A Heretic’s Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter Summit

“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.

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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.

A Heretic's Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter SummitMind 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.

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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.

A Heretic's Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter SummitAnother 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.

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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.

A Heretic's Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter SummitMidway 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.

A Heretic's Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter SummitThis 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.

A Heretic's Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter SummitThere 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.

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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.

A Heretic's Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter SummitKamal 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.

 

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216 thoughts on “A Heretic’s Pilgrimage: My Journey to the 2012 Values Voter Summit

  1. Very nice Tod.

    The ‘disparate data streams’ is indeed an issue, but I don’t know that there is any good solution, and in any case, more data streams are generally better if we are trying to use them to triangulate to Truth.

    Not much else to say, other than this was a pleasure to read.

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  2. I applaud and thank you for going and reporting so I don’t have to. I think I would have stormed out after a minute. Possibly less.

    Some thoughts and observations:

    1. There is no contradiction between Evangelical Christianity and their support for Israel. In their worldview, Israel needs to be reborn and the second Temple rebuilt before Christ can return and the events in Revelations can take place. My general thoughts on this as a liberal Jewish supporter of Israel are “With friends like Michelle Bachmann, Israel does not need Hamas.” I also think that the alliance between Jewish neocons and Christian Evangelicals has to be one of the most cynical in political history. I would love to see Bill Kristol’s inner-thoughts on Christian Evangelicals. I imagine it is not pretty or kind.

    2. I think you hit the nail on the head for different language. I have no idea what conservatives mean when they talk about freedom and liberty. Their definition is not anything that I can recognize as a liberal. Also how are they supposed to accomplish all their far reaching social policy ideas with a “small government”?

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    • There is a very small group within the evangelical community that supports Israel in order to accelerate the end times. I’ve read an occasional comment like that online, but I’ve never had a conversation like that in person.

      Many evangelicals are excited about the possibility that the end times are near, and they look to the existence of Israel as a sign. But the support for Israel comes out of other impulses. First of all, the freedom to emigrate to Israel was a Reagan-era sticking point with the Soviet Union. To be pro-Israel was to be anti-communist. Secondly, and obviously, to be pro-Israel today is to be at least somewhat unenthused about her neighbors.

      There’s also a strong kinship that evangelicals feel toward Jews. It’s a bit condescending and paternal, but it’s there. They identify with people who are struggling to serve G-d, the same God that they believe in. The evangelical movement was greatly influenced by the Southern pentecostals of the last century, who in turn were influenced by the black churches – and we all know their connection to the Old Testament imagery of an enslaved Israel being set free by God.

      Evangelicals sense that the same people who dislike Israel dislike them. The Jews have always been a thumb in the eye of secular statism, an eternal insistence that faith and the miraculous aren’t going away. I could go on. The point is, New Dealer, that I think you’re badly misreading the evangelical support for Israel.

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      • How can Jews be a thumb in the eye of secular statism? Almost 80 percent of American Jews are very liberal and pretty secular as things go especially compared to Evangelicals.

        Eric Cantor is an exception, not a rule.

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      • I agree with New Dealer, here. The alliance between evangelicals and neocons is a marriage of convenience. End-of-times literature stresses that when Jesus returns, those Jews that don’t convert will be relegated to hell. The only good Jew is one who converts to Christianity. IIRC, Jesus’ return is predicated on the Jews returning to Israel. While I’m sure a lot of evangelicals believe that their friends of the Jews and Israel, their views of the future of the Jewish state diverge wildly from those of Jews and Israelis.

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      • ND – I refer to the persistence of Judaism as a reminder of something beyond the state’s power to control. As for what you think neocons think, well, it doesn’t prove anything about what neocons think, does it? And it doesn’t address any of the points I raised. At least you could acknowledge my argument that the evangelical support for Israel is more than one-dimensional.

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      • Michelle, as I said and somewhat explained, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There is even a sizable segment of evangelicals who would say that every Jew will attain heaven. So it isn’t like they’re “gaming” Israel. And even if they were, so what? Would it matter to you if I did everything I could to help you and your family under the belief that once you’re happy and healthy, the aliens will harvest you rather than me? Such a belief would guarantee my loyalty, and affect you not at all.

