in the same America that was created by our forefathers 200 years ago. He doesn’t believe in that. His worldview is fundamentally different from every single person who is sitting in this room.” This election, Weatherford said, “is about saving our country.”
Grover Norquist, President, Americans For Tax Reform
Grover Norquist’s appearance at the luncheon reflected Reed’s enthusiasm for merging the social conservative and anti-government energies of the Religious Right and Tea Party. (Norquist is game; he made a trek to the Awakening conference at Liberty University last year to convince religious-right voters that they should care more about shrinking government than about reducing the debt.)
Norquist declared that Obama, Pelosi, and Reid came into power with a strategy to spend so much money and run up so much debt that Republicans would be forced to raise taxes. (In reality, it was Norquist who had such a plan back in 2000, when he pushed for the massive George W. Bush tax cuts in order to run up deficits until they forced the shrinking of the federal government -- until it was small enough, in Norquist’s memorable phrase, to be drowned in the bathtub.)
At Reed’s luncheon, Norquist warned of massive tax hikes if Republicans did not take the White House and Senate and hold the House. But he, too, sounded a note of optimism, praising Romney and Ryan’s plans for shrinking government without raising taxes. “We are,” he said, “about to do a U-turn on the road to serfdom.”
Jim Garlow, Pastor, Skyline Wesleyan Church, La Mesa, Calif.
Garlow gave the benediction, but not before promoting his pulpitfreedom.org project -- which opposes current IRS rules against electioneering by tax-exempt churches. He prayed that God would be “lifted up in an evidenced way” in November and that “in 72 days the name of Jesus will be exalted across this nation.”
Garlow insisted that religious liberty cannot coexist with the “radical homosexual agenda” -- apparently meaning allowing same-sex couples to married. Garlow said he hopes that on October 7, 1500 pastors will intentionally violate IRS regulations, tape their sermons, send them to the IRS and say, “sue us.”
Faith and Freedom Coalition Rally
The Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman delivered a bit of a rehash of the remarks he delivered earlier in the day, pledging to turn out a record number of evangelical voters to the polls on or before election day. Reed claimed that his organization had just "dropped" a mail piece to 1.97 million households in 10 states, that reads: "Get off the bench and into the game." Reed said he also enlisted former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former G.O.P. presidential candidate Rick Santorum to record messages that will be used in 4 million robocalls.
Reed also promised to distribute 30 million "non-partisan voter guides," before lashing into President Barack Obama. "Four years ago, we heard a lot of talk about hope and change," he said. "People were fainting at campaign rallies...there was one candidate who stood in front of Greek columns and vowed to heal the planet and cause the oceans to recede."
Reed blamed the president for strife in the Middle East, saying Obama was weak in his policy toward Iran's nuclear program, and Bashir al-Assad's brutality in Syria.
"In Egypt," he said, "the Arab Spring has given way to a cold and bitter radical Islamic winter, and the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the leading sponsoring terrorist organizations in the world -- an ally of Iran, by the way -- has taken control of the presidency and the parliament."
After the requisite bashing of the president's support for marriage equality for LGBT people, Reed's harshest words for Obama were saved for the new regulation that requires employers who provide health care to employees to offer no-copay coverage for prescription contraceptives. Obama, he said, had "issued an edict" that required religious institutions such as Liberty University and Notre Dame University to pay for services that constitute sins under the rules of their religions.
"Now, my friends, this is an injustice that we are not going to let stand, and either in the courts, or on election day, we're gonna end it, once and for all," he said.
But, he said, it's really not about Democrats or Republicans: it's all about faith.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
One of the few who managed to cough up Mitt Romney's name was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who, while running against Romney during the G.O.P. presidential primary, called the former Massachusetts governor a liar.
Gingrich, who has taken on a new faith with each new wife, took it upon himself to address the subject of Romney's Mormon faith, which is not a big selling point for the nominee-apparent among the denizens of evangelical churches.
