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Lost weekend: partisanship and extremism on display at the Religious Right's Values Voter Summit.

Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has a rather ambitious plan for day one of his term as chief executive.

"The third thing I intend to do on the first day in office is instruct the Department of Justice and the IRS and every other federal agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today! " said Cruz, describing the third of a laundry list of actions that would kick off his hypothetical presidency. "That means that every serviceman and woman can worship the Lord God Almighty with all of his heart, mind and soul, and his commanding officer has nothing to say about it!"

Cruz laid out his plans Sept. 25 at the annual Values Voter Summit (VVS) in Washington, D.C., a Religious Right confab now in its 10th year that is sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC), the American Family Association, the Liberty Institute and other far-right groups.

Always a crowd favorite, the Texas senator outlined a vision of "religious liberty" that really only applies to fundamentalist Christians, as evidenced by his praise of Rowan County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis, who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Kim in a Kentucky jailhouse," Cruz regaled attendees. "And I'll tell you Kim and I, we embraced, and I told her, I said 'Kim, thank you.' I said, 'Kim, you are inspiring millions across this country by standing for your faith.'"

Cruz was in his element at the VVS, where he earned several standing ovations from the crowd of about 2,700, in stark contrast to the fact that as of early October he was polling at just 5 percent in national surveys of Republican primary voters. It's telling that a candidate who has drawn so little interest nationally would fare so well at the VVS, where Cruz topped the presidential straw poll for the third-straight year, with 35 percent. Such a result is typical for this gaggle of right-wing evangelical Christians who are often badly out of touch with reality.

For the uninitiated, the VVS is a bizarre world in which it is acceptable to hate an entire religion (Islam) if done in the name of patriotism, Christians are unable to practice their faith because of "persecution" by liberals, Planned Parenthood is unravelling the very fabric of society and President Barack Obama is, alternately, an ironfisted near-dictator or a feckless incompetent.

Presided over by FRC President Tony Perkins and his sidekick, emcee Gil Mertz, this year's Summit featured, at times, standing-room-only crowds and an expanded exhibit floor, which was packed with an array of far-right groups and causes.

One table featured zealous fans of retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson passing out free copies of a book penned by John Phillip Sousa's great-grandson called Ben Carson: Rx for America. Not far away, the conservative Media Research Center handed out bumper stickers that proclaimed "I Don't Believe the Liberal Media!" At a booth sponsored by Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays, one could get a brochure that asked, "If only one part of you has gay feelings, should your whole life be labeled as gay?"

Representatives from the National Organization for Marriage, which lobbies against marriage equality, were there, looking a little forlorn. At another booth, a man in a bluegreen uniform promoted Trail Life USA, a gay-free alternative to the Boy Scouts. And it wouldn't be the Values Voter Summit without a cohort of traditionalist Roman Catholic men from the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property who attend every year wearing cheap red capes.

Some of the exhibits may have been wacky, but the discussion in the main ballroom was anything but. At times it was pretty frightening.

That was especially true this year, since the 2015 edition of the VVS featured a parade of GOP presidential hopefuls who turned out to placate the Religious Right in their pursuit of the party's presidential nomination next year. Besides Cruz, most of the high-profile conservative candidates made appearances, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Carson and even Donald Trump.

Each of these men tried, with varying degrees of success, to assure the assembly that if elected president he would address the number-one concern of the so-called values voters, which, based on the results of the straw poll, is "protecting religious liberty. "

Carson, who has never held elected office, was a popular candidate at the Summit--he finished second in the presidential straw poll at 18 percent. During his remarks, Carson mainly offered economic proposals and a denunciation of socialism delivered with his characteristic subdued style, but near the end he began bemoaning the alleged removal of God from American society.

"What are our values? [O]ne nation, under God," Carson told the crowd. "We have to stop allowing the progressives to drive God out of our land. We must be willing to stand up for it. Because as they drive him out, look at the direction we're going in. It's a downward spiral."

Other candidates had some trouble convincing the throng that they would do the Religious Right's bidding if elected. Trump, who at the time of the Summit was leading in the national polls, brought a Bible with him to literally wave.

"Most importantly, I brought my Bible," Trump said while holding the book aloft, as if trying to prove that he is a genuine religious conservative --a claim he never made until this year.

Trump's remarks consisted of a stream-of-consciousness farrago of grandiose promises, immigrant bashing and dire warnings about the Iran nuclear deal, but he stumbled when he criticized Rubio, calling the Florida senator a "clown." That insult drew loud boos from the audience, which clearly preferred Rubio to the pompous businessman (Rubio received 13 percent in the straw poll to Trump's 5 percent).