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          • And I find your alien analogy to be a bit off, since at the end, I’d get harvested and you’d survive. But I will grant you that there’s more nuance to evangelical support and I’m sure they think that their hearts are in the right place.

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            • No, you wouldn’t, because aliens don’t exist. I’m sure that Israel doesn’t believe in Jesus’s return either. That’s my point. Politics is based on alliances. If I protect you out of love or out of my secret alien harvesting delusion, I’m still protecting you. If you believe that evangelicals are loyal to Israel because they think it will initate Armageddon, you’re acklowledging that they’re profoundly loyal to Israel. Why should the Israelis care why?

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              • They should care because the kind of help such people are likely to provide could well be antithetical to your cause. Obviously, in both the evangelical and alien examples, you wouldn’t want to put much trust in anyone who’s reasons for doing so are based on their needs rather than yours. They’re ultimately loyal not to you but to their own interests, which is why the marriage of convenience analogy is more appropriate. There’s no deep, underlying loyalty there.

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          • Agreed. Israel will be helped by people who stand strong against Hamas and Hezbollah and tell other Arabian governments, Israel exists (deal with it) but also people who recognize the plight of the Palestinians.

            Israel needs a working two-state solution. The Settlements need to go away. The hard-right also need to be told that the Palestinians deserve their own state and to deal with it.

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      • Pinky, you make a lot of good points here and this tracks fairly well with my experience with evangelicals as well (I have a few in the family). In addition to the religious aspects, in their minds being ‘pro-Israel’ is being ‘anti-‘ a lot of ‘bad guys’ (Nazis, Soviets, Radical Islamists).

        Israel is still also in their minds, for these reasons and others (some correct, and some now badly out-of-date at best), perceived as the ‘underdog’; and who doesn’t like the underdog?

        What I worry about is not that they necessarily want the eschaton to get here any faster or are taking action with the intent to speed things along – like you, I think that sort of nut is in the minority – but that, by believing that the end is nigh (and that that will be a good thing for them and theirs), they won’t be very motivated to try to *stop* Armageddon, if it looks like it is in fact coming down the pike.

        But I don’t think this is a solvable problem and probably exists in all the eschatological religions.

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        • Yeah, I could have gone on listing reasons. The underdog one is valid. Another is Christian guilt over the history of anti-Semitism. There could be a “some of my best friends are non-Christians” element in it too, for some people. That’s why I had a problem with New Dealer’s comment. It wasn’t just a broad brush; the paint was the wrong color, and he paintied over some interesting detail work.

          Would I feel 100% giggly with an evangelical in charge of the US launch codes? I don’t think I’d be worried. GWB was as committed as any evangelical we’re ever likely to have in charge, and I don’t think his Mideast policy was ever affected by end times beliefs.

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    • “There is no contradiction between Evangelical Christianity and their support for Israel. In their worldview, Israel needs to be reborn and the second Temple rebuilt before Christ can return and the events in Revelations can take place.”

      I am well aware of this part of scripture, and the fact that some literalists are waiting for these events to transpire. However, I would have to say that this is not the vibe I got from the people I talked to at the VVS.

      If there was a dominant motivating force behind the support of Israel, I would have to say it was the perception of a common enemy in Islam. I could well be wrong, but I would be curious to go back in time to the early 1990s prior to Desert Storm and talk to these same folks, to see if their passion for protecting Israel was as great then as it is now.

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  3. I’m only starting to read this post, but this paragraph reminds me of why I’m happy I moved away from the DC area.

    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.

    Hearing these types of conversations on a near-daily basis, just with the names, genders, and political affiliations changing depending on the age, gender/sexual orientation, and political affiliation of the intern/Congressional staffer/ideological non-profit employee standing in line behind me……

    At some point it starts making one’s ears bleed.

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    • Now that I’ve read the full piece, I can properly second this. Beautiful piece, Tod.

      I suspect that there’s a great follow up post discussing how, even as it has made people on the other side of the globe our neighbors, the digital age has also caused us to live on entirely separate planets from our neighbor.

