“I can’t get no… satisfaction,” sang Mick Jagger as I wandered the exhibit hall. Neither could I, given that I was at the 2017 Values Voter Summit, a conference that appeared specifically designed to irritate and provoke someone of my political and social beliefs. Any part of me that had come to this event with an open mind was proved wrong when, upon registering, I was immediately handed a bag of conference goodies that included an ad for a book titled The Health Hazards of Homosexuality and a pamphlet from the Family Research Council—Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group and conference sponsor—containing high praise for Trump’s transgender military ban. But then I listened to some of the speakers, and my opinion changed entirely.
Just kidding. After hearing Alveda King describe the pro-life struggle as the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, I was treated to a deeply Islamophobic panel that helped me put my finger on what was really bothering me about this conference (besides the open homophobia, transphobia, etc.). It was the hypocrisy. You see, King had described all governments as “under God” and said that biblical voting was a “Christian obligation,” minutes before conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney took the stage to warn us of the dangers that the combination of religion and government posed. Except that the religion he was concerned with was Islam. Shockingly there seemed to be a double standard at work here.
This suspicion was confirmed when I attended a panel titled “A New Era of Political and Cultural Engagement,” sponsored by the brand-new D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship. The main topic was their Christian leadership initiative, which aims to train 300 top prospects a year to “stand in the highest place of influence God will let them achieve with Jesus in their hearts,” which sounds a lot like they’re trying to put more than just a toe over the line between church and state.
The last panel event I attended was aggressively titled “Radical Islamic Supremacism: Threat to the West,” and featured a great deal of fear-mongering on topics such as “how ISIS is expanding in your backyard,” and continued tone-deafness to the fact that a group of people who were opposed to gay marriage were calling out Islam for being incompatible with the West.
Now, while I have been somewhat irreverent up to this point, I do not wish to trivialize the very real concerns that attending this conference left me with. After the last panel I watched Aasif Mandvi and Katie Couric interview a conference attendee who said that part of her motivation for attending was to learn more about Islam. This is deeply troubling because it is exactly this sort of echo chamber that, in effect, radicalizes people on issues like this. It made me consider, for the first time, that perhaps many of the people at this conference were victims. Victims of self-interested speakers and authors and think tanks who counted on the fear they sowed to keep the money coming in and keep themselves relevant. I had to ask myself, how many conference attendees were once upon a time simply politically engaged people who happened to be Christian, until, over time, exposure to preachers of homophobia, Islamophobia, and transphobia led them to a darker place? Maybe none. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong, and these were all people who chose consciously to let hatred for social progress dominate their hearts. But what I found just as concerning as all of the hyper-social conservatives walking around was the effectiveness of the propaganda machine that the Family Research Council and their allies had set up.
I hope, now, to be able to play some small part in counteracting it. While there, I was cynical, amused, interested primarily in the spectacle. But upon reflection, I realize that I emerged with useful insight into how the social conservative machine operates. It has experts, calm and reasonable, explain to audiences that Christians are the most persecuted group in America; that your community could soon be under Sharia if the Muslim tide is not stemmed; that social justice and humanism are code words for an attack on the values that built this country. It unites disparate organizations, from the NRA to the Heritage Foundation, to broaden its reach and appeal. And in doing so, it creates an effective movement against many of the values we have come to take for granted. From Roe v. Wade to Obergefell v. Hodges, the socially liberal have seen a slow but steady trend in their favor when it comes to societal advancement. In order for this to remain the case, however, it is important to understand the ways in which organizations like the Family Research Council and its Values Voter Summit are organizing and galvanizing the opposition.