Stuck in the Belly of the Beast: My Trip to the Values Voter Summit

Every fall I attend a large gathering of religious right activists in Washington, DC. Launched in 2006 and sponsored by the Family Research Council and other far-right groups, the Values Voter Summit has become the nation’s premier gathering of theocracy-minded activists.

About 3,000 people attended the 2011 event in early October, among them a healthy contingent of students from the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. (Most of the summit crowd, however, was post-retirement age.)

I attend this event primarily to assess the political power of the religious right and better understand the movement’s goals and strategies. The 2011 gathering was especially interesting because of the hotly contested Republican presidential race. All of the major contenders were there making their best pitch for support. No serious GOP hopeful can afford to slight the religious right.

The political spectacle is certainly interesting, but the summit also gives me a brief peek into the minds of Christian fundamentalists. Their world is indeed a fascinating place, mainly because it has only a nodding relationship with reality. Attending this conclave is like stepping into an alternate universe where things just aren’t what they should be, where facts take a backseat to belief, and where religion triumphs over reason.

Thus, evolution, no matter how much evidence piles up to support it, can never be true. Earth is 6,000 years old—end of discussion. During the October event, one speaker, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, went so far as to insist that any man or woman who believes in evolution is unfit to be president. (Fischer is infamous for dishing out the crazy at the Values Voter Summit. A few years ago, he gave a speech explaining how Adolf Hitler invented the separation of church and state.)

The same holds true for global warming. Scientific consensus be damned—as long as there is one man or woman out there parroting the oil industry line, then climate change is a myth and, even to this day, characterized as a nefarious plot by Al Gore.

In the religious right’s world, the Jesus of the New Testament who talked about caring for the least among us has been transformed into a bootstrap capitalist who favors abolishing the capital gains tax. The New Testament Jesus never said a word about homosexuality or abortion, but the religious right Jesus hates them both. (At times, conference speakers ignored Jesus altogether in favor of the religious right’s replacement deity, a figure I call the Deified Ronald Reagan.)

To the religious right, President Barack Obama, who’s been married to the same woman for nearly twenty years and has two daughters, is a dangerous fanatic determined to destroy the “traditional family.” But former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, an admitted serial adulterer now on his third marriage, is a paragon of family values.

In this world, “patriots” espouse the most extreme views, many of which run counter to American constitutional values. Speakers trash the separation of powers by outlining plans to neuter the federal judiciary, and promote so many constitutional amendments that you’d think our foundational document was a first draft.

To the religious right, Tea Party activists who march on Washington, DC’s National Mall are patriots who love their country. Occupy Wall Street protestors who march in the same city are a “rabble” and “a mob” who are “unwashed.” (Former Fox News commentator Glenn Beck put it this way: the protestors are coming “to smash, to tear down, to kill, to bankrupt, to destroy.”)

Another constant at the Values Voter Summit is the total lack of necessity to question authority. Sweeping claims, no matter how outrageous, are accepted without dissent. In recent years, the religious right groups who sponsor the event have been getting cozy with the Heritage Foundation, an enormous and well-heeled DC think tank dedicated to slashing government programs for the poor and cutting taxes for the rich. At this most recent summit, Heritage staffer Robert Rector informed the crowd, “The left hates the institution of marriage. They simply hate it.” That settles that.

In the world of the religious right, Christians—who account for about 75 percent of the U.S. population—are being persecuted. The examples proffered for this are never very good and usually amount to a lot of whining that the public schools don’t force kids to pray anymore, city halls aren’t topped by crosses, abortion remains legal, and gay people continue to exist.

While attending the Values Voter Summit, I sometimes wish I were a psychologist or social scientist. It would make for a fascinating study. What drives people who rely on Social Security and Medicare to survive to pay money to attend an event sponsored by groups that want to abolish Social Security and Medicare? What forces can compel a mother or father to discard the natural love parents feel for their offspring and break off all contact with a gay child?

In short, what causes people to be so afraid? I’ve been attending these meetings for nearly twenty-five years, and at the end of the day I’ve concluded that fear is at the heart of it all. Fear of change. Fear of modernity. Fear of uncertainty.

The fear can lead to rage. They are angry at gay people seeking rights. They are angry at people who have no desire to be religious. They are angry at scientists and historians whose research casts doubt on accounts found in holy books. They are even angry over something as mundane as being asked to “press 1 to hear English.”

Overwhelmed by the pace of social change, many members of the religious right seek a return to a mythical “Golden Age” of America. You know the place: Dad worked and Mom stayed home. Everyone believed in God, and nobody needed any help from the government. Gays remained in the closet or tried to become straight. Books and movies upheld “moral values.” Sheriff Andy and Opie went down to the fishing hole, and so on.

The problem is, that America simply didn’t exist for most. It was real for the very few people who enjoyed privileged positions of the WASP aristocracy. It should be obvious by now that it isn’t coming back (and good riddance to it), but to the summit crowd—which considers “diversity” a dirty word—it was the best of America.

Because they deny any serious knowledge of history, followers of the religious right can’t grasp that the Golden Age myth is a timeless one. It’s the one where always, back in the mists of time, there has existed that perfect era—and we can get back there as soon as we get right with God. Some ancient Greeks said the same thing: times were so much better when everyone honored the gods.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the fear, the unrealistic vision of America, and the paranoia of the religious right make the movement politically impotent. The opposite is true. The theocrats’ vision of the United States—as out of touch with reality as it may be—is to them a great motivator. It’s something to strive for.

For two days, I sat and listened while politicians told the religious right how they would work to bring this America about. And at the conclusion, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins announced that his group would return the favor by forming a “Super PAC,” which, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, can pour unlimited amounts of funds into political races.

If you’d rather not live in the religious right’s version of a “perfect” America, you certainly won’t find a home at the annual Values Voter Summit, but you would do well to pay attention to what develops there.