Thursday, October 05, 2006

Values Voter Summit 2006: The Final Battle

by Sherry Eros, MD & Steven Eros

If last week's 2006 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. demonstrated anything it was that America's conservative churches are fighting a moral War on Error every bit as threatening as America's War on Terror.

Over 1700 mostly conservative religious activists attended the conference in Washington, DC aimed at politically equipping and rallying religious leaders and strategists in the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections. Plenary sessions were all "Standing Room Only."

Leading conservative prospects for the 2008 presidential race auditioned, including Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. George Allen (Va.), and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Notably, two other leading contenders, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani did not participate.

Conference organizers included Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Gary Bauer of American Values and Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association.

What's at Stake

Organizers convened the 2006 Values Voter Summit to prepare conservative religious leaders and activists nationwide for what may be the most challenging and destiny-determining political battle of their lives. Above all, the 2006 midterm elections offer this generation what may be its last chance to see a Republican president appoint a fifth, and deciding, solidly conservative justice to the United States Supreme Court.

Such an appointment, along with continued Republican congressional dominance, would almost certainly determine the final outcome of the generations-long battle over the most important moral issues of our time. The list of issues includes: gay marriage amendments on both the state and federal level; sanctity of life concerns ranging from abortion-on-demand to partial birth abortion to human embryo harvesting to end-of-life issues such as those raised by the Terri Schiavo case; moral standards in Hollywood and the classroom; cutting taxes, eliminating the marriage penalty and the death tax, and restraining government spending; threats to religious freedom, banned prayer in the schools, and implementation of faith-based initiatives as alternatives to government programs; strong national defense, aggressively restricting illegal immigration, and vigorously opposing the threat of ascendant Islamic fascism.

Within reach is an extraordinary alignment of conservative dominance in all three branches of government. Appointment of a fifth conservative Supreme Court justice would extend the hope of reversing a decades-long moral decline in a single breathtaking sweep. Conservatives realize that if Democrats win a majority in the Senate, then any hope of a conservative victory in these moral conflicts may be lost for at least a generation.

Dobson: Energized

As Dr. Dobson openly confessed, Christian values voters have been disappointed at the congressional failure to enact legislation on their issues over the last two years despite electing a Republican House, Senate, and President in 2004. Values voters were crucial to Republican victories in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections. Around election time in 2004, The Weekly Standard reported on several polls indicating that issues such as gay marriage and abortion were vote-determining to 15 to 18 per cent of voters. These polls showed Bush carrying values voters by an overwhelming 70-18 margin.

By his own account, Dobson began the year 2006 "extremely disappointed," and dispirited. He even considered withdrawing from his "exhausting" practice of pre-election "crisscrossing the country trying to get people to turn out, because turnout is everything."

Recently, though, the Republican-led congress has turned around. Now Dobson says he is "absolutely convinced there is no choice" but to be as active as possible "because the alternative is terrible." He continued, "People must turn out."

Of President Bush, Dobson had this to say: "I'm telling you, he is the most pro-life president we've ever had. And when it comes to the War on Terrorism, he gets it." Appalled by the congressional passivity in the wake of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's U.N. speech denouncing Bush as the "devil" incarnate and threatening to bring down America, Dobson castigated congress for its "pantywaist" response. "I'm ticked," he said.

Asked by a reporter to explain why he was so disappointed in the lack of reaction to Chavez's attacks, Dobson remarked, "I consider the comments by Hugo Chavez to be one of the most outrageous assaults on the respect and integrity of this nation that I've ever heard. In fact, I don't believe that, in history, anyone has been that disrespectful to a president of the United States. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican is irrelevant. This country has been assaulted and threatened by this man."

Education, Art and Culture: Turning the Demographic Tide

On the minds of many conference participants is the fact that, given current demographic trends, the remaining years of George W. Bush's term may provide the last opportunity to appoint a fifth, and deciding, socially conservative justice. That is possible only if Republicans retain the Senate.

Earlier this year, a Pew Research poll found opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage has declined from 63 percent in February 2004 to 51 percent in March of 2006. Of greater concern, among young people aged 18 to 29, a majority in several polls favors gay marriage.

To turn the demographic tide of young voters increasingly tolerant of same-sex marriage, conference organizer Tony Perkins looks to values "education." And that means changing the culture in ways outlined by several of the participants.

