What I Learned About the Religious Right

On September 18 and 19, 2009, over 1,800 religious right activists, pastors, and politicians converged upon Washington D.C, for a two day “pep rally” called the Values Voter Summit. It was a media saturated event, sponsored by FRCAction, the political wing of the Family Research Council and a veritable Who’s Who of religious right organizations.

Leading Republican politicians, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, and aspiring Republican presidential contenders Governors Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Tim Pawlenty, addressed the summit. Also speaking were Gary Bauer and William Bennett, two of the longest serving and loudest voices in the religious right movement.

As a resident of Washington D.C., who has long been fascinated by the religious right in the way that one is intrigued by one’s arch enemy, I couldn’t resist attending. After conferring with my colleagues at the American Humanist Association, I went to the Omni Shoreham Hotel, notebook in hand, to do a little field work amongst the people that are diametrically opposed to everything we humanists stand for.

By the end of the weekend, with my patience spent and my left hand cramped from prolific note taking, I walked away from the summit with these valuable lessons:

The religious right plays fast and loose with the facts.

For reasons obvious to most humanists in our movement, I had low expectations for the veracity of the speakers. Nevertheless, even I was shocked at some of the lies coming from the podium.

From Gov. Huckabee’s outrageous accusation that President Obama was “treating suspected terrorists like rock stars and giving them refuge in Bermuda” to Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that “with the technology that we have, there’s never a reason for a late abortion,” the weekend’s biggest stars plied the applauding audience with lie after lie.

In the first example, the truth is that the four former Guantanamo detainees who were sent to Bermuda had long ago been cleared of any wrongdoing and therefore, were not suspected terrorists.

O’Reilly’s spin on the abortion issue ignores the fact that late term abortions are performed under rare circumstances and mainly out of medical necessity; this article¬†from RH Reality Check, an organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health, provides more information.

The religious right is losing the newest generation of voters, and they know it.

At the Saturday morning plenary session, the audience heard from Esther Fleece, the 26-year old director of millennial studies for Focus on the Family. Her job is to help her organization reach out to the 18 to 29 year old voters, dubbed the “millennials,” who are becoming an increasingly influential voting bloc.

Fleece told the crowd that amongst her Christian friends, she estimated that 60 percent voted for Obama in 2008 (closely mirroring the national result of 66 percent for 18-29 year olds). She spoke of the need for the religious right to reach out to younger voters, but her solutions, such as more mentoring from older conservative Christians and more discussion on the value of traditional marriage, seemed inadequate.

Left unmentioned was the most important fact of all: the millennial generation is more secular than ever. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that 22 percent of 18-29 year olds haveno religious affiliation. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam estimates that this number is higher at 30 to 40 percent. Both Putnam and ARIS researcher Juhen Navarro-Rivera believe that a primary cause of this increased secularization is backlash against the extremism of the religious right.

As Fleece pointed out, the millennial generation is much more tolerant and concerned with taking care of all people. Where does the religious right fit into this? And if the religious right loses the newest generation of voters, how will they make their influence last into the years ahead? There wasn’t a satisfactory answer given at the summit.

The religious right suffers from a severe lack of irony-awareness.

That’s a kinder way of saying that the hypocrisy on display was absolutely stunning.

From Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California who made headlines for her statement in opposition to marriage equality at the Miss USA pageant, saying that she is “disgusted at the way some people can be so intolerant” (this from a person who quickly became a leading religious right spokeswoman against equal rights for gays and lesbians), to both her and fellow anti-equality activist Gary Bauer’s exhortations that the religious right needs to model civil behavior for the rest of the United States, it was clear that these people probably couldn’t define the word “irony.”

Bauer was strikingly uncivil when, in 1999, he called the Vermont Supreme Court’s legalization of civil unions for gays and lesbians as …”the worst form of terrorism.”

The religious right has a terrifying vision for the future.

The clearest case for Christian supremacy was made at the summit by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. Sharing his vision of religious liberty, he directly compared advocates of separation of church and state to Hitler.

He disputed the idea that the 14th Amendment applies the Bill of Rights to state and local governments and asserted that only Congress is restricted by the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Furthermore, he asserted that the establishment clause only prevents Congress from favoring one denomination of Christianity over another; it does not prevent the government from giving Christianity a favored status overall in the United States.

In Fischer’s vision, religion and government can be very close; state legislatures and city councils are free to enact scripture-based laws, while Congress must merely be sure not to favor the Baptists at the expense of the Episcopalians. As for the rights of non-Christians? It was clear that this was of no concern to Fischer (or, for that matter, to most of the applauding audience).

The religious right doesn’t have the same degree of influence now that it had in the glory days of President Reagan and the Bushes. And, as they even acknowledge, their influence is waning amongst the younger generations. But we can’t count them out. As the parade of Republican leaders at the Values Voter Summit showed, the path to success for conservative politicians still leads through our nation’s most intolerant voters

The religious right will be with us for years to come, and it is up to us to counter the influence of aspiring theocrats and take a stand for tolerance, pluralism, and secular government.