GOP Candidates Kiss the Ring Of the Radical Christian Right

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie are all considering a run for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, or are keeping speculation alive to sell books or remain in the public eye, and all answered Ralph Reed’s call to address the annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in the nation’s capital. (Jeb Bush had a scheduling conflict.)

By their calculation, they had to attend.

The Pew Research Center has found that evangelical Protestants represent 26.3 of Americans. They account for more than 50 percent of voters in GOP primaries, according to a poll commissioned by CBS after the 2012 elections. In recent presidential elections, evangelicals have dominated the always influential Republican Precinct Caucuses in Iowa.

So in mid-June, six marquee-name Republicans shared a hotel ballroom stage with talk-radio curiosities Gary Bauer, Allen West, retired General Jerry Boykin, Dominionist Christian preacher Rafael Cruz and others.

Despite the insularity, mind-numbing sameness, repetitiveness, substitution of apocrypha for fact, and dissembling, these gatherings of Christian conservatives play a role in our national politics. They also play a role in moving the Republican Party further to the right.

Reed appeared to be finished in 2004 when email exchanges with lobbyist Jack Abramoff revealed he was directly involved in the theft of $44 million from American Indian tribes that sent Abramoff to prison. Reed is resilient: today, he claims more than 800,000 supporters of the nonprofit organization he launched in 2009.

Even if he is inflating his numbers, for five years running Reed has persuaded 1,000 evangelicals to pay a $250-plus registration fee and travel to Washington to attend these events.

Pissing on the President

This year’s conference quickly registered with social media when a photo of an Obama figurine in a conference-hall urinal went viral after it appeared on the Huffington Post. The crude figurines were removed from urinals and merchandise tables soon after the photo was posted. To be fair, the figurines didn’t represent the Faith and Freedom crowd.

Over three days, I sat down and talked to 30 Faith and Freedom pilgrims, all white, almost all from Southern states. Most were evangelicals, one couple belonged to a mainline Protestant denomination, one woman was Roman Catholic. I saw a few Jews wearing kippot, but this is a white, Christian, Southern crowd, and there is an undeniable decency about these people.

If the collective sentiment at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference is in-your-face anger, this gathering is characterized by sincerity.

And by fear.

Sixty years ago, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter described a sense of dispossession in American conservatives who believe that:

“America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”

For three days at Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, the same traveling troop of candidates, consultants, speakers and authors of polemical political books who appear at the CPAC, Values Voter and Tea Party conferences preached the gospel of fear to 1,000 middle-American churchgoers.

Obama was their central narrative.

Conservative extremists, Hofstadter presciently wrote, live in fear of the liberal leader who is “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

Purifying Fire

Rafael Cruz was not listed in the Faith and Freedom program, but his 20-minute sermon was not surprising. The 75-year-old charismatic evangelical preacher was a marginal figure even on the Christian right until his son campaigned for the U.S. Senate. Since Ted Cruz was elected, his father has been traveling the country speaking to right-wing groups.

The Rev. Cruz lists himself as the director of the Purifying Fire Ministry in North Texas. He’s also a Christian Dominionist, an American theological movement which holds that “anointed” leaders should impose biblical values on government. 

In a distinctly Cuban accent—Cruz fled Havana in 1957 and enrolled in the University of Texas—he tells the Faith and Freedom audience that all anyone needs to know about creating a government and about governing can be found in Jethro’s counsel to Moses in Exodus 18. Americans have turned away from these biblical principles, Cruz warns, allowing the country to be governed by the “wicked.” He concludes by urging Christians to turn their congregations into agents of political action, demanding their pastors provide in every sanctuary voter-registration tables and political pamphlets that identify biblically sound candidates.

Gary Bauer, even more shrill, extreme and angry than he was during his short-lived 2000 presidential campaignoutdoes Cruz in his more pointed critique of the president.

“Fewer things make Barack Obama more passionate than abortion-on-demand …” Bauer told the crowd. “If Obama succeeds in making us a secular-humanist nation, ripping out our Judeo-Christian roots, this country will be destroyed.”

No one worked this theme better than Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Like his father, Cruz speaks without notes or teleprompter, walking back and forth on the stage. He listed the religious-freedom cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court while solicitor general in Texas; the defense of a Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds; the defense of “One Nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; and a case he argued as a private attorney defending the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross.

Liberals dismiss Cruz as an angry ideologue, which he is. But he is recognized in the legal profession as a brilliant scholar and litigator. He’s also a compelling public speaker.

