As Rudy Giuliani strode to the podium to address attendees of the Religious Right’s “Values Voter Summit” Oct. 20, he probably knew he had a difficult task ahead of him.
Pegged as too liberal on abortion and gay rights and branded unacceptable by many Religious Right leaders, Giuliani made the only argument he could: I’m not as bad as you think. Desperately trying to move to the right, the former New York City mayor talked about his education in Catholic schools, recounted his efforts to drive pornographers out of Times Square and even promised to appoint Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
“Please know this: You have absolutely nothing to fear from me,” Giuliani told the 2,000-plus crowd. “I find it difficult to understand those who try to make me out as an activist for liberal causes.”
It was all to no avail. A straw poll of Summit attendees tabulated later that day found Giuliani next to last among Republican hopefuls. The ex-mayor was bested by second-tier candidates like U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, barely managing to outpace final finisher U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The Summit, which took place Oct. 19-20 at the Hilton Washington, underscored the vexations facing the Religious Right this primary season. Religious Right activists are being courted by all of the candidates, but each one seems to have some crippling defect.
Giuliani is deemed too liberal. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is viewed skeptically by some for flip-flopping on key issues (not to mention his Mormonism). McCain has still not been forgiven for labeling the Religious Right “agents of intolerance” in 2000 and sponsoring the McCain-Feingold election reforms. Former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, once viewed as a savior by many in the Religious Right, is increasingly viewed as a lackluster campaigner who lacks fire in his belly.
Other hopefuls, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, are held in high regard but are struggling to get out of the single digits in national polls.
The situation is so bad that some leaders, such as Focus on the Family (FOF) Chairman James C. Dobson, have called for Religious Right activists to back a third party if the Republicans nominate a pro-choice candidate. The suggestion has deeply divided the Religious Right. Some see a move like that as principled; others consider it political suicide. (See “Party Poopers?,” page 4.)
Tensions between the two camps were on clear display during the gathering. For the Religious Right, the split over tactics comes at a bad time. Movement activists clearly regard U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) as the inevitable Democratic nominee. They despise Clinton and are desperate to stop her. But to some, notably Dobson and Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins, holding their noses and voting for Giuliani is too much to ask.
Others take a more pragmatic view. During a Saturday luncheon that was closed to the media, Gary Bauer, former president of FRC, pleaded with activists not to abandon the Republicans over the abortion issue.
“As I said to several reporters, evangelicals are against suicide, and a third party is political suicide,” he quipped.
Bauer seems terrified at the idea of a Clinton presidency.
“I believe there are colleagues of mine, who – if she wins and they overwhelm us in Congress – there are colleagues of mine who before Hillary goes out will be in jail,” he told the crowd. “Because we may not figure out how to use it, but they know how to use the IRS, they know how to use federal powers. They will come after us with a vengeance which you’ve never seen.
“Conservative talk radio and Christian talk radio will be tied in knots,” he continued. “I don’t even believe there will be conservative talk radio for the next presidential election because they will put the Fairness Doctrine into place.”
Bauer’s comments echoed a common refrain at this event: complete and utter loathing for Clinton and her party. Throughout this supposedly “non-partisan” conference, abuse was heaped on the junior New York senator and former first lady. Other Democratic hopefuls were hardly mentioned. Mark Levin, an incendiary radio talk show host best known for authoring a book bashing federal judges, went so far as to call Clinton “Her Thighness.” Top Democrats and the party generally were mocked and scorned by speakers.
When the conference opened, emcee Gil Mertz noted that all of the Democratic candidates had been invited but declined. It’s not surprising, given the gathering’s overwhelming partisan overtones. Just the mention of Clinton’s name led to a round of boos and catcalls. Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Vice President Al Gore and party leader Howard Dean were subjected to insults and abuse and made the butt of jokes.
This year’s event was sponsored by the political advocacy arms of FRC and FOF. Joining them as cosponsors were the Alliance Defense Fund, American Values (a group founded by Bauer), American Family Association Action and the High Impact Leadership Coalition (a group that works to bring African Americans into the Religious Right.)
