“Who would you rather kiss, Paul Ryan or Justin Bieber?”
I turn to see a group of very young women standing directly behind me, each giddy with excitement. It is 6:30 on a Friday morning in Washington, DC, and we are standing in line inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel, waiting to be admitted to the social conservative event of the year: the 2012 Values Voter Summit.
The conference won’t start for another two hours, but the previous day I had received an email from the organizers advising me to arrive early. Two days prior much of the Islamic world erupted into violent anger over an amateurish You Tube video, resulting in the deaths of four Americans. As always when such events unfold, there are subsequent concerns about a potential terror attack on U.S. soil. Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan is scheduled to speak at the Summit this very morning. Security protocol is therefore understandably erring on the side of caution, and the organizers want to ensure that everyone has time to get through the thorough checkpoints. I had just flown in from Portland, Oregon the previous evening, and no matter how many times I try to tell my body that it’s 6:30 in the morning, it stubbornly insists that it is only 3:30. It does so by making my head pound. (I think of 3:30 a.m. as being similar to The Real Housewives of New Jersey: I am dimly aware that it exists, but I’ve never had any desire to see it.) I desperately need coffee.
The young, giddy women behind me, however, are bubbling over with teenage energy. They have been given the day off from their Maryland high school to attend the Summit, and they are as excited as can be at the prospect of seeing Paul Ryan and his movie-star good looks in person. They rifle through various celebrity hunks that might theoretically tempt them away from Mitt Romney’s comely backup: Justin Timberlake, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, and some guy named Alex Pettyfer whom I have never heard of until now. Ultimately, though, the girls happily cast aside these bits of Tiger Beat fodder in favor of Wisconsin’s man of the hour. Not that it isn’t close. For a moment it looks like Pettyfer is going to be the consensus choice as Dreamiest Man Alive, until one of the girls makes an impassioned case that while Pettyfer is indeed hot, he is but a Hollywood playboy, whereas Ryan is a political savior, a man of God and a good family man. Pettyfer never stands a chance after that. I find myself wondering if I’ve just caught a first glimpse of the next generation’s Peggy Noonan.
When I shared with friends my plan to go to the Values Voter Summit, their reactions tended to be either surprise or concern. This is not entirely surprising. It would be hard to think of a political event where I would be more a fish out of water. I’m pretty fiscally conservative, but I lean toward the liberal end of the spectrum on the issues that really drive the Values Voter Summit crowd: I support a strong separation of church and state. I’m pro-choice. I believe that gays, lesbians, and transgendered people should be allowed the same rights and privileges as straight people – including the right to marry. And if that’s not bad enough, I am a confirmed agnostic. It could turn out that I have nothing at all in common with these people. My friends may end up being right; I may end up deciding that it was very foolish of me to have come.
But I have. The Summit is ground zero in the battle for the future of the Republican Party. The social conservative politicians, pundits, and celebrities that regularly headline are the public face of today’s GOP; the 2,000-plus enthusiastic rank and file attendees represent its heart and soul. Moderate Republicans who want even a whiff of success on the national stage must attend the Summit and hope they can convince the conference at large that their conservative credentials are indeed bona fide.
The question I find myself asking more and more these days is this: can the GOP moderates keep the party from completely succumbing to its far-right Christian base? And if not – if the men and women at the Values Voter Summit will indeed drive the Republican Party for the next decade or two – what will that party look like? I have come to see for myself.
We all shuffle through the long, long line that stretches through the hallways of the Omni Shoreham: I, the young women, and a few thousand others.
Since its first meeting in 2006, the Summit has attracted a veritable Who’s Who in conservative America: Previously mentioned hunk Paul Ryan is a regular, as are Mitt Romney, Eric Cantor, Glenn Beck, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Laura Ingraham, John Boehner, Bill Bennett and Jim DeMint. Most are returning to speak this year, the notable exception being Mitt Romney.
