November 2014 Church & State | Featured

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin descended on Washington, D.C., recently with a clear mission: to rally the right-wing electorate ahead of the November elections. Speaking to a crowd of some 2,500 religious conservatives at the Values Voter Summit (VVS), she told them just what they wanted to hear. 

“So, value voters, don’t let [lib­erals] get you down, OK?” Palin implored Sept. 26. “America needs you, needs your energy, your con­fidence, your voice. And we do need to expand our ranks. So go not as prophets of doom and fear, but as messengers of vibrant life and real hope. We are value voters, and our values were our Founders’ values. They are America’s values. And our message is the message that America wants to hear and needs to hear.”

The assembled throng gave Palin, who kept the audience engaged with folksy humor and catch phrases like “lamestream media,” a hearty applause following her first VVS appearance. Remarks like Palin’s suggesting that the Founding Fathers would have embraced the VVS are par for the course at the Summit, which claims to revere the U.S. Constitution even though most in attendance believe the First Amendment doesn’t protect non-Christians or guarantee church-state separation. 

The VVS, which is an annual gathering in the nation’s capital, is sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC), American Family Association and other Religious Right groups. The confab has long given a platform to far-right figures like Palin, who at this point in her career is little more than a cheerleader in the Religious Right’s struggle for the soul of America.

Overseen by FRC President Tony Perkins, this year’s VVS featured a parade of politicians, pundits and presidential wannabees. Alongside them, fundamentalist leaders encouraged VVS attendees to cast their votes in November because only fundamentalist Christians can save America from the moral ruin caused by secularist liberals who push abortion and same-sex marriage while simultaneously tearing apart the concept of “religious liberty.” Naturally the “values voters” were encouraged to select candidates who have been vetted by the Religious Right, many of whom attended the Summit.

If you’re not familiar with the VVS, now in its ninth year, it’s a place populated by an unusual cast of characters. As always, this year’s Summit included a booth staffed by members of the American Society for Tradition, Family and Property – a group of far-right Cath­olic men who pine for monarchy and the Middle Ages. Then there were people campaigning for obscure political candidates who may one day run for president, like Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has come under fire for comparing gay marriage to bestiality. Entre­preneurs offered a variety of right-wing swag for sale, including a children’s book called The Remarkable Ronald Reagan: Cowboy and Commander in Chief and an app to help you pray using your smartphone.

While the exhibit hall is always a source of amusement, the two-day conference is anything but funny; it’s a warped world where the future is the past – even if the past includes spectacular failure. How else to explain the presence of former Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North, who doesn’t do much these days besides plug his latest book? And in case North’s presence wasn’t enough to assuage anyone longing for the supposed good old days of the 1980s, the man who was once at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal showed a video that included a schmaltzy portrayal of his boss Reagan, a figure this crowd seems to idolize more than Jesus. 

Although the VVS wasn’t much more than an anti-President Barack Obama whine-fest in recent years, this time the rhetoric focused more on encouraging the Religious Right to march to ballot boxes nationwide; while there was still quite a bit of pounding on favorite punching bags such as Obama, gays and Muslims, the meeting at the Omni Shoreham Hotel also featured loud cries that Americans are losing their “religious liberty” in schools, the military and in business, so fundamentalists must band together before it’s too late.

This sentiment was perhaps best embodied at the Summit by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a far-right favorite and possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016. Cruz, who became a Religious Right folk hero thanks to his open embrace of fundamentalism and his willingness to hold the entire U.S. government hostage in an attempt to thwart Obamacare, told the audience that their beliefs are the bedrock of the United States.

“This country remains a country built on Judeo-Christian values” said Cruz, whose pandering skills later allowed him to carry the VVS presidential straw poll with 25 percent of the vote. (Carson was second with 20 percent, with Mike Huckabee capturing 12 percent.)

Cruz went on to criticize the Obama administration’s supposed curbing of religious liberty, telling horror stories of nuns forced to pay for abortifacients – even though that isn’t true.