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    • Your encounter with Franny on the plane home reminds me very much of my friendship with my next-door neighbor. He drinks deeply of the red flavor of Kool-Aid and is convinced to the core of his being that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. He’s worked through the dissonance of Obama’s having attended a church with a radical pastor (“That was for show, so he could run for office”) and denies that Obama is an atheist (“No, Obama isn’t that. He’s Muslim but he hides it.”) The guy’s against same-sex marriage because he thinks it means the public schools will teach his kids that their church is dispensing evil, although he claims to have nothing against gay people and that his attitude towards them is “live and let live.” Okay, so that’s not a dissonance he’s worked through yet. I’ve been able to get him to question the gospel truth that Obama was born in Kenya, or at least to concede that as a practical matter, it isn’t important. When we’re not talking politics, he and I are good friends. We play poker and canasta with our wives, we share beers and liquors, we barbeque for one another, we replace one anothers’ lawn sprinkler heads when they get clipped by the lawn mower, we watch one anothers’ houses and pets while each family is away on vacations, he’s very clear that if anything bad happens he’s on our doorstep with weapons handy ready to come to our aid as if I were his blood brother. A very sweet guy and a good friend whose company I genuinely enjoy, although we are mystified at one anothers’ politics.

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            • I went to law school with a woman who seems very smart. She attended Princeton as an undergrad and was the head of the environmental law society for a while.

              She is a 9/11 truther and posts about it on every anniversary on facebook. I saw it for the first time this year.

              I must say that I felt a bit disappointed when I saw this.

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          • I’m in L.A. County — almost Kern. Lots of engineers here work at Edwards AFB and for military contractors. But I take your point nevertheless.

            My point isn’t that it’s so amazing that my neighbor is an engineer or even that he’s smart and well-educated. It’s to provide a complete picture of someone who is at once very different from me in one respect that seems so important, and with whom that difference can be set aside and a very nice friendship has been formed.

            Too often those of us who do not self-identify as VV types think that those who do are unintelligent, uneducated, unkind, and unreasonable. Tod’s piece does a fine job of disabusing this myth. and my own experiences echo that. I also think that simply recognizing that political viewpoints are but one aspect of a whole person is a useful exercise; my neighbor and I have done that and that’s been a good thing.

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            • it’s only on the internet that most adults are abject jerks to each other on a regular basis because of their beliefs. it’s easier to “other” from a distance.

              side question: what’s a “vv type”? the googles, they do nothing.

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            • This is true. There is a guy at my coffeeshop that I have a good relationship with, we talk a bit a few days a week.

              He considers himself to be a center-left moderate but clearly has some ideas that border on the not so moderate. He is very much against the Fed (I am not) and once told me how he thinks it is controlled by Rockfellers/Rothchilds. I quickly changed the subject.

              Yet he is also a very smart, educated guy.

              Everyone has their own crazy and illogical beliefs.

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              • his wacky borderline anti-semitism aside, the belief that a small cabal control the country – or at least unduly influence it – is dang near universal, no? whether they be the hollywood elite or the koch brothers/george soros or the christian dominionists who run the republicans or whatever…

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                • I think I understand the psychological appeal of conspiracy theories.

                  But in the end, they don’t stand up to any scrutiny and we people are largely too incompetent to carry them out. Plus they are all so complicated that they would easily and quickly spiral into chaos.

                  So they leave me mystified and sighing.

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      • This is similar to my relationship with my assistant teacher, a woman about 20 years my senior. She is very conservative, though I get the sense has moved the needle a bit on a few social issues (it is my impression that one of her sons is gay, which I think it causing her to challenge my previously held beliefs); she is also married to a very, very conservative man.

