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.”
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.