Faith, Freedom And Front-Row Seats

I’m A ‘Values Voter,’ But Not The Kind I Met At These Events

What goes around comes around. Last year I had to miss the big Religious Right conclave in Washington held each September because I was attending my son’s wedding. In penance, I had to attend two Religious Right gatherings this year. 

One weekend it was Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition’s first conference and strategy briefing; the next, the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit.” 

They both started out in somewhat odd ways. At Reed’s event, the first speaker was Tucker Carlson, whose checkered TV career has sprawled over four networks.

Arriving early, I had taken a chair in the front row to get the best possible view. Carlson recognized me as soon as he walked out. He said, “Barry Lynn! Holy smokes! Folks, I’m sorry, my mind is blank. The great Barry Lynn! I’m amazed you’re here.”

This led the audience to applaud, apparently thinking he had said “Barry Goldwater” or something. Tucker quickly joked, “No, you don’t need to clap, I wouldn’t clap,” then went on to say I was actually a nice fellow whom he enjoyed debating on television. 

The following Friday, I got to the Values Voter Summit pretty early. When I asked one of the security folks when the conference ballroom would be opened, he replied, “Are you Barry Lynn?” I acknowledged that I was (my name badge even proved it), and he asked me to stand away from the doors with him. 

I thought maybe I was getting special access. Nope. When the doors did open for the gathering crowd, another security guard blocked me from entering! I had to slip in another door just a few feet away. I even managed to snag another front-row seat. 

These two weekends were a lot like events I used to attend nearly 20 years ago when TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition held conferences in Washington, D.C. 

For example, people still wanted to take pictures with me, to prove to the folks back home that even though their trip to the nation’s capital didn’t lead to a photo op with Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, they did get a snapshot or video with one of Satan’s imps. 

One woman even brought her 12-year-old son over to me and said, “Now if you ever see Mr. Lynn on television, don’t believe a word he says.” 

OK, they don’t like me much. I can live with that. But what really bothers me about these events – dripping with appeals to recapture America, defend the Constitution and stop overregulation of American life – is the bizarre spin they give on what “values” they are trying to recapture. They talk about “freedom” and “liberty” and “the Constitution” but ignore any reference to things that most of us really care about. 

U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware warned of overregulation of water flow in toilets and demands by some municipalities for “greener” light bulbs. Several speakers ominously prophesied that military hospitals soon might be required to pay for sex-change operations. 

Are these the concerns that keep you up at night?

Possible White House aspirant Newt Gingrich called for a federal law barring courts from using Islamic law in deciding cases. This last example raises an interesting point, though. Don’t we all agree that using religious law to trump the Constitution would be bad? 

Of course! That’s why we don’t want Religious Right zealots imposing their will by substituting their narrow sectarian principles for the commonly shared values of the Constitution. Sadly, though, even if I sat down with Newt, I don’t think he’d understand the analogy. 

Both of these events featured strong efforts to link the demands of the old Religious Right (prayer in the public schools, school vouchers, anti-gay policies, restrictions on reproductive choice) with the economic principles of the Tea Party crowd. 

These movements are not synonymous, but there is enough overlap to be concerned that their goal of seizing power across the political spectrum might be achieved. There are pure libertarian strains in the Tea Party that certainly hate what they call “big government” but are also appalled at the prospect of “big religion” – a powerful sectarian movement that will try to regulate them from birth to death.

The message from the two weekends was: Let’s take control and we’ll sort out our differences later. As I told National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro, “What we see today is that people in the Religious Right are saying, you need us, and you need our issues. And in the next 50 days or so, you really need us.”

Whether this marriage of convenience between these two ideological strains is long-lasting or short-lived remains to be seen. However, it is dispiriting to many of us to see the Constitution, which has served us so magnificently for over 200 years, reduced to a buffer to protect against the excessive regulation of light fixtures. 

It is hard to believe that the founders of this nation, a nation truly established by the blood of heroes, could look at such an interpretation without blanching at how fraudulent the new definitions of “liberty” and “freedom” are.

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