Once he got through his CV, Cruz turned to Obama’s supposed assault on religious freedom at home. He described the “astonishing and heartbreaking” intrusion into religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case, and a similar lawsuit filed against the federal government by the Little Sisters of the Poor, who refuse to allow a second-party insurer to cover contraceptive services for lay employees in the hospices and nursing homes the order operates.

But it was with dramatic accounts of American Christians abandoned by Obama in prisons in Islamic countries that Cruz moved this audience. While the president negotiates with the government of Iran, Cruz said, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, is imprisoned in Tehran for the “crime of sharing the Christian faith.”

Cruz frames these stories much as televangelist Pat Robertson does, with anecdotal grace notes impossible to prove or disprove. In prison, Cruz says, Abedini has converted prisoners and prison guards to Christianity.

Meriam Ibrahim, a persistent preoccupation of the Christian right, was another meme worked by Cruz. He claimed Obama has made no effort to free the Sudanese-born American citizen from a prison in Khartoum, where the government of Sudan “has sentenced Meriam to 100 lashes, then to hang by the neck until dead.”

Ibrahim was told, Cruz said, that she would be spared “if only you will renounce Christ.”

The facts on the ground in Tehran and Khartoum are more complicated. Abedini had entered Iran on several occasions and was building an orphanage when he was sentenced to eight years in prison for undermining the Iranian government and endangering national security by establishing home churches. As an Iranian-born Christian preacher, he was aware of the risks his work entailed in a country governed by Islamic extremists.

And Abedini wasn’t “abandoned.” He and another American imprisoned in Tehran were the only topic, other than Iran’s nuclear program, that Obama discussed when he spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September 2013. Abedini has also been on the State Department’s agenda in every discussion the government has had with Iran since then.

Ibrahim became a victim of Sudan’s crude criminal-justice system when she married an American citizen and converted. Under Sudan’s penal code, Muslim women are forbidden to marry Christian men. While in prison, and in shackles, Ibrahim gave birth to her second child.

Ibrahim says she was brought up Christian. However, members of her family tipped off Sudanese authorities, saying she had converted from Islam, according to the Guardian, using her “apostasy” to take over her hair salon, farm and mini-market.

While Cruz accused Obama of abandoning a Christian woman in a Muslim prison, the State Department was working on her release.

Five days after Cruz spoke, Ibrahim arrived at the Khartoum airport in a bullet-proof car with an escort from the U.S. embassy. After she was detained at the airport and released for a second time, Ibrahim and her family were provided sanctuary in the U.S. embassy. (She has since arrived in New Hampshire to begin a new life.)

Faith and Freedom was a political event, so lack of nuance and the elision of facts were not unexpected.

The narrative here is fear of government, not making it work. More specifically, fear of a president whose questionable Judeo-Christian bona fides were the subtext of the entire conference. Exploiting that fear is effective in an audience already predisposed to it.

Predisposed to Fear

Relentlessly on-message, Reed, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum, et al., described a president restricting the religious freedoms of Christians while expanding protections for Muslims, promoting same-sex marriage and what they call "abortion-on-demand" while coddling Islamic terrorists. Only New Jersey Governor Chris Christie departed from the script and was politely tolerated when he made the case for governing by compromise with the Democratic Party, as he must in New Jersey, and for reasonable and compassionate sentencing standards for non-violent drug abusers.

But he was not for this crowd.

An earnest sophomore at Liberty University tells me she is certain Obama will make a big push on abortion in his final two years in office.

A middle-aged woman from North Carolina tells me Obama’s Department of Education plans to use the national Common Core curriculum “to control our children, to brainwash them.”

“It’s not really about education,” she says. “It’s a system of data collection. When they have the data, they will control the population. They will take away our individuality, our individual rights.”

A Roman Catholic woman in her 60s, who rode an overnight charter bus from Atlanta, sees the president’s support for same-sex marriage as part of a broader assault on Christian values: “Gay marriage is part of his agenda to restrict our freedom to worship.”

A man from North Carolina describes Obama as a Manchurian candidate: “Our president is a puppet. An Alinskyite who wants to transform the country. He’s completely in control of his handlers.”

A woman who drove in from Maryland and appears to be in her late 60s recites a litany of concerns: same-sex marriage, abortion, Obamacare, the decline of traditional values, excessive regulation of small businesses. Then, her voice quavering, she turns to the central theme of this gathering. The president “terrifies” her, she says. “This administration is taking away our freedoms. It’s Obama. He scares me. I worry about my grandchildren. Obama is going to take all our freedoms away.”

This article first appeared in the Washington Spectator.

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