Every major GOP hopeful addressed the crowd, and certain themes ran through the talks. Candidates were expected to praise religion, question church-state separation, assail abortion, decry same-sex marriage, promise more tax cuts and swear to continue the war in Iraq. Bashing Islam was welcome for good measure, and a shot at the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) was appreciated. Invoking the patron saint of the Religious Right, the all-but-deified Ronald Reagan, was de rigueur. Most speakers – candidate and non – did it.
The crowd had little tolerance for opposing views – U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s declaration of opposition to the Iraq war drew a frosty reception – but adding other conservative bugbears to the plate was permissible. Many candidates pledged to build fences along the U.S.-Mexican border, and attacks on the Internal Revenue Service went over well. (A straw poll taken during the event showed that attendees’ three top priorities are ending legal abortion, defeating same-sex marriage and winning more tax cuts.)
The demands for a continual supply of raw meat led some candidates to reinvent themselves. At last year’s meeting, Huckabee presented himself as a “compassionate conservative,” lauding the crowd for its anti-abortion stance but gently chiding them for caring too little about the plight of the poor.
That Huckabee was nowhere in sight this year. After opening by ridiculing Gore’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, Huckabee vowed to secure the U.S. southern border, abolish the IRS, impeach judges who cite foreign law and stop taking direction from the United Nations.
The former Arkansas governor pledged to outlaw same-sex marriage and amend the U.S. Constitution to state that life begins at conception. He asserted that the reason the U.S. relies on so many undocumented workers is that we have aborted so many children who could have grown up to hold jobs, blasting “the holocaust of liberalized abortion.”
“We do not have the right to move the standards of God to meet cultural norms,” Huckabee said to rousing applause. “We need to move the cultural norms to meet God’s standards.”
Huckabee was clearly the crowd favorite. By the time he spoke late on Saturday morning, attendees had already heard from every other candidate. None generated nearly as much enthusiasm. Just the mere mention of Huckabee’s name during his introduction put the crowd on its feet.
Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, exulted in the moment. Surveying the throng, he declared, “I come today as one not who comes to you but as one who comes from you.”
The other top-tier candidates failed to generate the same level of enthusiasm. Thompson gave a low-key, lackluster speech. The former Tennessee senator hit all of the right themes, bragging about his “100 percent pro-life voting record” and attacking embryonic stem-cell research with the line, “You don’t create life in order to destroy it.”
Thompson went on to attack federal judges and propose a constitutional amendment to curb “judicial activism.” The crowd offered polite applause, but it was clear something was clearly missing.
After Thompson finished, one attendee was heard to sigh and tell a companion, “I’ve heard Thompson four times now. He’s always like this – no passion.”
The reaction to McCain was even less favorable. Declaring, “I am not going to con you,” McCain vowed to defend the nation against the “radical religious thugs” of Islamic extremism. Like the other candidates, he attacked legal abortion and pledged to defend “traditional marriage.”
But McCain soon detoured, reflecting on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and warning the crowd that torture and indefinite detention of those deemed enemies offends American values.
“These tools are not American tools,” McCain said. “The easy way is not the American way.”
The plea fell on fallow ground – not surprising when one recalls that during last year’s Summit, William Bennett called for water-boarding prisoners of war to wild audience applause.
Romney, who spoke Friday night, won crowd approval for his vow, “I’ll be a pro-life president” and asserting that all children need a mother and a father. The crowd also cheered his promise to defend families against “the modern plague” of internet pornography.
Romney backed vouchers for private schools and proposed a federal tax credit for parents who home school. He also slammed the courts for their interpretation of church-state separation, remarking, “The effort to establish an anti-religion in America – the anti-religion of secularism – has got to come to an end. We are one nation under God, and we do place our trust in him.”
Of the lesser candidates, only Tancredo managed to fire up attendees. Offering up a self-deprecating portrait of himself as a “second-tier” candidate, the Colorado Republican, who is most closely identified with the immigration issue, won applause and whistles when he saluted the House vote to sustain President George W. Bush’s veto of expanding the SCHIP program, calling it “the camel’s nose under the tent of national socialized medicine.”
