Christian Right Looks to Debt, Economic Worries for 2010 Election

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Monday, September 21, 2009 at 6:00 am
Value Voters Summit 2009 (Photo by: David Weigel)

Values Voter Summit 2009 (Photo by: David Weigel)

As the fourth annual Values Voter Summit wound down, Benjamin Paulding found a seat near the lobby to relax and reflect. An 18-year-old student who was studying accounting at an online university, he had arrived under a cloud. He was leaving in a much better mood.

“I had been thinking that unless God turns something around, the nation was doomed,” said Paulding. “I think our doom is delayed now, because America is awakening. We woke up late, but we’re going to able to make a difference now.”

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Paulding’s new optimism wasn’t limited to the way Americans might turn against abortion or against gay marriage, even though multiple speakers at the two-day conference (a third day was limited to a morning worship session) had deployed deceptively positive poll numbers to argue that most voters now agreed that “abortion is immoral” or that same-sex marriage should remain illegal. He was increasingly convinced that his country was ready to turn away from the economic policies of President Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats.

“Taxes are going to end up going up, especially if the health care bill passes,” said Paulding. “And all the debt–if you do the math it would cost $438,000 for each household to pay off the debt right now,” he said, quoting a number he’d researched on his own.

Paulding’s worries were reflected throughout the summit, in the halls and in the speeches from the main stage. While the second day of the conference was given over to more overtly social conservative causes than the first, from activists who demanded the “defunding” of Planned Parenthood, campaigning to ban gay marriage, and working in general to “save” the hearts and minds of fellow Americans, it also cemented a move toward economic and constitutional worries. Attendee after attendee told TWI that the size of the national debt and what they perceived as an abandonment of the Constitution’s original intent were worrying them as much as the assault on their values.

“For the Christian right, this needed to happen,” said Jamie Johnson, an Iowa activist who runs the conservative Faith and Freedom Network in that state, and who fell short in a 2008 bid for local office. “The shock of having a far-left president has awakened many who only thought about two issues.” Those issues had been gay rights and abortion. “They realize now that the founding fathers cared about many issues related to liberty and security and prosperity.”

“It started when Bush was still president,” said Johnson’s father Fred, attending the conference with him for the second consecutive year. “Most of us common people were thinking, ‘We play by the rules, and we provide for our families, and we have to bail out these folks because they were irresponsible?’”

The merger of mainstream Republican Party rhetoric and the priorities of “Christian right” activists happened naturally for people like Johnson and Paulding. It was also politically astute for a wing of the conservative movement that had, in recent years, become somewhat toxic. In a bland speech notable for its sudden embrace of economic populism, former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) told the crowd that “just across the river, the signs are good that we’re about to see a low tax, pro-growth, pro-life government of Virginia.” He was referring to Robert McDonnell, a former Virginia attorney general whose commanding position in the off-year gubernatorial election has been endangered since The Washington Post reported on a 1989 thesis about a possible ultraconservative “family agenda” which McDonnell handed into Pat Robertson’s Regent University. Hours after Romney spoke, the newspaper released a poll showing McDonnell’s poll lead slipping from 15 points to four points.

Romney’s speech did not exactly electrify the Summit. Unlike most of the politicians who appeared before the respectful crowd, he used a TelePrompTer–its presence in the Saturday morning session inspired barbs from Family Research Council emcee Gil Mertz and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), both of whom joked that the speech-making technology must have been there for President Obama. (Obama’s alleged inability to speak without a text is a popular conservative meme.) An unscientific straw poll of attendees found only 12.4 percent of them favoring a Romney nomination in 2012, less than half of the support found for former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.).

But if Romney didn’t have his “finger on the pulse” of Values Voters–as FRC’s Tony Perkins said of Huckabee–he got close the model for their rhetoric and political agenda. The overarching problem with the Obama administration, Romney argued, was that “big government activists” were “substitut[ing] their ideology for the wisdom and good sense of the American people.”