        We get along great in the classroom. We don’t socialize outside of work, largely because we are just in very different places in our lives, but we have a very good working relationship. We laugh together, are supportive of one another, ask frequently about family and outside goings on, etc. We don’t really talk politics. We talk religion a bit, because we share a faith (Roman Catholicism), even if I’ve long abandoned it (something I’m not sure she fully knows). We’ve danced around the line a few times… she asked if I watched any of the RNC and I talked about the speeches I like. She said who she liked before adding, “I’m not sure who you support or are voting for but I think it’s good to watch. I’ll never watch those liars on the other side though.” I politely nodded and went about my work. She tends to wear her thoughts on her sleeve far more than I do, and not just politically, so I have a much better sense of who she is than she does of me (though she might know or guess more than I realize).

        Again, we have a very good relationship. I don’t know that it’d be as good if she knew more about me on these terms. Not because she is a conservative; she is just a fiery person who is quick to flip on anyone. It is an interesting dynamic, to say the least.

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        • I bet, now that she has come to like you, trust you, and respect you as a person and a colleague, that she’d accept you even if she thought you were one of those wild-eyed liberals. That she knows you as a person first is what matters; while a discussion about politics directly would be difficult, other matters probably would not be. If you establish interpersonal respect first, political differences can be relegated to almost the level of acknowledging that the other person roots for a rival sports team.

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          • Oh, yes, I won’t be a caricature to her. Nor she to me. And any change in opinion would be more a function of her volatile personality that her specific ideology. I could see her ascribing any of my viewpoints as “follies of youth” but so goes. I don’t avoid political topics because I’m afraid what she’ll think… I just don’t think work in general, and our work specifically, is the best time and place. If we had dinner together, I wouldn’t be shy about respectfully presenting my views.

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          • “If you establish interpersonal respect first, political differences can be relegated to almost the level of acknowledging that the other person roots for a rival sports team.”

            Burt, I don’t mean this as an attack, but this is basically the definition of privilege. Saying “hey, it’s only politics, we can all be friends” is a luxury available to those who aren’t affected by politics. If Kazzy didn’t feel comfortable bringing his husband to the office Christmas party (hypothetical Kazzy is gay), then it becomes a lot harder to live and let live.

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            • And which flavor of privilege do I suffer from here, Dan?

              White privilege? Male privilege? Heterosexual privilege? Wealth privilege? Social-prestige privilege? High-education privilege? Muddled-political-ideology privilege?

              (And if hypothetical Kazzy is gay, handsome and a Super Bowl MVP, then can hypothetical Burt be his husband?)

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              • And which flavor of privilege do I suffer from here, Dan?

                Financial privilege? You’ve said previously that neither party is particularly compelling to you because in either way, you’re personal and economic life will continue on without disruption. That places you in the “privileged” place of viewing politics as an academic, or a game played by fans. For other people, politics may be more personal, less academic, and less of a game.

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                • A) If what you’re referring to is entitlement spending, used as a whipping boy on the campaign trail by Republicans and the dramatic reduction of which would (I stipulate) materially diminish the quality of life of already-disadvantaged people, yes, I can understand that those who would be on the receiving end of such a proposed policy change would not see that as a game. But at least from my perspective, I don’t think it’s all that likely that a Romney Administration would be able to effect such a policy to a meaningful extent.

                  B) While it may be the case that (as I believe) outcomes of elections matter less than politicians and pundits like to describe, I think it is also the case that politics does affect everyone and is therefore a matter of concern across the citizenry. “Politics” does not necessary equal “elections” in my taxonomy; one is a subset of the other.

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                  • I get that Burt. I’m referring to this exchange:

                    If you establish interpersonal respect first, political differences can be relegated to almost the level of acknowledging that the other person roots for a rival sports team.

                    Burt, I don’t mean this as an attack, but this is basically the definition of privilege.

                    And I don’t mean to pick on you in particular here, since I think insofar as the criticism is valid, it applies to lots of commenters here at the LoOG. And the criticism is this: there is a tendency of people who are financially successful to view folks participating in politics as nothing more than Fans of particular Teams.

                    I think that’s wrong. For reasons I mentioned above.

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                • It’s a mixture of that, and the ability to be yourself and still be accepted as the coworker’s friend. For you and Burt, for instance, it’s axiomatic that you can wear clothes you find acceptable and still be seen as “normal” by society. If you were transgender, for instance, you could still “pass”, but you’d have to repress part of your identity in a way that a straight cisgendered dude would never have to do. That’s privilege.

