It’s been a bad season for the GOP. Even before the Mark Foley scandal broke, and former Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives David Kuo published his explosive book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, there were signs that the relationship between Republicans and their evangelical Christian base was beginning to worsen.
In early September, a Pew poll showed that a growing number of evangelicals were becoming disaffected with the Republican Party. Seventy-eight percent of white evangelicals voted Republican in 2004, yet only 57 percent told Pew they were inclined toward that party now.
Then, an institute linked to People for the American Way released its own survey of values challenging “the rhetoric around values voters (as) just plain wrong,” according to its author, Dr. Robert Jones. “We found out…abortion and gay marriage ranked dead last and jobs and the economy, by far, ranked number one,” Jones said. “That holds true, again, across a number of religious traditions including evangelicals.”
Yet little of this doubt seemed evident at the Family Research Council’s FRC Action’s Values Voters Summit. Held in September at Washington’s beautiful old Omni Shoreham Hotel – where, as president, Harry Truman disappeared to play cards with his cronies – the summit was where Christian right groups joined to mobilize their supporters during election season.
As the Christian Coalition has waned in power, the FRC’s star has taken its place, arguably becoming the most important religious lobbying organization in the country. Founded by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the massive conservative evangelical organization, the FRC is led by a former Louisiana state legislator Tony Perkins. The conference’s sponsor, FRC Action, also led by Perkins, is FRC’s lobbying arm. With his clean-cut appearance, red tie and articulate defense of social conservatism, Perkins brings to mind Ralph Reed, leader of the Christian Coalition in its heyday.
Speakers offered the audience political thinking that could join with their Biblical certainty to strengthen their organizing against gay marriage and abortion access back home.
The first of a parade of 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls speaking from the podium was Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A Mormon, this largely evangelical Protestant audience was not his natural base, and Romney is largely positioning himself as a moderate. Nevertheless, he sounded the charge against gay marriage, sharing with the audience his view that “every child has the right to have a mother and a father,” and that “marriage is primarily about the development of children.”
Yet Romney also issued them a quick, yet pointed, challenge: “Even those of us who don’t believe in God lead a purpose-driven life.” This was indeed a challenge, as brief as it was. Many of the 1,700 gathered fear that non-believers – and liberals – are unmoored from ethics because they are unmoored from Biblical certainties, and thus a threat to the United States.
“One of my favorite quotes by John Adams is ‘our Constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people, and is wholly inadequate to any other government,” said Wendy Watson, who was staffing the booth of Oregon’s Restore America in the exhibit hall. “Because we have this illusion, this deception of separation of church and state, and it shows that without morality, without religion, without Christ in our culture, the Constitution, it doesn’t do what it is set up to do.”
Linked to evangelicals’ conservative worldview is a deep worry about “the coarsening of American life.” The degradations of popular culture, the sexualization of the media, gay sex, and women turning to abortions rather than raising the child – all of this and more brought women like FRCAction Vice President Mackey into conservative activism. Conference speakers laid these trends at the door of feminism or liberalism – calling on social conservatives to turn to civic and government action to protect the family as they see it.
“As people move out of college … and find they are providing for children, that’s when organizations like this become significant to them,” explained Jennifer Giroux, a 44-year-old Ohio activist now working for Citizens for Community Values, a regional Christian organization. The impulse to protect children, their own or others, from a secular culture they see as valueless and opposed to God’s plan, is the big motivator. During a women’s panel, Giroux called gay parenting the worst form of child abuse.
The audience demonstrated their support for President George W. Bush’s use of torture with standing ovations when speakers like Bill Bennett or Sean Hannity brought it up from the podium. And they told their listeners that they must first defeat the liberals before they can defeat the threat from radical Muslims abroad. How support of “rough” interrogations intersects with the culture of life or the Kingdom of God which evangelicals aim to create was unclear. In one of the opening sessions, James Dobson himself explained in his folksy way that the “family”-based politics of the Christian Right must lead to defending Bush.
“With regard to the War on Terror. I really do see that as a family value, a family issue,” said Dobson. “Because if we don’t have security for ourselves, for our children, for future generations, there is no future for the family.”
Liberals are appeasers, he added. “Adolph Hitler in 1938 – 39, he was very clear about the assault they were going to make on Jews,” he said. “Now we’re being told by Muslim countries that they are going to destroy Israel, incinerate it, and take us down, and liberals say, ‘What do they mean?’”
“George W. Bush – he’s not a perfect man – none of us is perfect,” he said. “[but] when it comes to the War on Terror, he gets it.”
Other speakers repeatedly returned to another theme that the People for the American Way survey, released only the day before the conference, found was the most important value for American voters: a politician’s character. Even though FRC consistently supports some of the President’s most unpopular policies – like denying global warming and pursuing the “war on terror” – Tony Perkins opened the proceedings by symbolically distancing the group from the Republicans.
“A politician is someone who will run a poll to see which way the people are going,” he said. “What we need are not … more politicians. We need more statesman.” When the Foley sexual harassment scandal broke only a week after the conference, Perkins was all over the media sounding this theme on behalf of his base.
There was also dissent in the halls on other grounds. Two African Americans (of the few represented) supported the idea that the Bible clearly guides believers to oppose both abortion and gay rights, yet challenged the largely white FRC for neglecting questions of economic justice or hardship that lead some women to have abortions. Activists of the secular Right who were on the program or in the exhibit hall sometimes sidestepped “life” issues – and even feminism – entirely. And when Jennifer Giroux on stage gloried in being the mother of nine children, two audience members murmured to each other, “oh we’re supposed to be against birth control – but there is such a thing as self-restraint!”
Still, a relatively small number of “traditionalist” religious voters, such as those attending the conference, can still sway elections as they did two years ago in Ohio. While most Americans may vote different values than the traditionalists, they cannot challenge the Christian Right’s heartfelt perspective that their culture war is needed to save America.