Even the activists who focused on the movement’s social agenda found their way to that argument. Lila Rose, a 21-year-old anti-abortion rights activist who has become famous in the movement for undercover exposes of Planned Parenthood clinics, dazzled the crowd with a terrifying, searching vision of how Americans could be turned against the practice. “This might sound a little strange,” said Rose, “but if I could insist, as long as they are legal in our nation, abortions would be done in the public square, until we were so sick of seeing them that we would do away with the injustice altogether. Maybe then we would value the unborn child as much as we value the one-year-old child who is just beginning to walk. Maybe then, we would hear angels singing, as we ponder the glory of human life.”

That was Rose’s emotional appeal. Her agenda, however, was all about taxation and government funding. She singled out, as the greatest achievement possibly brought about by her work, a move by the Tennessee state legislature to direct $1.1 million away from abortion providers. “Planned Parenthood,” said Rose, “you will be de-funded.” It evoked the good feelings that came from the recent de-funding of ACORN, and it brought out bursts of applause.

The economic appeal trickled down from the main stage, where every word was recorded by a bevy of cameras and tape recorders, and into the more obscure breakout sessions that closed the non-VIP portion of the summit. A session on the “New Masculinity” went deep into the reasons why, and how, conservatives could prevent children from entering pre-marital domestic partnerships or from embracing the “malady” of homosexuality. Michael Schwartz, the chief of staff to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), told the audience that praising one’s parents in nightly prayers could enforce the notion of marriage, and telling children that “all pornography is homosexual pornography” could prevent them from becoming perverted. The point, however, was that welfare and government acceptance of homosexuality were costing America its prosperity.

“Last year, forty percent of all children in this country were born to mothers who were not married,” said Schwartz. “That does not count the infants who were murdered before they were born. Eighty-two percent of African-American children do not have contact with their fathers.”

“Thank you, Great Society,” remarked one member of the audience, referring to the 1960s social programs that, according to the panelists, replaced the family with the state and led to not just economic destruction but weaker institutions.

The same concerns were voiced by Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), a conservative who has gained support nationally with his robust defenses of states’ rights. “Americans are returning more and more to the words of our founding fathers,” said Perry, who claimed that “clashing values” were weakening the nation. President Obama’s policies were proof of liberals’ value; the relative success of Texas was proof that conservative morals and economics were the answer. “The states should no longer stand by,” said Perry, “and have our pockets picked, our futures mortgaged, and our rights taken away.”

But Perry also revealed how the rhetoric of states’ rights and de-funding controversial organizations was bound up in the teachings of the hard right. “Lately,” said Perry, “I’ve found myself going back to a book that’s titled ‘The 5,000 Year Leap.’”

There were head nods and noises of approval from many members of the audience. That book, written by the late ultra-conservative scholar-cum-conspiracy theorists Cleon Skousen, had been rescued from 28 years of obscurity by Glenn Beck. Perry gave an accurate summary of its content, telling the audiences that Skousen “shares his views of the foundational elements of our nation, placing a special emphasis in faith in God–I think undeniably a source of America’s remarkable success. He asserts that natural law, God’s law, is the basis of our nation’s laws.”

The message got through to the activists who left Washington a few hours later. President Obama’s programs were failing because they were socialist, and defied the Constitution. Fealty to the Constitution was bound to succeed, because America’s founding document was divinely inspired. In gearing up for the 2010 elections and making political hay out of the debt, and out of government funding for groups like Planned Parenthood and ACORN, this was the logic that should guide their campaigning.

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ajm8127
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

I don't know if it was rhetoric, if she actually believes it, or, more likely, a little of both, but the woman suggesting that Barack Obama is in any way “far-left” has no idea what she is talking about. I wonder what she would have said of Kucinich, if he had won. It's like the midpoint in the political spectrum has bee shifted to the right, with liberals becoming socialists, moderates become liberals, conservatives becoming moderates, and ultra-conservatives becoming the status quo for the right end. The polarization on both ends is profound however, but seems to be more apparent with the right's refusal to compromise on issues in the legislative chambers, and their assertion that any sort of socialized anything is a bad idea. That seems to be their primary tactic with garnering public support. They invoke fear and uncertainty in people, especially with anything new or different. That's a hallmark of conservatives though, fear of change, or put another way, complacency with the status quo, which will inevitably lead to a lack of progress.


jamesdobsin
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

I'm for any Republican other than Mitt. I just can't stomach a cult member being the President. Mormons are not Christians. If the Mormons were fooled by a pedophile (Joseph Smith), the Islamic terrorist will have their way with the USA if Mitt should win.


jrlcharnc
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

What the Republican party REALLY needs to rejuvenate itself, and to create a LEGITIMATELY grass-roots groundswell of support among a broad base of Americans is clear, obvious and easy. Alas, conservatives are so stuck in yesterday that today and tomorrow never enter their collective radars.