It is difficult to interpret Romney’s absence. The reason being given by his campaign and the Summit is, of course, “scheduling.” But it is clear from almost everyone I talk to that, were he to appear, his reception would be lukewarm at best, at least in comparison to the superstars. I knew that Mitt wasn’t their first choice for nominee (or their second, or third). At last year’s summit he showed up and gave it the old college try, but he performed dismally in the primary race straw poll, capturing an anemic 4% of their vote. Ron Paul (37%), Herman Cain (23%), Rick Santorum (16%), Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann (each with 8%) all crushed him. Still, I am genuinely surprised to hear from the attendees I speak with just how much they either don’t like him, don’t trust him, or both. As a travel agent from Maryland explained, “He says he’s conservative, and we want him to be conservative, but we don’t really trust that he is.” A teacher from Virginia was far more pessimistic, lamenting, “I don’t want to wish ill on anyone, but the only way I see this country surviving is if [Romney] beats Obama, and then God calls him home in the first year so that Paul Ryan can get us on the right road before it’s too late.”
Of course, it’s also quite possible that as he heads into the general election Romney doesn’t actually want people at the Summit cheering for him. Were he to appear, the Obama campaign would surely accuse him of rubbing shoulders with right-wing extremists.
Mind you, Democrats are always accusing Republicans of rubbing shoulders with right-wing extremists, but in the case of the Summit they may actually be onto something. The conference is hosted by the Family Research Council and is co-sponsored by five other social conservative organizations: The American Family Association, American Values, Liberty Counsel, Liberty University, and the Heritage Foundation. Most people are probably familiar with the Heritage Foundation, which, though hard-line, is a fairly mainstream conservative think tank. All of the other organizations, however, tie themselves to beliefs and causes that are, frankly, pretty far out there.
If you’re like most people, chances are you know the Family Research Council as a voice against same-sex marriage. FRC, however, goes far beyond being anti-gay marriage; it’s proudly anti-gay, period, in a way that can best be described as extreme. Peter Sprigg, the Council’s Senior Researcher for Policy Studies, states that the government should enforce “criminal sanctions against homosexual behavior.” In 2010, shortly after Congress passed Resolution 1064 condemning Uganda’s so-called Kill the Gays Bill, lobbying disclosure forms showed that the FRC had donated $25,000 to lobbyists in an attempt to block the resolution. After the contributions were revealed, the FRC issued a statement noting that while they did not approve of the death penalty for homosexuality, they believed the resolution’s wording condemning such communicated a tacit approval of homosexuality they found unacceptable, and that this language explained the lobbying.
The other sponsoring organizations aren’t much better. American Values President Gary Bauer believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the U.S. Government at its highest levels, looking to pave the way for Sharia law and worse. Summit sponsor Liberty Counsel, a non-profit public interest law firm, once threatened to file a lawsuit against a Jacksonville public library for creating a youth reading promotion centered around a Harry Potter book, on the grounds that it inherently implied government support of the practice of witchcraft. In 2009 Liberty University officially stripped Democratic students of their right to assemble or organize.
Nutty ideas in politics are nothing new, of course. Pick a political party, and I’ll show you some people off to the fringes that will make you look for the tin foil hats. I have known many liberals, for example, that will drone on and on about how George W. Bush planned the 9/11 attack, or that vaccinations are a way for pharmaceutical corporations to create autistic children who are dependent upon those companies’ drugs for the rest of their lives. But I am unaware of a liberal conference that brings all of these true believers together, and I am certainly not aware of one where national Democratic Party leaders must appear and pledge fealty in order to win elections.
Still, just because the Summit’s organizers are a little extreme doesn’t necessarily mean that its attendees will be as well. Even though I intend to see some of the big-name speakers, it’s the attendees themselves I’ve really come to talk with. I want to see what they are really like, in real life, when they are not being used by the Right or the Left as a talking point. I want to see what their vision of America’s future is, and if they can imagine a place for someone like me in it. I want to see if there’s anywhere – anywhere at all – where they might find common ground with a secular agnostic like me, from which we might look to build a foundation for a larger consensus.
I want to see if there’s any way we can be one country again.