Interviewed after his conference session entitled "Hollywood in the Heartland," media expert Dr. Ted Baehr saw a huge shift being effected by means of an ascendant family-oriented media, especially film. Change is afoot, he noted, since "49 percent of the movies last year had positive Christian content. 40 percent of the movies were aimed at families." Baehr was contemptuous of films catering to the politically correct, pointing-out that "Brokeback Mountain after six months, say, made $73 million. At $6.50, $7 per ticket that's 10 million people, in a country of 300 million people. They couldn't even get their own people to go see Brokeback Mountain. That's how bad it was. Meanwhile, Chronicles of Narnia, a Christian film with a direct Christian allegory, did $780 million, and I cannot remember any major reviewer giving one positive review to Chronicles of Narnia."

Of the market for values-related films, Baehr added, "The average film with homosexual content — even with the big Brokeback Mountain that only made $70 million — averages $600,000 at the box office. Now that must tell us something. What it tells me is that year after year after year they're unable to assemble more than one percent of the population. And what it tells me about the political process: if we cater to the 0.1 percent, we're making a big mistake, because we're ignoring the 99.99 percent."

One example of the new trend is Fox's newly created unit, FoxFaith. The FoxFaith website explains that it is "a new branded distribution label from Twentieth Century Fox, created to house and distribute its growing portfolio of morally-driven, family-friendly programming. To be part of FoxFaith, a movie has to have overt Christian Content or be derived from the work of a Christian author."

Gay Marriage: Not Just a Marriage Issue Anymore

The urgent need to confront and reverse looming demographic trends explains why issues such as gay marriage dominated the 2006 Values Voter Summit. Marriage protection amendments have been enacted in 20 states, and this year there are eight more states where the issue appears on the ballot: Colorado, South Dakota, Idaho, South Carolina, Arizona, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin. With polls showing the Senate increasingly up for grabs, this list includes two of the three most closely contested Senate races, Virginia and Tennessee. In the third, Sen. Rick Santorum, a featured speaker at the Summit, is fighting for his political life in Pennsylvania while championing a federal constitutional amendment that would preclude any state from legalizing same-sex marriage.

Co-organizer Gary Bauer noted that the gay marriage issue might be determinative in several congressional races. Interviewed before he delivered his conference speech, Bauer predicted, "If the previous election is any example, it will increase the voter turnout by more traditional voters. And I think that in what could be a very close election this November these amendments may make the difference for conservative candidates." Asked about the Allen-Webb contest in Virginia, Bauer added, "Virginia is turning out to be a much closer Senate race than anyone expected. And it certainly could make a difference here. Particularly since the democratic candidate in the state has already made it clear that he's against the federal marriage amendment."

One featured speaker who addressed the marriage issue with authority was Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass) who leads the only state to have legalized same-sex marriage. Romney used the opportunity to take a clear swipe at Sen. John McCain without naming his potential political rival for the 2008 presidential race.

McCain who opposes a federal amendment to ban gay marriage, and is less than fully trusted by the Christian conservative leadership, did not attend the meeting. As if poking his finger in the chest of the absent McCain, Romney delivered, "The people I'm most upset with are people who say, 'I agree with you, governor. I believe in traditional marriage. But we shouldn't have a federal marriage amendment, we should leave it up to the states'."

Citing his own experience as governor of Massachusetts, Romney insisted, "We have to have a federal standard that says, Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman." Warning that his state's laxity foreshadowed not only the nationwide threat to traditional singular husband-wife marriage, but also to religious freedom and civic institutions in general, Romney adduced the example of Catholic Charities adoption services: "Catholic Charities, which has long placed many of our special needs kids... has had to exit the adoption practice in Massachusetts. They are now told they cannot prefer adoption into traditional couples...but they must equally...place children in same-sex homes."

This reflects a new political strategy that emerged at this Summit, one that is likely to further energize the conservative base while building on a 100% electoral success rate in the 20 states where constitutional amendments already have been passed that exclude same-sex marriage.

The argument proceeds as follows: Same-sex marriage constitutes a direct threat to religious freedom in general, the Catholic Charities case being just one small wave in what will be a giant tsunami of anti-Christian and anti-religious delegitimization and denial of rights.

Dobson and Perkins both stressed that gay marriage advocates are on a "collision course" with religious freedom. "And everything from tax exemptions of your schools, churches, right on down the line are in jeopardy if we fail to preserve [husband-wife] marriage in our society," Dobson warned.

Columnist Maggie Gallagher added that, once courts legitimize same-sex marriage, anyone who opposes such unions will be labeled a "bigot" and marginalized. Bigots "don't get thrown in prison. But they can't have a radio broadcasting license ... run an accredited school system ... run a tax exempt organization ... be a teacher in a public school."