"People ask me about Mitt Romney's faith," he said, "and I answer direct: I'm delighted that he has a faith, and I'm delighted that matters to him, because that's a big improvement over our left-wing secular elites."
"Unlike Barack Obama," Gingrich said, "[Romney] understands that our grant comes from God."
Not surprisingly, Gingrich had much more to say about Barack Obama, including: "I believe Barack Obama is a direct threat to the survival of the country I know and love."
His rationale for that statement was his laughable depiction of Obama as a "pro-abortion extremist." He also claimed that the Democratic Party platform called for late-term, taxpayer-funded abortions, assuming (alas, probably correctly) that the audience would take his word for what is clearly a false statement. And, perhaps new for Gingrich, he claimed that abortion was murder.
"I would say that those who are callous about babies and callous about life ought to be brought to bear the callousness of their indifference," Gingrich said. To some ears, that just might sound like a call to violence.
Like Reed, Gingrich kicked up Islamophobia while blaming the outcome of the recent uprisings in the Arab world on Obama. "The Arab spring in all too many countries has become an anti-Christian spring," he said. "But you wouldn't notice it from the Obama State Department."
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
As the 2012 election approaches, Walker is arguably the right's biggest hero of the moment -- and Ralph Reed claims no small measure of credit for Walker's triumph over the attempt by progressives to recall his 2009 gubernatorial victory in response to the law he signed that virtually ended collective bargaining rights for all of the state's public employees. So Walker's appearance before the Faith and Freedom audience was something of a victory lap for both men -- but not one that went uncontested.
No sooner had Walker been introduced than a handful of protesters, scattered among the audience, began chanting: "Walker hates workers!"
Banners unfurled from the balcony. One read, "Walker has a Koch habit" -- referring, of course, to the billionaire Koch brothers, funders of Americans For Prosperity and other other right-wing organizations that have propelled Walker's political career.
Sheriffs swiftly escorted the protesters from the theater, but they were not arrested.
Because Walker was there to be a living symbol of victory, he was apparently not required to engage in the same sort of Obama-bashing in which most on the roster indulged. Instead, he spoke of how he managed to put up with all of the criticism and rude behavior directed at him after his allies in the state legislature rammed through his anti-labor bill. "For every one of them, there's nine or 10 of you," he said.
"We're here this week at a political convention, but it's much bigger than that -- because it's really about faith and freedom, and it's something that's at stake in our country right now. And we need to make sure that we stand on principle..."
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
In recent days, Huckabee has emerged as the great champion of Todd Akin, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri who invoked the ire of his party by saying that women were essentially biologically incapable of being impregnated during a "legitimate rape." Just last Friday, Huckabee told a group of Southern Baptists on a conference call, according to Politico, “This could be a Mount Carmel moment,” said the former Arkansas governor, referring to the holy battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in the book of Kings. “You know, you bring your gods. We’ll bring ours. We’ll see whose God answers the prayers and brings fire from heaven.
But standing in front of Reed's gathering of Christian evangelicals, Akin's name never passed Huckabee's lips. Instead, he trained his sights on Obama, arguing that the administration’s requirements for contraception coverage by employers represented “far more” than “an assault on our Catholic brothers and sisters.” He said, “the day that the government believes that it can define the limits of conscience for a person of faith, and it can tell us how broad, how wide, how deep our faith can be, and not be in conflict with the government, is a day America had best wake up…”
Prayer Rally at River Church
The Florida Family Policy Council hosted a “prayer rally” that involved – big surprise – a lot more politicking than praying.
Phyllis Schlafly, President, Eagle Forum
Phyllis Schlafly put in an appearance at the rally, declaring that this is the most important election of our lifetimes, that “our whole way of life is at stake.” She also declared that “we cannot let them tell us that we must separate the moral and social issues from the economic issues.”