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              • Stillwater seems to refer to economic entitlements unless I completely missed his point.

                But the others who responded, particularly including Mr. Miller to whom I addressed the question, seem to define this “privilege” as having whatever it is about me that might cause my neighbor to dislike me be something that is not superficially obvious in the way that, say, race might be. The ability to “pass.” To use Mr. Miller’s examples from elsewhere, sexual preference or a preference to dress contrary to traditionally-accepted patterns are things that are difficult to conceal and therefore easily create barriers to the forming of friendships.

                I get that some things about oneself that might cause others to dislike one are not immediately obvious and can be concealed, at least for a time, while other interpersonal bonds are formed stronger than the dislike of the characteristic at issue. Totally, I get that. And I get that some kinds of personal traits are more easily overlooked in our culture than others, and the examples Mr. Miller chose — displaying romantic affection for a same-sex partner, wearing clothing traditionally associated with the other sex — are among those that raise social barriers quickly and strongly. I’m not saying that’s all right with me.

                But I’m still not buying the idea that the ability to get to know someone else as a person before discussing politics is a privilege. Not every difference between people creates a relationship of privilege versus subordination. Most people are X, and my neighbor is X, but I am ~X. We need to know more than this in order to establish the existence of one of us being privileged to one another.

                At minimum, we need a powerful prevailing culture favoring X over ~X, resulting in some sort of identifiable advantage (social, legal, or economic, typically) to X as opposed to ~X. And I’d add further that the nature of the advantage is not rationally related to the nature of the difference between X and ~X, and even further that the difference between X and ~X ought to be something functionally immutable about oneself. And finally, isn’t it innate in the nature of a privilege that the holder of the privilege be somehow blinded to it, that someone who is X would insist that being ~X is irrelevant to the advantage that being X truly does convey?

                The argument here is that where X is “harboring political opinions that are socially conservative,” because the difference between X and ~X is not immediately obvious, that is itself a privilege.

                Being white as opposed to black conveys privilege. Race isn’t an issue when white Burt tries to make friends with his white neighbor. What’s more, white Burt gets to think that hypothetically black Burt would have been able to forge a friendship with his white neighbor just like real-life white Burt actually did. Only upon some rather uncomfortable and subtle reflection will white Burt even realize that the reality of hypothetically black Burt’s efforts to form a friendship would probably not be so simple and pleasant as that, albeit not through any conscious, overtly invidious bigotry on the part of anyone involved but maybe because of softer subconscious biases or cultural disparities appurtenant to the disparities in race. That’s privilege.

                How about being Muslim in a mostly Christian society? Can Muslims and Christians be friends? Obviously, they can. So if X is “nominal if not actual adherence to Christianity,” and ~X is “nominal if not actual adherence to Islam,” it might even be the case that we’re looking at a privilege — but the fact that it’s not immediately obvious to you that I am Muslim is does not reflect the existence of some sort of privilege that I hold.

                What I mentioned above was that I forged a friendship with my socially conservative neighbor in part by not raising the issue of political opinions until other bonds of friendship were in place, at which time our differences of opinion didn’t seem so important to either of us.

                I don’t think that’s a privilege, at least not as I understand the term and as I have defined it here. As a threshold matter, it is not clear to me at all that the prevailing culture powerfully favors those who have socially conservative political views over their more socially liberal counterparts. At somewhere like the Value Voters Summit, sure. But there’s a filtering process going on there. Out in generalized society, not so much.

                It’s not clear to me at all that social conservatives enjoy social, legal, or economic advantages as compared to social liberals. It appears to me that they are on equal footing on those terms, with the possible exception that those whose opinions conform to the locally prevailing majority’s may enjoy greater political power. More about that in the next paragraph.

                Whatever advantage that might be, no one’s explained to me how that’s irrationally related to the disparity in political opinion. Social conservatives get elected to office where social liberals do not, and therefore enjoy greater political power? That’s democracy, not privilege. Political power going to those who espouse views congruent with the majority is not an irrational linkage of benefit and characteristic, it’s the majority getting what it wants out of democracy and the minority having to go back and try again next cycle.