I finally get through security just as the conference is starting on the Main Stage. It had been my hope to mingle with attendees before wandering in to see some of the speakers, but it is immediately obvious that this will not be possible. This morning’s schedule features conservative mega-stars Rep. Michele Bachmann, Senators Rand Paul and Jim DeMint, House Majority leader Eric Cantor, author and radio host Bill Bennett, Growing Pains and direct-to-DVD star Kirk Cameron, and the Summit’s biggest draw, Paul Ryan. Every single attendee is packed into the ballroom to watch the conservative cavalcade, and so I take a seat as well.
The first speaker is Rand Paul, and his speech gives me a glimmer of hope that the craziness I feared will not be forthcoming. True, he speaks passionately of his pro-life beliefs, but he does so eloquently; it is a speech that looks to give testimony, not to draw battle lines. He talks of the sanctity of life, and then pivots on this idea toward the subject of war, which he says must be avoided in almost all cases. “Truly great leaders are reluctant to go to war,” he says. The crowd, who was leaping to its feet in spontaneous applause during the pro-life part of his speech, becomes noticeably chilly at the antiwar rhetoric. But it’s still a very promising start.
The rest of the morning, however, does not go so well; it is filled with rhetoric both divisive and extreme. Michele Bachmann uses her speech to fan the anti-Muslim flames that were already burning hot with this crowd after the Libyan attacks. She spins wild conspiracy theories about President Obama; she claims that he is secretly working with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation to “brainwash” the nation’s FBI and security forces as he prepares to implement Sharia language laws. Kirk Cameron makes a case that the Founding Fathers we should be patterning our modern-day government after are not those late 18th century writers of the Constitution, but the mid 17th century pilgrims. This proposal is met with a standing ovation. Most of the speakers insinuate or say outright that the President supported the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassy in Libya.
I find all of this astounding. It is difficult to parse out how much of these accusations come from cynical opportunism, and how much comes from these leaders of conservative America being complete and utter loons.
Another interesting pattern emerges through all of the morning speakers, one that will continue throughout the entire weekend: Every speaker talks at length about the coming presidential election, and each speech is chock-full of references to President Obama and, to a lesser extent, conservative wunderkind Paul Ryan. But aside from Bill Bennett and Ryan himself, almost no one mentions Mitt Romney. It’s an odd pattern, and one that has to be troubling to the Romney-Ryan team. Can your party really win a presidential election if your base pretends your candidate doesn’t exist? Does it even matter how much they hate the other guy? Bennett does mention Romney, but it must be noted that he probably has to. Bennett is there to introduce Ryan. And obviously, Ryan talks about Mitt Romney – how could he not? Ryan makes a pitch for the man heading his ticket, but even this pitch is instructive on the obvious rift between Mitt and the base:
“I’m not the only one who has told Mitt that maybe he needs to talk more about himself and his life. It wouldn’t hurt if voters knew more of those little things that reveal a man’s heart and his character… [He] is the type we’ve all run into in our own communities, the man who’s there right away when there’s need, but never first in line when praise and credit are being handed out. He’s a modest man with a charitable heart, a doer and a promise-keeper.”
Ryan’s pitch to the Republican base about why they should vote for their own candidate is, basically, “Trust me, if you just got to know him a little better you’d see he’s a good guy. Really. I swear.”
And with that heady call to arms, the Summit breaks for lunch, and I finally have the opportunity to speak with the people I really came to listen to: the attendees.
For weeks, many had felt it necessary to tell me what kind of people I would be meeting at the Summit. For the most part I would be cloistering myself with old, white, mean-spirited hate mongers and Jesus freaks, a crowd both unintelligent and unread. As I wander through the halls talking with attendees, however, it quickly becomes clear that these stereotypes were uninformed.
Well, most of them, anyway. They are almost entirely white. A couple of the speakers are people of color, and in a conference of thousands I am sure there must be some people of Asian, African, or Hispanic descent somewhere. I just can’t seem to find any. Also, despite their unyielding support of Israel, just about everyone I meet is indeed a devout evangelical Christian. As to their age, it would be most accurate to say that the attendees are bunched on the extreme ends of the adult spectrum. Almost all are either quite a bit older than I am, or significantly younger. (The Summit attracts a lot of high school and college students.)
But if you are looking for a teeming brood of hatred or a herd of slow-witted mouth breathers, look elsewhere.
