It felt like “old home week” – except at a home that was certainly not mine. I’m speaking of my recent trip to this year’s “Values Voter Summit,” the Religious Right’s annual conclave sponsored by the political advocacy arms of Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and a cluster of other organizations.
You can’t do what I’ve done (be a professional agitator for the First Amendment) for as long as I’ve been doing it (over 30 years) without knowing a lot of people on the other side of the ideological spectrum. They all seem to be participants at the same conferences you go to as an observer and critical analyst. By the way, I don’t attend as a “spy” since my visage is too well known by these super-consumers of cable news.
When the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins saw me, he thanked me for coming again. I said that although appreciative, I was disappointed by the lack of flowers in my hotel room. He asked if I was allergic to any flowers, and when I answered “lilies” he assured me he’d have them ready next year. But it was all in fun. Possibly.
The 2007 gathering was exceptional for me just for the sheer number of past adversaries (and occasional allies) I bumped into. For the first time in a decade, I chatted with Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, a pro-censorship advocate I first locked horns with when I worked for the ACLU. We agreed that we are both aging and both “men of principle,” although each of us views the other’s principles as derived from a different Constitution and perhaps alternative universes.
I traded thoughts with former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who now heads a group called American Values, as we speculated about whether religious conservatives might form a third party. We both concluded they would not. Bauer was later quoted in one press account, “Evangelicals are against suicide, and a third party is political suicide.”
I even talked shop with American Center for Law and Justice chief attorney Jay Sekulow, as we discussed co-sponsoring a series of forums in advance of the 2008 elections on political activity by religious groups.
It might surprise you to learn that some of these folks have been allies with me in the past on specific issues. Back in the 1980s, I formed an uneasy alliance with Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum to stop the convening of a new Constitutional Convention. It was also good to see House member and presidential candidate Ron Paul. Decades ago, I plotted with him while I was employed by the United Church of Christ to end the military Selective Service system.
Some readers occasionally ask if these Religious Right activists are sincere. In my judgment they are. Sure, some of them get plenty of money for what they do, but I think almost all (Ann Coulter exempted) are true believers in their causes. I will admit I had some doubts back in l999 when these gatherings included hucksters who lectured of “Y2K” cataclysms and then sold the food to help you survive years in your bunker (instructions for construction also available for a fee).
What I will never figure out is the logic of many of their arguments. They have a tendency to connect dots that aren’t even on the same page. Consider Baptist minister and presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, who asserted that we wouldn’t have a problem with illegal aliens seeking work in America if we had not legalized abortion, an act that, he said, led to a “holocaust.”
Former Education Secretary William Bennett advocated jailing reporters who publish information deemed classified by our leaders. If Bennett had his way, the Pentagon Papers would never have seen the light of day, and Watergate would still be just the name of a hotel. More than one speaker advocated impeaching federal judges for the “crime” of handing down decisions the far right does not like.
Listening to these folks outline their plans for our country, it seemed like one of my press comments may have been literally true: “This may be the biggest collection of theocrats in one room since the Salem Witch Trials.”
What annoys me the most about these events is the hubris exhibited by the Religious Right in refusing to concede for a nanosecond that any of their real or imagined principles are wrong or even need a little tweaking.
There were no new ideas at this conference; there were only recycled arguments from the past, demonization of foes and the presentation of extreme ideas as if they were as non-controversial as a glass of milk. But advocates for these positions continue to thrive, raising more funds and energizing new younger leaders each year.
The most dangerous idea I heard during the weekend, though, was one expressed by a few members of the press: The Religious Right is probably dead. Those of us who know about the Religious Right’s finances, organizing ability, grassroots presence and other resources know that obituary was issued prematurely at other times in history.
If we want to stay the course to stop advocates of theocracy, we’ll need to do more than whistle past a non-existent graveyard.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.