                So sorry folks, I’m not seeing it. My ability to not broadcast my politics immediately upon meeting someone who might have different opinions than me does not confer a “privilege.”

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                • First off, please feel free to call me Dan–“Mr. Miller” is way too formal for a comment section, plus otherwise I’d have to escalate to “Mr. Likko, Esq.” ;)

                  Secondly, what I was referring to as privilege was in the context of your relationship with your neighbor. You can raise the topic of, e.g., your personal life, knowing that your neighbor won’t be offended by it (and by raise I mean mention casually–things like, “Oh, me and my wife went to see that movie last week”). If your neighbor is a values voter type, then a gay man can’t have that conversation–he would have to hide the existence of his husband. There’s no need to bring the rest of society into it–even if you live in a gay-friendly locale, you have a privileged interaction with your values-voting neighbor (even if you don’t agree with him on politics!) that isn’t available to someone in a different circumstance.

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                  • Fair enough! And please don’t ever use the “Esq.” (with me) even if you want to assume a posture of formality and politness for whatever reason (and I do so for, of course, only good reasons). I’ve always found the “Esq.” just a bit pretentious. If you see me using it, you’ll know I’m poking fun at my brother and sister attorneys’ egos.

                    To get back to the point under discussion, what I thought was under discussion wasn’t hypothetically gay Burt, but rather the not-really-all-that-hypothetical Burt who holds political opinions contrary to Value Voter Neighbor’s. Is your claim that not-really-all-that-hypothetical Burt enjoys a privilege a function of a) real-life Burt’s ability to avoid discussion of his non-VV opinions, or b) real-life Burt’s heterosexuality? One of those things conveys a privilege, as I see it, but the other does not.

                    I thought we were discussing a), but it sounds like you were aiming at b).

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                    • My guess it that it’s B). Part of the reason you and your neighbor were able to develop the relationship you did is because neither of you immediately presented as something the other was averse to. Now, some of that would be hard to classify as “privilege”. If your neighbor flew a Confederate battle flag or a “God Hates F–s” sign on his front lawn, my hunch is it’d be harder for you to see him as the man you described than if you learned of those beliefs afterwards. Not having those things flying isn’t a privilege.

                      But if he had major issues with gay folks and he saw you moving in with your husband, but you were otherwise the same man, this likely would have compromised his ability to form that relationship with you. Here, being straight, or at least being able to pass as straight, serves you.

                      Some of the maintenance guys at might work have made it pretty well none of their disdain for homosexuals. When I first began working there, as a male in early childhood who wore loud shirts and the occasional bow tie, I rarely got more than a gruff “hello” from them. I don’t know if they actually thought I was gay or not, but I clearly seemed to represent a type of person they weren’t really interested in getting to know better. Then one night, about a month into my tenure, one of them happened by my room and we struck up a conversation about football. We went for about 20 minutes, having a real good talk. He was way into it, in large part because elementary schools aren’t exactly filled with hardcore football fans. But there was also this look on his face like, “You? You can diagnose a zone blitz??? YOU?!?!” every time I said something knowledgeable. Since then, we’ve had a much stronger relationship.

                      My hunch is that if we had had that football conversation much later in my tenure, and if all they knew about me was what presented as something they didn’t much care for, it would have been harder to develop the relationship we have now. He and I will never see eye to eye politically, not that we really ever talk about it, but there is a mutual respect there. It is a bit frustrating, because I feel I am deserving of this respect regardless of my knowledge of football. But it is what it is, at the end of the day.

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                    • ” If your neighbor flew a Confederate battle flag ”

                      The last surviving member of Lynyrd Skynyrd recently defended the Confederate flag (“It’s a symbol of the South”, who cares what it symbolizes). I had defended them in re “Sweet Home Alabama” –no longer.

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            • No, that’s wrong.
              It’s a luxury available to those who are not outwardly seen as a representative of their politics/other objectionable thing.