Tancredo soon returned to his signature issue, asserting that “Miami is becoming a third-world country.” He also warned the crowd, “With Bill Clinton now measuring drapes in the Oval Office of the White House, conservatives cannot afford to sit this one out” and insisted, “The conservative movement is not supposed to choose a candidate – it’s supposed to produce one.”
The candidates learned how they fared when poll results were announced at 3 p.m. on Saturday. It was announced from the stage that Romney had won the poll with 1,595 votes and Huckabee was in second with 1,565 votes, but controversy quickly erupted. The vote totals undoubtedly seemed strange to many attendees, as only 2,200 people attended the gathering, many of them underage students. Others did not bother to vote.
Immediately after the results were announced, conservative activist Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, was heard complaining that something was not quite kosher. In fact, non-attendees had been permitted to vote over the internet – although this was not disclosed to conference attendees beforehand.
To head off complaints, FRC leaders quickly released the results for conference attendees only. They were quite different: Huckabee won in a blowout, capturing 488 votes. Romney was in second place with 99 votes. It was later revealed that the FRC let anyone vote online who was willing to pony up one dollar. Romney’s campaign took full advantage of this, blasting its supporters with an e-mail urging them to vote.
Aside from candidates, conference attendees heard from a wide variety of far-right speakers, many of whom had a book to plug. Among them were Bennett, anti-welfare activist Star Parker (who called for abolishing public education and all social programs in keeping with Christian Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony’s philosophy) and a right-wing rabbi, Daniel Lapin (who asserted that the U.S. government is based on the Book of Isaiah).
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also put in an appearance. Gingrich offered his usual “Christian” history lesson, sneering arrogantly at “secular liberals” who are so foolish as to believe that the country has a secular basis.
(Gingrich spoke right after Bishop Harry Jackson, a black minister who works to bring African Americans into the Religious Right. Jackson criticized same-sex marriage but also pointed out that divorce is a threat to families. It apparently didn’t bother the crowd that the man who followed Jackson’s plea for stronger marriages is a thrice-married serial adulterer; Gingrich received a hero’s welcome.)
Another ghost from the past resurfaced when failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork took the stage. Bork, who appeared to be in poor health, is obviously still bitter about his failure to get the seat 20 years ago and unleashed an angry, highly partisan tirade. He told attendees that the most important issue in 2008 is high court appointments, remarking, “The Democrats are determined to appoint activist judges who will enact, as if it were constitutional doctrine, the liberal-left agenda.”
Added Bork, “You will get more and younger Ruth Ginsburgs and Steven Breyers. The court will be lost to values voters like ourselves for the next 20 to 30 years.”
Bork praised Rush Limbaugh and warned attendees not to punish the GOP at the polls by refusing to vote or backing a third party. “The object is to get rid of Roe v. Wade, not just to show your fury,” he said.
Actor and comedian Ben Stein appeared, plugging his new movie “Expelled,” which promotes “intelligent design.” Stein’s strident speech was mostly red meat, careening between attacks on legal abortion to assaults on Gore and demands that the public schools include more religion.
“Freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech is just too darn dangerous where science is concerned,” blared Stein. “You can’t ask if Darwinism might have led to Nazism and to the Holocaust. That’s anti-science.”
Appearances by figures like Stein and others from the entertainment industry underscore the Religious Right’s increasing interest in popular culture and reaching out to the next generation. Three sessions were held on using movies as an instrument of evangelism, and a row of bloggers occupied a “New Media Row.” (One conference speaker, right-wing talk radio host Laura Ingraham, was openly derisive of the print and television reporters in attendance, mocking them as “the dinosaur media.”) Hordes of high school and college students attended, and special events were held for them.
In the exhibit hall, fundamentalist groups hawked a variety of products. A booth for the Christian Reconstructionist group American Vision was not far from an outfit promoting abstinence with t-shirts that say, “Pet your dog, not your date.” Down the hall, another booth sold t-shirts, wristbands and other items marked “ONUG” – “One Nation Under God.”