No one I speak with expresses hatred of any kind towards anyone (excepting, of course, for a good dose directed at Barack Obama). They don’t even seem to hate foreign-born Muslims, despite their conviction that the vast preponderance of those Muslims are plotting to kill them. In fact, when they speak of Muslims (or, for that matter, homosexuals or liberals) they remind me of nothing more than a concerned sibling worried sick about a homeless brother or sister struggling with drug addition. They don’t want to see them defeated; they want to see them clean, sober, and moving back to God. They may express disappointment or exasperation with those wayward brothers and sisters, but they keep hope and a spare guest room handy just in case.
With very few exceptions each attendee I speak with is quite intelligent and articulate. They are also voracious readers, though the books and periodicals they devour come from a niche you are unlikely to find at your local bookstore (unless your local bookstore has an entire section on the looming Sharia threat to democracy). So I give fair warning to those on the Left that if they truly wish to debate these people in a public forum, they best not be caught sleeping or they’re liable to have their asses handed to them. In fact, I am actually able to witness just such an ass-handing up close.
Midway through the lunch break I happen upon a number of attendees debating a group of protesters from American Atheists on the sidewalk outside the Omni Shoreham. The comparative level of intellectual talent on each side isn’t even close. It’s like watching Kobe Bryant playing one-on-one with Danny DeVito, and it isn’t the atheists who are playing the part of number 24. The topics switch wildly from health care reform to Middle East policy, from safety nets to commerce, from constitutional law to American history. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, the Summit attendees have their facts and statistics at the ready, and they logically and systematically pick apart each fallacy in the protesters’ overly emotional, barely coherent claims. The group from American Atheists is arguing my side, and I find this disconcerting. I’m just there to be an observer. I stay quiet, but it’s not easy. Having people represent my cherished beliefs with obviously made-up-on-the-spot “facts” as they walk into one obvious Socratic trap after another fills me with a quiet despair. I want to shout at them that they’re doing it wrong, but I just sit and watch. This must be what it feels like to be a Charlotte Bobcat fan.
And on top of all of these displays of intellectual heft, every person I meet is kind, friendly, and inquisitive. In fact, they are just like most people I meet in Portland, San Francisco or Manhattan, belief systems aside. Despite this however, it’s easy to see why communication breaks down between these members of the religious right and other more liberal groups. For one thing, the information each side is operating on might as well be from completely different planets.
Most of the people I meet tell me they get most of their news information from sources like Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze TV, or the American Family Radio network. (And, of course, FOX News.) From their point of view, they say, data from other sources is considered suspect and most likely liberal propaganda.
One of the memes people want to talk to me about my first day is that President Obama issued a statement applauding the Libyan terrorists for killing Ambassador Chris Stevens. I mean, a lot of people tell me this; they bring it up without my mentioning the President, Muslims, or the Libyan attack. They are outraged. They mention it so consistently, in fact, that I finally Google the actual White House statement (which condemned the actions) on my phone, and I start reading it to people who are making this claim to get their reaction. Each person’s response is some variation of noting that of course after the public outrage both the White House and the Associated Press were going to claim that that was the original statement, but clearly it had been changed to cover the President’s tracks.
This politicization of data touches almost every topic the attendees and I discuss: poll numbers, tax rates, unemployment rates, previous election results, aggregate corporate profitability, it doesn’t really matter. Either the data corresponds to what they have read or heard from their sources, or it is assumed tainted and false. And to be fair, this is a two-way street: I have no intention of dismissing economic indicator statistics from the Wall Street Journal or the legitimacy of a White House press release reported by the AP because someone from the Christian Broadcasting Network says something different. The attendees think I’m crazy for believing my sources, and I think the same about them for believing theirs. And herein lies the greatest problem facing my attempt to find common ground on which to build: if we cannot even agree upon a benchmark from which to start, if even the legitimacy of raw data cannot be agreed upon, where do we lay this foundation?
There are other issues as well.