She praised the G.O.P. platform’s language on abortion and marriage and declared that religious liberty is under attack by Barack Obama. But she said the most depressing statistic in America is that 50 percent of evangelicals are not registered to vote.
David Barton, President, Wallbuilders
David Barton, introduced as “America’s favorite historian,” gave a fast-talking five-minute hit-parade of his standard shtick about religion and America’s founding, insisting that the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and its “endowed by their creator” language mean that the country was founded on “official government belief.” In addition, says Barton, if you don’t have a collective acknowledgment of God, you can’t have limited government. Barton’s most recent book -- about Thomas Jefferson -- has been pulled off the shelves by its publisher after a wave of criticism, much of it from evangelical Christian scholars, about its inaccuracies.
Former Congressman J.C. Watts
Former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, an African American, took on the topic race and unity. “I think God likes diversity,” he said. “God in his infinite wisdom made you exactly what you are, and you know what? God doesn’t make mistakes.” Of course, the folks at the prayer rally do not apply that sentiment when it comes to LGBT people.
Mat Staver, Chairman, Liberty Counsel
Mat Staver, who chairs a legal group, insisted that the law is an “extension of God” and “a reflection of God Himself.” The Supreme Court, he said, has gone off course with rulings on church-state separation and abortion and called the Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act a “betrayal” of the American people. “Elections do matter,” he said. “It matters who sits on that United States Supreme Court.”
Rick Scarborough, President, Vision America
Rick Scarborough gave a litany of ways he claimed the culture has deteriorated: from My Three Sons to 2 ½ Men, from True Grit to Brokeback Mountain, and the teaching of sex ed as “facilitation of fornication.” Scarborough blamed the nation’s decline on the silence of preachers. When asked who will lead the nation in the next four years, Scarborough said, he always responds that the nation will be led by the one who has always led America. “The Lord Jesus Christ is either going to lead us down the path of renewal or lead us to judgment,” he said. He promoted a 40 days of fasting and prayer campaign that will kick off in Philadelphia on September 28 and 29.
Michele Bachmann, former G.O.P. Presidential Candidate
Rep. Michele Bachmann recounted the biblical story of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pouring expensive ointment over Jesus’ head to the consternation of his disciples. The moral, she said, it that “it is time for us to put action to our faith.”
Bishop Harry Jackson
Anti-gay activist Harry Jackson said that America’s political darkness is a manifestation of a lack of righteousness in the pulpit and the pew. He said he would be joining Scarborough for 40 days of fasting before the election. Jackson also talked about the importance of Supreme Court justices who know there is a higher judge, and prayed for the defeat of marriage equality in Maryland, where the question comes before voters in November. He prayed for the fire of the Holy Spirit to fall upon Mitt Romney, and led the crowd in praying, “Let God arise, and his enemies be scattered!”
Tom Minnery, President, Citizenlink
The prayer rally ended strangely. Organizers showed a clip from Amazing Grace, the movie about the former slave ship captain who had a religious conversion and wrote the familiar hymn. Then, while a video screen showed a clip of an orchestra playing the song, about two dozen people held lit candles and stood in an arc facing the audience. It seemed like a perfect set-up for singing the hymn. But it turned out to be a set-up for Tom Minnery of Citizenlink, a political arm of the Focus on the Family, to give a political speech while surrounded by all those lit candles. Conservatives’ victory in the Wisconsin recall was due largely to conservative Christian activists talking to their neighbors about “the issues that we think are most significant to our God,” Minnery said -- a process is his organization plans to repeat in 14 states. Minnery closed by reading a long very political prayer written “for this election” by Father Frank Pavone, president of Priests for Life, about getting people to vote – and to “vote correctly.”
Unity Rally at River Church
Back for round two at the megachurch was Michele Bachmann, who knows an adoring crowd when she sees one. More secular in content than the earlier prayer rally, the so-called Unity Rally was an attempt by Bachmann and other Tea Party favorites to corral their people behind the less-than-popular Mitt Romney, if only for the purpose of defeating Obama. And for Bachmann, that also raises one of her favorite causes: the repeal of Obamacare.