Republicans, Conservatives, Citizens! We need more bisexual transsexual cohabiting candidates married to donkeys, goats or sheep, dedicated to destruction of prayer, and devoted to the truly evil influences of corporate involvement in political campaigns.


benmasel
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

Any sense that they'll get behind Feingold's JUSTICE Act?

After all the freakout over the Homeland Security report on 'rightwing extremism' one might imagine there'd be interest in some oversight of the spook agencies


chrisjay
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

The lurch to the right to which you refer began in earnest with Reagan. His reign saw a full-frontal assault on unions, the McCarthyite penchant for calling dissenters (even in the mainstream) unAmerican, a Friedmanite rollback of Keynsian sensibility, Eisenhower's nightmare of the military/industrial complex come to fruition, packing SCOTUS with far rights, and even flirtation with eschatology-as-foreign policy. By the time Gingrich took up the relay baton in '94 and added scorched-earth politics to the brew (with the help of Limbaugh, for a toxic sprinkle of vile), the stage was well & truly set for the Cheney/Bush era. Along the way, 'liberal' was turned into a four-letter word and old school conservatives like Nixon were rendered pinko by comparison. Barry Goldwater got the sense of where things were headed as he neared the end of his days. He found Reagan very unsettling and was horrified by IraqContra and Ronnie's “Freedom Fighters”. The great irony, of course is that Goldwater was an ultra-conservative in the '60's…yes, the political spectrum has been warped beyond recognition in my lifetime. Centrists like Obama are now referred to as Marxists.


ajm8127
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

I can only speak of what I've seen and remember in my lifetime (Bush Sr. was about the beginning as far as paying attention goes) but I am familiar with the term “Reganomics” and realize what it means. Political landscapes do changes over time like the rolling dunes of sand in a desert, but you want to change to be fueled by progress for the whole of a society, not monetary gain for the old white men's club.


zabaron
Comment posted September 23, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

Amazing. Have your Poster Boy for the Moron Set Bush and his weasel Veep Cheney ruin the economy and drive the ship of state onto the rocks, then wring your hands about it when you lose. The Republicans and these nutjobs, “Values Voters,” really do take the cake for brazenness. Or is it just pure stupidity? Has the Moron Set still not figured out they lost the election? Well, with a name like “Values Voters” which clearly reminds me of Wal-Mart inspired nomenclature, no, they probably still think the vote's out and Bush has not gone back to Crawford to lie on the couch and eat pork rinds… I hope that the next time he chokes on one, it does the job properly. If that last one had, we might have been spared a recession, and several additional years of embarrassingly bad politics, hype and stupidity.

It's time for the Republican Party to be dissolved, permanently.


Harriet
Comment posted September 24, 2009 @ 4:06 am

Mr. Weigel
I heard you on Fresh Air today discussing “The Republican Pary : How the right is changing”. I think that the republicans are just relying on the right wing Christian group that supported W and to which he catered as President. They are,like most extremist religious groups, extremely paranoid. The paranoia general includes all “others” and Obama is for them the other.
I could not help remembering as you spoke the words of my college anthropology professor. He called religion a “mass psychosis” ; he said that joining a religion helped prevent the individual from being psychotic (in this instance—paranoid) Fifty years later I still hear those words since they are so apropos today.


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Comment posted September 17, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

I can only speak of what I've seen and remember in my lifetime (Bush Sr. was about the beginning as far as paying attention goes) but I am familiar with the term “Reganomics” and realize what it means. Political landscapes do changes over time like the rolling dunes of sand in a desert, but you want the change to be fueled by progress for the whole of a society, not monetary gain for the old white men's club.


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I can only speak of what I've seen and remember in my lifetime (Bush Sr. was about the beginning a


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The polarization on both ends is profound however, but seems to be more apparent with the right’s refusal to compromise on issues in the legislative chambers, and their assertion that any sort of socialized anything is a bad idea.
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Chloe Williams
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