Scaling The Summit: What I Learned At This Year's Far-Right Shindig

After having skipped the past two Values Voter Summits, I decided to return this year. The first person to recognize me on Friday morning was a very friendly Seventh-day Adventist who gave me a CD of patriotic music and reminded me that I had spoken to her and her husband a few years earlier. I had the distinct impression that these folks held views compatible with my own on core church-state issues. I also thought maybe I should just go home and count the day a success.

But I couldn’t leave. I had to soak up the spirit of the Sept. 26 event and report on it to “The Ed Show” audience that night on MSNBC. Plus, wasn’t it possible that something would turn out to be very controversial from the lips of U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz? 

Alas, no such luck. They offered boilerplate. A parade of speakers – among them Rick Santorum, Gary Bauer and Sarah Palin – then tossed out red meat.

The day was not a total waste. Just before lunch, Oliver North made a somewhat engaging presentation about people who serve in the military. We used to do a radio show together, but I had not seen him in several years so I decided to stop by and say hello at the book-signing table. This turned out to be a little awkward because the Family Research Council’s William G. “Jerry” Boykin was signing his book at the same table.

Boykin is a former Army general. He and I go back a long way. He’s not very fond of me because Americans United once sent a letter to his commanding officer pointing out that Boykin had visited churches in uniform and made derogatory remarks about Islam.

How derogatory? He once referred to the god of Islam as “an idol.” He had even come up to me two years earlier at the buffet table and announced that he was glad I had gotten him so much money for his ministry.

Anyway, North was happy to see me, and we chatted about cable television, the death penalty and how we’re aging. I told him that I thought one of the perks of being on radio with him years ago was that I would get a free copy of all of his future books. He noted that he had actually sold out at the Summit. 

Boykin observed us speaking and jumped in, joking with North that I’m great for his fund-raising. People observing this began pulling out their smartphones to snap pictures of us together – me sandwiched between the colonel and the general.

But overall, the Summit felt a bit lifeless. Yes, speakers still fulminated over same-sex marriage, but something was lacking. They must know that they have almost surely lost on that issue.

They are now trying to figure out, post-Hobby Lobby, what they can enact legislatively to be exempt from laws that would otherwise require them to do something (serve a meal, rent a room, bake a cake, sell flowers, etc.) for same-sex couples.

There was little discussion of “intelligent design” or “creation science,” and even abortion – always a hot-button issue for this crowd – received only scant mention. A few speakers brought up school prayer, but again, the issue has had little traction for them lately.

So what to say on MSNBC? Several people at the Summit had signs or applauded when speakers said (as many did), “It’s time to take our country back.”  Back to what, I wondered? The 18th century? I made that point with Ed and comedian/television host John Fugelsang. 

There were a few other questions I had:  Why did Summit speakers not have any new ideas? What was the point of discussing political philosophy (as perennial presidential candidate Santorum did) when the biggest applause lines were all about Islam, the IRS, Benghazi or Obamacare? Fugelsang reeled off some good quips. We finished the show and went home.

So where are we with the Religious Right these days? What power over the electorate does this faction of the conservative movement really hold? Are they are a “paper tiger”?  Is this movement dead? Probably not. Its adherents certainly keep attracting a lot of attention.

Yet a new dynamic is unfolding: It seems to me that well-heeled far-right groups that are mainly interested in secular issues like taxes, deregulation and privatization have learned to speak this crowd’s “culture war” language. They use it to win their votes.

And often the extreme right goes on to win because of voter apathy. As I was writing this, virtually every political pundit was predicting a more conservative Senate after the mid-term elections. Articles appeared in newspapers and on websites detailing the complete lack of enthusiasm among voters.

I am firmly convinced that these “values voters” don’t represent the American political mainstream. Anyone who spends half an hour at the Summit realizes that these people are on the fringe.

Yet they are often successful. What’s frustrating is the knowledge that they don’t win because they work harder or smarter. Rather, too often, their victories are handed to them by Americans who blissfully sit at home on election day.

 

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.