American politics is not easy for believers.
“This is a forum where our candidates can share their faith and testimony and not feel ostracized. Except maybe by the press,” Mary Frances Forrester told me. “Here, we can ask questions and candidates can include their faith when they’re talking about important social issues.”
Forrester—a state director of Concerned Women for America and the widow of James Forrester, a North Carolina state senator who led a successful campaign to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage—was one of 1,500-plus Christians (and an inconsequential scattering of Jews) attending Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition national conference in late June. The event was co-sponsored by Concerned Women, a national organization that promotes “Biblical values among all citizens.”
Since the Spectator’s coverage of the first Faith & Freedom Coalition conference nearly five years ago, the annual event has moved from the basement of a smaller hotel in downtown Washington to the Shoreham, one of the larger conference venues in the city.
Reed earned his chops with Jerry Falwell’s Christian Coalition of America in the 1980s; escaped indictment despite billing tribes more than $1 million in the Indian-casino lobbying shakedown that landed Jack Abramoff in a federal penitentiary in 2006; then lost a race for lieutenant governor of Georgia. He is well into his fourth act, as the founding director of an organization that claims more than 700,000 members.
This year, 13 of the Republicans chasing the party’s 2016 presidential nomination pitched their candidacies at his event. The only no-shows were Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump.
Reed has created a forum in which candidates can speak freely about the intersection of religious belief and public policy.
To Out-Herod Herod
Yet something is happening here that is larger than that. At events such as this one—and this has become an A-List conference—Republican candidates meet “the base” whose support they must have to win a primary.
The conference is four days of dialogue between candidates and their supporters. Posturing is predictable: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s three-minute prayer after other speakers had observed only a moment of silence was followed by public testimony that he gave himself over to Christ at six years of age.
But there’s also a dynamic in which each candidate is compelled to out-Herod Herod. To be outflanked on the right is to lose ground.
“Last month, I was in Israel,” Santorum said. “And one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s advisers told me, ‘Senator, you need to tell the American people that the next president the country elects will have to be a wartime president.’”
Rand Paul promises to defend the “sanctity of life in the womb.”
Rick Perry says he’s the candidate with a record on abortion: “You know, a lot of candidates say—they say the right things about protecting life. But no candidate’s done more to protect unborn life. I helped pass a parental-consent law. I signed a sonogram law so mothers facing an agonizing choice could witness that beating heart within them. I signed a law outlawing abortion at 20 weeks.
Issue by issue, policy position by policy position, the candidates drag their party to the right.
These People Are Afraid
Faith & Freedom congregants are more reserved than the angry political activists who turn out for hard-right ideological gatherings like the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Earnest men and women from their fifties through retirement age, most married couples. In 20 interviews that I did over three days, I spoke to one unattached male.
There’s a small 30-and-younger cohort, many with expenses covered by scholarships. The youngest are home schooled. (I talked to a father of seven with two thoughtful and devout adolescents in tow.) Or they attend private Christian academies.
This event is also overwhelmingly white. During a morning session of speeches by presidential candidates, I counted 12 African Americans in a packed hotel ballroom.
Everyone here seems to feel flown-over and disrespected. Their religious values are under attack by their government and by business forces they cannot control. They are misrepresented by the liberal news media and mocked by the liberal entertainment industry.
The single issue that dominated every interview I did was same-sex marriage, which all described as a threat to their way of life.
Another persistent preoccupation was radical Islam. A close third was threats confronting Israel, a place central to evangelical Christian faith.
These people are, in a word, afraid. And their candidates have mastered the exploitation of their fears.
The IRS Is Coming
Consider one passage in Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s riveting 20-minute speech on the first day of the conference. Cruz is a brilliant and impassioned extemporaneous speaker.
A week and a day before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic Obergefell v. Hodges decision, Cruz was praying that the Court would avoid “an act of naked and lawless judicial activism, tearing down the marriage laws adopted pursuant to the Constitution.”
Any ruling upholding same-sex marriage, he warned, would be the beginning of a broad assault on the Christian faith.
Cruz quoted from the oral argument in Obergefell v. Hodges to warn people of faith what will follow an adverse ruling on marriage:
“Justice [Samuel] Alito asked U.S. Solicitor-General Donald Verrilli: ‘If the Obama administration prevails and you convince this court to strike down the marriage laws of every state, would the next step be that the IRS would start going after Christian schools, Christian charities, and next after that Christian churches? Any institutions that follow a biblical teaching of marriage? Or for that matter, Jewish schools? Mormon schools? Any institution that follows religious teaching?’
“And the answer from the Obama administration was: ‘Yes, that is a very real possibility. That the next step is the IRS coming after schools, universities and charities.’”
It was an effective rhetorical device. Cruz had already described three “religious freedom” cases he had litigated at the Supreme Court before he was elected to the Senate. With his stark warnings about same-sex marriage, he was framing the fight he would undertake as president.
But that question was not asked during the Obergefell v. Hodges oral argument.
Here, from the official transcript, is the exchange the senator “quoted”:
JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. Should the same apply to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I—I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.
Cruz’s warnings about same-sex marriage (which were echoed by Rand Paul, who followed him), and the broader assault on the Christian faith resonated with one woman I interviewed in the hotel lobby. With her husband, she had traveled from Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
“My husband pastors a church,” she said.
“A lot of these issues involving same-sex marriage are going to affect our church in a huge way. We worry about the repercussions. Are they going to make my husband perform same-sex marriages? When he refuses, is that going to affect our IRS tax-exempt status?”
She had listened to the candidates’ speeches and was impressed by what Cruz had said about religious freedom. While he seems an unlikely nominee, the Texas senator was the overwhelming favorite in my random sampling of those attending the conference. And the extreme positions he articulates are shaping the debate.
No candidate—except Ohio Governor John Kasich, who, in a quiet conversation with an audience of 1,000, explained that his faith requires that he care for those who can’t care for themselves—deviated from a requisite litany of topics: same-sex marriage; abortion; ISIS and Islamic terror in general; Obama’s “abandonment” of Israel and engagement with Iran; and the government’s encroachment on religious freedom.
These 13 candidates, declared and undeclared, competing for the support of evangelical Christians who make up 25 percent of Republican primary voters, are resuming the culture wars that began with Pat Buchanan’s speech at the party’s 1992 national convention in Houston.
“For Moses. For God. For Jesus”
With the Supreme Court poised to hand down its Obergefell decision, one topic dominated interviews and sidebar conversations.
“Do you know that two justices have already performed same-sex marriages,” Forrester asked me, referring to Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“They have disqualified themselves and can’t vote on the issue.”
Louie Gohmert, the shrill and frequently unhinged Congressman from Texas, described his legal bona fides (attorney, judge, chief justice in state courts), cited the U.S. Code, the law God conveyed to Moses as “restated by Jesus,” and expanded on the meme Forrester was working, though as a former judge he should have known better.
Any decision on same sex-marriage in which Kagan and Ginsberg participated would be, Gohmert said, “an illegal law … and not something we would have to follow.”
“America is going to have to stand up and say you were disqualified. And now you have tried to substitute your opinion for Moses. For God. For Jesus. For most states’ marriage laws.
“And we just may get you impeached.”
Gohmert has said he’s considering joining the pack of 15 Republicans (as of this writing) pursuing the party’s presidential nomination.
Yet as the primary begins in earnest, there’s not, as George Wallace used to say, “a dime’s worth of difference” between this member of the U.S. House who has turned himself into a cable-news curiosity and all but two or three “moderates” in the Republican class of 2016.