Trump, who waited until the last minute to announce he would attend the VVS, attempted to recover by declaring himself a willing combatant against the so-called "War on Christmas," even asserting that as president, he would somehow mandate the use of the word.

"The word Christmas; I love Christmas," Trump said. "You go to stores now, you don't see the word Christmas. It says 'Happy Holidays' --all over. I say, 'Where's Christmas?' I tell my wife, 'Don't go to those stores....' You're going to see [Merry Christmas] if I get elected."

As he exited the stage, Trump again hoisted his Bible and proclaimed, "This is the key."

Perhaps the biggest loser among the presidential hopefuls was U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Graham clearly misunderstood his audience, reminding them that he is unmarried and has no children. He received just four total votes in the straw poll, one fewer than U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a socialist who is running for the White House as a Democrat and who didn't speak at the Summit.

Another candidate who struggled with the VVS crowd was a one-time favorite, Santorum. The 2011 and 2012 VVS darling, who has barely registered in national polls in 2015, failed to recapture the popularity he achieved with the far-right crowd years ago.

While Santorum was politely received, the feeling that he is a has-been --he hasn't held office since he lost his Senate seat in 2006 by 19 points hung over the man. In an attempt to slow down Trump's momentum, Santorum positioned himself as a kind of anti-Trump, subtly implying that the millionaire real estate magnate is a Johnny-come-lately to social conservatism.

"You want a fighter you can trust? Then go with a fighter you trusted," Santorum implored.

It didn't work. At one point, Santorum asked, "Who has the vision to win the presidency and lead this country?" Someone in the audience shouted out in response: "Ted Cruz!"

That wouldn't be the last time the crowd got unruly. The Summit has long been a hive of anti-Obama sentiment, and from time to time, crowd members shouted things like "treason!" at the mention of the president's name. But this year, at least one conference attendee had something far darker in mind. During remarks by U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a mention of Obama prompted one woman to shout, "Hang him!" Gohmert made no attempt to chastise the interloper.

Of course the VVS crowd's hatred was not limited to the president. Anger is always the prevailing emotion at the Summit, and much of the ire this year was directed at the U.S. Supreme Court, thanks to its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage equality throughout the United States. Three months after that ruling, the far right is still fuming.

"We've got a Supreme Court who thinks they're smarter than God in redefining marriage," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, yet another GOP presidential aspirant, said.

Jason Benham, who along with his twin, David, lost a reality TV show on HGTV after their homophobic views became public, echoed Jindal's sentiment that the Supreme Court had somehow defied God.

"The Supreme Court is not supreme and it will bow before a king, and his name is Jesus," Jason Benham claimed.

Carped conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin, "We have a Supreme Court that exists to enforce, apparently, secularism. That's not the Supreme Court's job.... Who do you think these men in black robes are? Who do you think these women in black robes are?"

Of course the Obergefell ruling was also significant because it led to Davis' religion-based refusal to issue marriage licenses to all couples, resulting in her eventual imprisonment for six days. Davis is a hero to the VVS crowd, and she was a hot topic throughout the weekend. In fact, she showed up to accept the FRC's "Cost of Discipleship" award and made brief remarks.

The discussion of Davis at the Summit, and talk of "religious freedom" more generally, revealed a wider truth: Far-right fundamentalists have a curious definition of "religious freedom"--to them it includes the right of a government official to refuse to do her job--and they're willing to crush anyone who dares to disagree.

Kelly Shackelford, head of the Texas-based Religious Right legal group Liberty Institute, slammed U.S. District Judge David Bunning for sentencing Davis to jail, even though Bunning gave Davis plenty of chances to avoid lockup.

Calling Bunning, an appointee of President George W. Bush, "a judge who is out of control," Shackelford told the crowd, "Frankly, I thought he should have been impeached."

Others were blunt about their desire to protect Christian speech only.

"We believe we have a religious liberty issue in America today, but it's more like a Christian liberty issue," said David Benham.

Some feared for the fate of Christians specifically in the U.S. military, even though Christians comprise the overwhelming majority of the armed forces.

"[N]ow we see an unprecedented level of persecution against Christians in our military, while it seems that anyone else of any ilk, whether it be your sexual orientation or whether it be the Islamic faith, seems to be a protected class," carped retired Army Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, FRC's executive vice president.