Bachmann kicked off her remarks by complaining about the administration's spending, but quickly launched into her classic hyperbole about the evils of health-care reform, though her remarks fell short of her former equation of the law with slavery. However, she said, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, "there's only one option left for America to remain free -- and that's at the ballot box...We're not going to stand by and see socialism implemented in our country."
Her means of rallying the attending Tea Party members around Romney was to assure them that they were the ones driving the train, and that Romney would do as they wished. "I want you to know how successful you have been as a movement," Bachmann told the crowd. The leader of the Republican Party, Mitt Romney, has said that on Day One, he will repeal Obamacare."
She also sought to calm any disgruntled feelings the Tea Partiers might have regarding the Grand Old Party. "If you've been watching the Republican Party platform this week," she said, "the Tea Party has been all over that platform."
She continued, with the crowd joining in on her final phrase: "In this year, 2012, we are going to take our country back."
Judson Phillips, President, Tea Party Nation
Phillips, whose group served as a co-sponsor of the rally, served up an unhinged string of unexplained accusations and mixed metaphors, going so far as to accuse Obama, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of "occasional mass murder." He did not elaborate on the charge.
Then in an attempt to appropriate a famous saying used by the late NRA Chairman Charlton Heston when talking about his gun, Phillips shouted, as if to Obama, Reid and Pelosi: "You shall take my freedom, you shall take my liberty, when you pry it from my cold, dead hands." The crowd joined in on the last three words.
Neal Boortz, Radio Talk Show Host
Boortz took up the vaguely racist producerist rant that's been all the rage lately -- a rant that frames anyone who believes in a social safety net as a "taker" and everybody else as "makers." In Boortz's world, the takers, natch, are all Democrats.
“This election is a battle between the taxpayers and the tax consumers,” Boortz claimed. Shared prosperity, he said, means that Obama is taking your money to give to people who don’t work as hard as you – echoes of Romney’s shamelessly false welfare ads.
“The Democrats – the looters, the moochers, the parasites – they know how they’re going to vote," Boortz said. "They’re going to vote for access to your pocket.”
Herman Cain, former Republican presidential candidate
Herman Cain, king of the snappy one-liner and contrarian darling of the Tea Party crowd, has a new venture called Solutions for Job Creators. What better way to roll it out than to have his new venture co-sponsor a Tea Party rally during the week of the Republican National Convention, whose ruling committee so rudely denied Cain a spot on the convention podium, despite those few weeks during primary season when he led in the polls. And it seems that Cain has found a new sugar daddy: Bernie Marcus, one of the founders of Home Depot, who is backing Cain's "Truth Tour" -- a speaking tour aimed at employers in order to instruct them on what they can legally say to their employees to get them to the polls. It all sounds quite a lot like a program AlterNet's reporting revealed in 2010 -- a program called Prosperity 101 that was linked to the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity and featured Cain as a circuit speaker.
Cain made it abundantly clear just how much he misses the spotlight -- he just couldn't seem to stop talking. But when your outfit is paying the soundman, well, you probably get to talk just as long as you please.
Not that he strayed off the Obama-bashing message. "Stupid people are ruining America," he charged, adding that four more years of Obama would be a "nightmare."
The Obama administration, he said, goes about intimidating business, without clarifying what he meant. But given his long relationship with the Koch brothers, one can only imagine that he means by enforcing clean air and safety regulations. "They use intimidation in order to try to destroy this country," Cain said, to a hearty round of applause.
Attributing his own exit from the presidential primary in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against him to a campaign of "dirty politics," Cain exuberantly exclaimed: "I'm still on a mission to defeat Barack Obama."
* Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Citizenslink and Florida Family Policy Council as affiliates of Family Research Council. They are not; they are affiliate of Focus on the Family.
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