The conference wrapped up with a banquet honoring Dobson. During the black-tie-optional affair, Dobson was presented with the first-ever “Vision and Leadership Award” from the FRC.
Dobson was feted with a series of treacly tributes from family members and associates as well as a musical interlude from country singer Lee Greenwood (who apparently missed the irony in serenading Dobson with “Your Song” by singer Elton John, who lives in a legally recognized civil partnership with filmmaker David Furnish.)
When Dobson finally ascended to the stage at 10 p.m., he told the crowd he knew it was late and that he would speak briefly – and then proceeded to rant for nearly a full hour.
Dobson began with some light banter and a tribute to his wife, Shirley, and his children, Danae and Ryan, but was soon harping on all the standard Religious Right themes. He blasted legal abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage.
Addressing claims in the media that the Religious Right is losing influence, he gestured to the crowd of 1,000 attendees and said, “To the media who’s here, may I say, ‘Welcome to the morgue!’ It ain’t dead yet, and I think you’re gonna be heard from this year.”
Yet Dobson was quick to acknowledge that not all is well.
“There is an ominous feeling in the air among the pro-family movement and community at this time,” he said, adding that he worries the “far, far left is going to capture the triple crown” in 2008 – the White House and both houses of Congress.
If that happens, he said, “the Supreme Court will quickly change….That’s scary. That is ominous. And yet it is out there…. We need to pray, and we need to get involved because we can’t let that happen.”
Yet for all of his fears of a Democratic Party takeover, Dobson made it clear that he absolutely would not support a Republican nominee who holds pro-choice views.
“Some people are talking, you hear this a lot now, they talk about the lesser of two evils – choose the lesser,” said Dobson. “Well, the only problem with that is when you choose the lesser of two evils, you’ve still chosen evil. It leads to compromise. And I tell you, I can’t do that.”
Continued Dobson, “Now, when we are so terrified by the prospect of losing, we will not forget who we are and what we came to do. We will not turn our backs on 45 million unborn children whose blood calls out to us.”
With tears welling in his eyes, Dobson said, “I feel the intensity of the Lord and what he feels about these little babies that he is developing in the mother’s womb. I believe this is his values system that we’re representing.”
Dobson then warned of threats to marriage, insisting that the New Jersey legislature may soon legalize same-sex marriage. If that happens, he asserted, other states, among them Delaware, Oregon, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and California, will quickly follow suit.
“Then you’re going to have same-sex marriages spread all across the country and establish families, and it will be gone,” Dobson warned. “Marriage as we have known it will be gone.” He demanded a federal amendment to ban gay marriage, remarking, “You can’t have 50 different definitions of marriage.”
Dobson told the crowd it is not his intention to personally form a new party and said he would back an existing third party, adding that he knows full well such a party cannot win. The action, he seemed to be saying, would be a deliberate provocation to teach the GOP a lesson. He then regaled the crowd with a tale of how he refused to support Republican nominee Robert Dole in 1996 after Dole declined to assure Dobson that he would apply an anti-abortion litmus test to all federal court nominees. Dobson voted for the candidate of the theocratic U.S. Taxpayers Party (now the Constitution Party) instead.
As he wrapped up, Dobson acknowledged that his stand is controversial and said even some of his own supporters do not agree. He noted that after his first threat to the GOP became public, he received numerous calls and letters “and people were mean.”
Seeking to end on a note of optimism, Dobson asserted that most Americans agree with conservative Christians on social issues and said the political fight is far from over.
“The Democrats are not a shoo-in, no matter what you’re hearing in the media,” he said.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and several members of the AU staff attended much of the Summit to monitor events and offer opposition analysis to the news media.
Lynn said the rhetoric he heard during the event troubled him.
“Much of what I heard blasting forth from the microphones Oct. 19 and 20 was mean-spirited and divisive,” Lynn said. “I was reminded once again how extreme this movement is and how determined it is to run all of our lives by knocking down the church-state wall. Those of us who value the wisdom of our founders in crafting secular government must take alarm.”