“You know, every American should know about the Little Sisters of the Poor,” he said. “You want to talk about values? Right now the federal government is suing the Little Sisters of the Poor to try to force Catholic nuns to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.”

In reality, it is the Little Sisters of the Poor who are suing the federal government because they refuse to accept an Obama administration compromise that would allow their employees to access birth control without forcing Little Sisters, an order of nuns who run nursing homes for the elderly, to pay for it directly. The Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate requires most for-profit corporations to offer their employees healthcare plans that include no-cost birth control. But religiously affiliated non-profits, such as Little Sisters, are not required to pay directly for birth control. All they have to do is fill out a form stating their objection to providing contraceptives, and a third-party insurance company will take care of the rest. But that simple act of filling out a form is apparently unacceptable to the Little Sisters. (Nor is anyone forced to provide abortion-inducing drugs; scientists have long since debunked the idea that basic forms of birth control cause abortions.)

With all of the problems in modern America, is there any hope? Cruz thinks so. The answer, you see, lies in the past. God has saved the United States before and will do it again – at least in Cruz’s mind.

“At every stage in the Revolu­tion­ary War, a ragtag bunch of colonists had no prayer of defeating the mightiest army on Earth,” Cruz said. “But with God’s blessings, we did so. In the Civil War that pitted brother against brother, spilled blood upon our soil to expunge the original sin of this nation of slavery, that should have rent this country apart forever. And yet, with God’s blessings, this nation came back together after that bloody conflict. In World War II, standing against the grotesque evil that was the Nazis, the American people rose to the occasion and saved the free world. In the Cold War, with leadership from America, the Ameri­can people rose up and we won the Cold War without firing a shot and tore the Berlin Wall to the ground.

“I’m optimistic because of you,” he concluded. “I’m optimistic be­cause I believe in the American people. And I’m optimistic because I am con­vinced God isn’t done with America yet.” 

Another possible GOP presidential contender, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), attempted to excite the crowd by adopting the ill-fitting guise of a tent evangelist.

“What we need is something more than laws,” Paul said. “We need something that civilizes a nation, and that is virtue. What America really needs is a revival.”

While Cruz and Paul were hopeful for the future, a relic of the Reagan administration countered that Ameri­ca was a lot better off in the last century. American Values President Gary Bauer, whose glory days came during his stint as Reagan’s undersecretary of education and chief domestic policy advisor in the 1980s, opened with a joke imparted to him by Reagan, one which he has told at previous Summits. He went on to praise Reagan as well as Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, which seems odd given that the last three were Democrats.

But Bauer had nothing good to say about Obama, telling the crowd, “Today, while our leaders show weakness abroad, Obama and his allies do everything they can to rip out of our society all the vestiges that made this Judeo-Christian civilization [great].”

Bauer concluded by paraphrasing Reagan, who once employed a Bible passage favored by the Puritans to call the United States “a shining city upon a hill.”

“[G]et ready to do very difficult things because that is the only way we are going to save this precious nation, this glowing city on a hill,” Bauer said.     

When the Religious Right isn’t whining about how much better things used to be, it finds other sources of discontent. This year at the VVS, multiple speakers – Cruz, U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Liberty Counsel head Mat Staver and Religi­ous Right attorney Kelly Shackelford – actually bemoaned the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was “only” 5-4 in their favor.

Christians “dodged a bullet,” Staver said of the high court’s ruling that granted many secular for-profit corp­orations the right to claim “religious liberty” as justification not to offer no-cost birth control in employer-provided health insurance plans.

“Thank goodness it was 5-4, but it was only 5-4,” said Jordan.

Perhaps this unease comes from a sense of fear among religious conserv­atives that Hobby Lobby did not go far enough. After all, they claim Christian business owners working in the wed­ding industry are frequently forced to choose between their livelihood and their faith thanks to “discriminatory” equal-access laws that require busines­ses to serve everyone – even same-sex couples.

Enter Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of the Gresham, Oregon- based Sweet Cakes by Melissa. They were sued for their refusal to make a cake for a same-sex wedding and have since closed their shop because business dwindled.