While much of the military discussion at 'the Summit concerned the United States' nuclear agreement with Iran, some ex-service members insisted that without fundamentalist religion in the ranks, the military will slowly decay. Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon made the unsubstantiated claim that the end of "Don't ask, Don't tell," the policy that prevented gays from serving openly in the military prior to 2011, has led to an enormous spike in sexual assaults on men.

"Right now, I think the biggest impact on [military] readiness, other than the fact that male-on-male sexual assault has almost gone [up] threefold as it was before the repeal of 'Don't ask, Don't tell,' is the faith and confidence of those soldiers of faith that are inside the military" said Mixon, who once received a reprimand for his outspoken opposition to the "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy repeal. "And look, I think we would all agree that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect, and nobody should be harassed in this country. However, what we're seeing is that same thing being turned on its head against those people of faith inside the military. They're going to lose faith with the institution...." (The claim that sexual assaults by men on other men have spiked in the military is made frequently by Religious Right groups, but there is no evidence to support it.)

Another retired commander, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, made the bizarre and baseless claim that Obama's health-care reform would one day wipe out the military entirely.

"Obamacare will ensure that we never have a military again because it's a bottomless pit," he said.

One speaker even managed to sum up the Religious Right's radical view that the military cannot be effective unless it is comprised of people who believe in God.

"[If] people of faith form the backbone of our military, and they're not joining the military and they're getting out of the military, what does that leave us with? A spineless military," said Michael Berry, a former attorney in the U.S. Marine Corps who now works for Liberty Institute.

Another area of concern for VVS attendees is public schools, which the Religious Right doesn't care for because the U.S. Constitution prevents religious indoctrination from being part of the curriculum. Star Parker, a boisterous speaker who claims she once lived luxuriously while on welfare but now spends her time attacking public assistance programs, said no Christians should send their child to a public school.

"While the Christian community was sleeping [in the 1960s], liberals declared a war on religion, weakening our public institutions and opening the door to a culture of corruption," Parker bemoaned. "They scrubbed our schools of all reference of God.... Any Christian parent who still has their child in one of these cesspools we call public schools is going to receive back a liberal."

Parker, one of the few non-white voices at the Summit, was upset because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. She refused to acknowledge that students remain free to pray and read the Bible in school, as long as they do it on their own or in small groups without infringing on anyone else's rights.

When it comes to fundamentalist Christians, however, they are usually not interested in respecting the rights of anyone else--especially in public schools. For a great example of that consider the case of Roy Costner IV, who as a Georgia high school valedictorian in 2013 gave a commencement speech that consisted of the entire Lord's Prayer. As if that were not bad enough, Costner had been asked to keep his remarks free of coercive prayer but instead tore up his pre-approved speech in favor of a sectarian message. Costner, who was treated like a hero at the Summit, expressed no remorse for his defiance of the First Amendment. Instead, he encouraged other Christians to act as he did in the public arena.

"We've got to take a stand for what's biblically correct, not politically," he said.

He also called on other young, right-wing Christians to stand up for their idea of "religious freedom." "There is 71 percent of the population here in the United States that are Christian...," Costner said. "We need to get back to those core values [of Christianity], and it's up to the millennials to do that."

But it wasn't all gloom and doom. On Friday night, Summiteers were entertained by Scott Wood, a right-wing comedian who offered a string of jokes about dumb blondes, corporal punishment and domestic violence, capping it off with this gem: "Subway's got a new sandwich, the Obama. Six feet tall and full of bologna!"

Of course no VVS would be complete without someone denying that the U.S. Constitution provides for church-state separation. This year that was left to Mark Levin.

"Separation of church and state is not in the Declaration, it's not in the Constitution," the right-wing radio host intoned. "It's in a letter that [Thomas] Jefferson wrote. I'm a big admirer of Jefferson. Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention."

For someone who claims to admire Jefferson, Levin clearly does not know much about him, the other Founding Fathers or what they intended when they drafted the First Amendment. But that is typical of Summit speakers they make statements without knowing all the facts, or if they know all the facts and don't like them, they just make something up.

The VVS has been going for 10 years now and isn't likely to stop. In every attendee's packet was a flyer promoting the 2016 Values Voter Summit, which will take place Sept. 9-11. An early-bird discount is available to anyone willing to sign up now.

Editor's Note: This story contains additional reporting by Sarah Jones and Rob Boston.

Caption: Santorum: Last hurrah at the VVS?

Caption: Rubio: Targeted by Trump at the Summit

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Author:Brown, Simon
Publication:Church & State
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Nov 1, 2015
Words:2874
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