Rev. Barry Lynn's Declaration of War Against Conservative Churches

Rev. Barry Lynn, leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the dominant liberal group attempting to politically block conservative Christians, attended the meeting and met privately with Dr. Dobson. In an interview with a reporter at the Summit, Lynn confirmed that his organization's primary focus is "helping the leaderships of organizations that were opposing the federal marriage amendment. Some of our state affiliates view it as important in their states."

Lynn issued a thinly veiled threat that political activism in or around churches as advocated by the meeting organizers may violate IRS guidelines and subject churches to loss of tax exempt status. Lynn announced that he has sent warning letters to the pastors of 117,000 churches.

Dobson and Perkins view Lynn's efforts as an attempt to intimidate Christian pastors and make them hesitant, for instance, to distribute issues-based Voter Guides rating candidates on marriage, life, school prayer, and other issues even though they do not expressly endorse a particular candidate or political party. These leaders argue that issues-based yet nonpartisan Voter Guides, voter registration drives, and get-out-the-vote efforts are perfectly legal and consistent with constitutionally protected religious rights and free speech rights. Says Perkins, "There is nothing in the federal tax laws to prevent a pastor from directly telling the congregation to support [issues or] legislation that the church believes to be beneficial to the community."

In an interview, Lynn condemned the political activity of conservative pastors in general, and the leaders of the Values Voter Summit in particular, sneering, "Talk about a failure of integrity at this meeting: For these people just to be honest, and say: We are partisan, we just support Republicans and that's what we're trying to get churches to do."

Pastors: ADF Offers Free Legal Defense

Alan Sears, head of the Alliance Defense Fund, the conservative Christian counterpart of the ACLU, offered this retort, "The ACLU and its allies depend on a campaign of fear, intimidation, and disinformation to silence the church." Responding to liberal threats from Lynn and others, Sears countered: "We've said that we will defend pastors that follow the guidelines" and do not endorse particular candidates. Perkins reinforced the point, noting that pastors "not only have the opportunity, but I believe we have an obligation, to be involved in our government process." Accordingly, "If you're challenged in any way, the ADF will represent you for free. Tony Perkins provided this assurance, "No longer in America when a pastor stands up, will that pastor stand alone."

Recently, the liberal threat turned all too real for two of the country's leading pastors with large congregations in Ohio. In an unprecedented organized assault on conservative churches that can only be likened to a Central Park "wilding," a group of 31 liberal pastors filed a formal complaint with the IRS against Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church and Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church claiming Parsley and Johnson illegally supported a Republican candidate for Governor of Ohio among other alleged infractions. Facing defeat at the polls election after election, liberal leaders, secular and religious, have thus openly declared war against politically active conservative churches.

Lynn: Internecine Warfare & The Liberal Informer Network

Commenting to a reporter, Lynn denied any reservations, noting that "Internecine warfare in Christendom, sadly, has occurred since the beginning of the Church."

Lynn denied that his group was directly involved in the Ohio complaints against the churches of Parsley and Johnson. But Lynn acknowledged that, nationwide, activists affiliated with his group are snooping on conservative churches and regularly reporting alleged violations.

Of his network of informers, Lynn disclosed to a reporter, "We do have activists that look to see what kinds of materials are distributed in and around churches, and if pastors are engaged in any illegal conduct." Lynn contends that members of his Madame Defarge brigades are obliged to report purported violations to the IRS, "I think they've got an obligation, a moral responsibility, to report that. In the same way that if you see a guy being beaten up in the street. You wouldn't say, Well, that guy goes to church so maybe I shouldn't worry about the guy throwing the punches."

By Rev. Lynn's own account he lives in a dog-eat-dog religious universe in which only the fittest churches will survive in the war of all against all. Lynn hastens to repeat for emphasis how important it is to inform against your neighbor's church, insisting that, "If you see something wrong then normally you are obliged to deal with it, report it. And that's all that happened in Ohio. It'll play-out either in the IRS or in the courts and one side will win and one side will lose. And that's the way it is."

In the end, Lynn offered Dobson and the other religious conservatives no quarter.

In his comments to the overflow crowd at the 2006 Values Voter Summit, Dobson had just spoken respectfully, even affectionately, of Lynn, reducing their differences to little more than perspective, "We don't see eye-to-eye," Dobson asserted, noting, "We are just coming from opposite sides of the universe."

When asked for his reaction moments later by a reporter, Lynn declared that a universe-wide gulf was not enough of a separation between the two of them. Lynn corrected Dobson insisting, emphatically and categorically, "we're coming from completely, entirely different universes, frankly."