Sitting beside his teary spouse, Aaron Klein told the VVS crowd that his wife could not use her “God-given talent… in a manner that would be in the face of what the Bible says [marriage] should be. I couldn’t in good conscience agree to do it.”

He blasted Oregon officials for their stance, remarking, “[They] said we have religious freedom, but we don’t have the right to break the law.”

Summit attendees were also whipped up by speakers who laid into the IRS over the so-called Tea Party scandal. The tax agency was por­trayed as running amok.

In fact, there was less here than meets the eye. A government audit agency called the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which is responsible for IRS oversight, found that 82 percent of organizations with “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” or “9/12 Project” in their names that were audited between May 2010 and May 2012 deserved extra scrutiny. These groups “had indicators of significant political campaign activity in their application files.”

Therefore, the Inspector General said, these organizations “would have been properly selected for additional scrutiny” even if the IRS had been using activities-based criteria rather than going off of names or policies. And yet House Republicans convinced much of the public that the IRS was unfairly targeting conservative groups, earning the GOP a major public relations victory and scaring the IRS into putting audits of most non-profits on hold indefinitely. Nonetheless, VVS speakers Cruz and Palin called not for reform of the IRS, but outright abolition of the agency. (Neither explained how the federal government would function after that.)

But tax collectors are not the only enemy of what right-wing commen­tator Mark Levin called the “true patriots” who attend the VVS. The most terrifying threat to the United States discussed at the Summit was Muslim extremists. Unfortunately, speakers made no distinction be­tween terrorists and rank-and-file Muslims.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Dees claimed that he has heard ev­idence of sleeper cells inside Am­erica based on phone calls placed from Afghanistan to areas of the United States with large Muslim populations. (He offered no evidence that the content of the calls was sinister.)

“We have been infiltrated,” Dees blustered. “The enemy is within. I saw… cell phone calls coming from Kandahar, Afghanistan, going to places like Lackawanna, N.Y., Green­ville, N.C., Nashville, Tenn. and Dear­born, Mich. These are all Islamic sanc­tuaries in the United States within which there are fundament­alist sleeper cells.” 

The Summit also provided evi­dence that many fundamentalists don’t care about protecting anyone other than their own. During a panel on U.S. foreign policy, Family Re­search Council Executive Vice Presi­dent William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, said the nation should consider arming Syria to fight Islamic jihadists, even though that country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, is accused of using poison gas against his own people.

“Bashar al-Assad is an evil despot, but the reality is he’s never been a threat to Christians,” Boykin opined.

Although the VVS is advertised as “a forum to help inform and mobilize citizens,” it is generally light on policy and heavy on bombast and red meat. But once in a while, someone with an agenda – such as Louisiana Gov. Bob­by Jindal (R) – decides to unleash some policy talk on the VVS crowd.

Jindal, who is a relentless booster of school vouchers, constantly has to defend his pet project from attack. So during his speech, he claimed that the state’s “scholarship” program is leading to improved academic performance each year, and that 93 percent of parents whose children receive vouchers are happy.

Of course Jindal didn’t provide any evidence to back up his claim about academics, and the 93 percent figure came from a deeply flawed study that surveyed just 27.4 percent of voucher parents statewide and failed to ask the students in the program what they think of their voucher schools. The crowd, which generally doesn’t care much for public schools, cheered. 

One of the main functions of the Summit is to offer Religious Right figures an opportunity to make an easy buck off their loyal fans (North, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Fox News contributor Todd Starnes and others hawked books.)

But one far-right hero who was not there in person was at least there in spirit – to sell some merchandise. Dinesh D’Souza, recently sentenced to five years of probation, fined $30,000 and ordered to perform community service for violating federal campaign laws, still had a booth in the VVS exhibition hall. And while he could not promote his wares firsthand, D’Souza had a little help from Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), who offered a personal endorsement for D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America.

The lauding of a disgraced and admitted law-breaker was a telling indicator of the true “values” of this crowd.