To the people I speak with, there is no strategic reason to contemplate political compromise. From their perspective, victory is already a fait accompli; defeat is literally unthinkable. My own experience (and polling data) tells me that this right-wing arm of the GOP is a minority, albeit a significantly well-organized and loud one. These people tell me something entirely different. They say that they are the vast majority. They tell me that liberals are a relatively small group numerically, but one that wields enormous and disproportionate power due to their access to wealth and the mainstream media. So while it’s true that part of the reason they resist compromise is that they feel they are morally bound to stand firm, it’s also true that they feel that they are the party negotiating from a position of power.
Another barrier to mutual understanding is that Values Voter Summit attendees are a tight-knit and cloistered group, and like any tight-knit, cloistered group of human beings they have difficulty processing their own cognitive dissonance. In most cases this cognitive dissonance is relatively predictable: they claim that the government has no business interfering with freedom of religion, but they also want the government to do something to curb the number of mosques they see popping up in their neighborhoods. They hiss when main stage speakers speak of Muslim men dictating a Muslim woman’s dress, but they speak highly of Summit exhibitor Modesty Matters, a Roanoke non-profit dedicated to ensuring that women are not allowed to wear skin-revealing clothing that might tempt men – even on the beach. (When I first stumble upon his booth, the gentleman from the Modesty Matters hands me a pamphlet that asks the question Does God Really Care What I Wear? The answer apparently is “yes, but only if you have two X chromosomes.”) While these errors of hypocrisy are alternately frustrating and amusing for me to witness, the truth is that they are entirely common across all political stripes, and they are entirely human.
There is another, more immediate type of cognitive dissonance, however, that I confess I have never come across before; it makes me fear that language itself might be a barrier between our two sides. Let me give you an example. If an attendee mentions George W. Bush, it will most likely be to praise his true conservatism. When I follow up with a question about the deficit he left, the same person would explain to me that this is because he was not a true conservative. We go round and round; the “true conservative” and “not true conservative” monikers go back and forth as if someone is flicking a light switch. These people, as I have said, are not stupid, nor are they intellectual lightweights. Because of this, I cannot tell if there is something in the language we are using that is not sufficient to allow me to transcend this apparent dichotomy and see something they see clearly, or if there is something else happening entirely. In either case, it is extremely frustrating, and as the conference wears on, the attendees begin to grate on my nerves.
I see very few of the speakers the second day of the conference; there are very few I want to see. Instead I continue my attempts to connect with and understand with the people I meet, and the more I do, the more deflated I become. Every conversation becomes the exact same conversation as the one before, despite my efforts to “mix it up” with different questions and follow-ups. No matter how hard I try, I can’t even get to a place where I am confident we even understand one another properly. I just can’t see any way to build that foundation, and my inability leaves me feeling exhausted. By the time I make my way back to my hotel room Saturday evening, I am resigned to America remaining two countries, eternally divided.
The people I have met have been nothing but nice and respectful to me, and have opened themselves up entirely that I might know them better. I know full well that the deep frustration I am feeling has more to do with the situation and my own inadequacies than these people, and this knowledge just makes me feel all the worse for having the thought that skitters across my consciousness as I pack my suitcase. This thought shames me even as I think it, but I think it nonetheless: Fuck these people.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and I am sitting in the very last row of a Boeing 737 as it sits motionless on the runway at Reagan National Airport. We had been taxiing when the captain’s voice came over the speakers to inform us that it looked like we were going to be delayed for another 45 minutes.
I had woken up in a far better frame of mind than I had been in when I went to sleep the night before, but this news once again sours my mood. For one thing, I want to be home already, and a 45-minute delay means I miss my connecting flight. For another, the elderly couple I am sitting next to had been attendees at the Values Voter Summit. After hearing I was there to write about it, they very much wish to discuss it with me in great, great detail. I try all of the standard airline “please don’t bother me” signaling – silently smiling and nodding while not making eye contact, opening my novel, even putting on my headphones – all to no avail. I still have a shirt sleeve ripe for tugging, and after a while of taking my headphones off over and over to answer questions, I give up and put them and my novel away so that I can talk to the couple.
I’m immediately glad that I did. Their names are Franny and Ben and they are delightful company, even for the people-weary person I feel like this morning. They instantly make me remember all of the reasons I liked the attendees I met over the weekend, even as I had been frustrated by my inability to connect with them the way I had hoped. Franny and Ben are from the Pacific Northwest just like me, and they’ve been to the Values Voter Summit many times before. After a while Ben loses himself in a book that warns of the dangers of Sharia, but Franny continues to chat. Because this is my first Summit she wants to know what I thought, and initially I decide to err on the side of civility. Loved the energy, I say. Really liked the people I met, was impressed by the level of conviction shown by all of the speakers. Finally, though, Franny forces me into opening up more by asking me if I had seen her favorite speaker from this year’s Summit, Kamal Saleem. I had indeed seen Saleem, whose speech was nothing if not dramatic.
Kamal Saleem told the crowd of his life as a Muslim terrorist bigwig who once fought to destroy America. When he wasn’t out slaughtering innocent Christians, he hobnobbed with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi. He came to the United States to commit acts of terror, entering the country by way of our porous Mexican border. Before he could commit such atrocities, however, God appeared to him and convinced him to devote his life to Jesus and America. He now assists the FBI whenever they have a tough terrorist plot to crack and because of this, the Muslim Brotherhood has put a $25 million bounty on his head. The most sensational part of his speech wasn’t this scarcely credible Tom Clancy-like biography, however, it was his claim that he had it on good authority through his Muslim connections that President Obama is plotting to outlaw churches and synagogues throughout America as soon as this January, “March at the latest.” So when Franny asks me my thoughts, I decide to stop chesting my cards and answer honestly and candidly.
I explain that I found the Obama claim to be absurd on its face. I suggest that she Google Saleem, whose outrageous biography has already been investigated by academics and journalists alike. They all find his life story highly dubious. The FBI unequivocally states that they have no file on him and that they would never have reason to ask him anything. When journalists investigated certain cloak and dagger stories by Saleem that involve various police departments, the police departments he claimed assisted him have no record of him whatsoever. It has even been determined that Kamal Saleem isn’t even his real name; his name is actually Khodor Shami, and during a decade that he claims to have been working for terrorists he was in fact an employee of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Of course, none of this helps Franny and I move closer to mutual understanding. My data, after all, comes from journalists and academics; hers comes from a man who the Family Research Council swears is telling God’s own truth. Neither of us finds the other’s source of data credible or compelling.
Franny begins to ask me about my family. I tell her about my wife and my boys. She tells me about her own children, who are all grown up now and taking over the family business. We talk about where we live, what we do for a living, how we spend our free time, and what our dreams for the future hold. It’s nice, and the longer we talk the more I find myself liking her. Later, after the plane has finally taken off and I am back to reading my novel, she will occasionally tug on my sleeve to get my attention, and read to me a passage from the book she bought at the Summit, Kamal Saleem’s The Blood of Lambs. She doesn’t do this to convince me I’m wrong, she just wants to share a paragraph she’s read that she finds especially compelling. I find that as much as I dislike Kamal Saleem, I’m enjoying Franny’s wanting to share her new discoveries with me.
Of course if a foundation is to be built between Franny’s world and mine, this is how it will be built. Not hammered out over philosophical debates and political wrangling, but organically and over time, as we talk about our kids, our hometowns, and whatever book or TV show we’ve just discovered. If we’re ever going to make that foundation, we’ll avoid the more difficult topics until we each truly learn that the other isn’t a two-dimensional cardboard cutout, and then, eventually, we’ll start chipping away at the tougher stuff. If we can ever sit down together, that is. And if we ever decide that we even want to. And if we can each avoid assuming that the other has nefarious intentions. And if those talk show hosts and politicians who so profit from our discord can be tuned out for long enough.
If, if, if.
The truth of the matter is any foundation Franny and I attempt to build will be fragile at best, and will most likely crumble the next time a Democrat sneers at her church or a Republican scapegoats my friends who are gay. It’s probably hopeless, really. In fact the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that it is hopeless. And yet here we sit, Franny and I, each taking the tiniest of steps to lay the flimsiest, most doubtful foundation one might imagine. As we do so I am amazed to find that for the first time since I arrived at the Values Voter Summit, I feel at peace.
I slip back into my novel, and I wait to feel the tug on my sleeve.