              I can sit and have apeaceable lunch with an Anti-Semitic. Well, if any of y’all will trust that I can hold my sharp tongue.

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  4. This is a marvelous piece. I’ve met several Frannies and know how you feel. Sometimes you have no idea until you’ve gotten to know them fairly well and then you’re left with this dual reality feeling – this nice old lady thinks someone as despicable as Pat Robertson is God’s messenger. I could deal with it if I thought she was a simpleton, a patsy, but she’s not that dumb, just deluded.

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  5. Great piece. Nothing really surprised me based on the many live and intertoob conversations i’ve had with VV’s and conservatives, but still well told.

    Just to strike up a conversation instead of all of us just telling Tod how good this was, i think the reality of the different data streams slightly misses the issue. It’s true we are often operating from different data, but that is very much a choice. If you only want to hear data from “your side” you are actively trying to avoid being challenged or dealing with the ideas of others. Of course that is what most people want in general, but its still a choice.

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    • True enough, but there’s a trust factor here that you’re ignoring. Neither the Left nor the Right truly trusts the ghastly MSM (sometimes with good reason), which is itself increasingly vacuous and geared towards appealing to “centrist” values rather than truth itself. I suspect that you’ll find many of these folks make a point to read at least one or two news sources that they view as “liberal” (and many liberals surely keep an eye on at least one or two news sources that they view as “right-wing”), if only “to know what the other side is saying.” Even as they are aware of these sources, they have a difficult time believing them when they are at odds with the sources they trust, sources which after all are known to share their values.

      There is no news source that everyone trusts anymore, but everyone now has the ability to easily seek out a source that they do trust, regardless of whether the majority of other people do not trust that source. Tod’s exasperation and frustration is well-warranted.

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      • I think the character of the apprehension about the MSM differs greatly between the right and left in important ways. Most of my hard left-leaning friends will link approvingly to articles from such outlets all the time – they seem to believe that the MSM are doing some good things but are held back from telling the whole story by their corporate paymasters. The right seems to distrust everything that comes out of the MSM entirely.

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      • ” Neither the Left nor the Right truly trusts the ghastly MSM (sometimes with good reason), which is itself increasingly vacuous and geared towards appealing to “centrist” values rather than truth itself. ”

        I don’t know if I can go for that. I see a LOT more drivel (and pout-and-out lies) from the Right posted as truth than I do from the Left, even on NPR. (Sometimes I think NPR is worse than CNN!) From “Al Gore claims to have invented the internet” to “death panels” to whatever is the latest fauxtroversy, they seem all too happy to throw in “Some say…”

        Edward R Marrow and Walter Cronkite spin in their graves.

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    • This is a telling point, Greg. Is that a reciprocal obligation?

      I’m going to say to a VV, “You need to get data from sources you’re not comfortable with so you have a complete set of facts to base your decisions off of,” with the expectation that this means she will tune in to NPR and set her browser to CNN or even MSNBC, listen to Rachel Maddow’s opinion pieces, and watch Frontline.

      Isn’t it fair, then, for the VV to say to me, “I will, but you need to watch some Fox News and CNBC, listen to some Laura Ingraham, read some Ann Coulter, and flip your browser over to Powerline. Once we’ve both listened to one another’s sources, then we can talk to each other and we’ll both have all the available information.”

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      • Burt…yes. Although i draw a line at Ann Coulter.
        I’ll add that what people often want from the data they intake is just enough to support what they already believe. Unless you are willing to challenge or think through what you want to happen, where you get your data from isn’t likely to matter that much.

        Mark- Yes. Its hard not to see at least part of the push to tear down certain media sources is to avoid having to deal with info people don’t want. Both sides distrust the MSM to a greater or lesser degree, but just try to get people to agree on why.

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        • Of all those right-winger sources, Greg, I’d defend Ms. Coulter with the most vigor. Yes, I find her rhetoric abrasive and driven to emotionally-provocative extremes by a cynical desire to sell rather than to persuade; she is in the business of selling red meat and not nuance.

          But she’s not an intellectual slouch by any means — Michigan Law doesn’t just hand out top honors to anyone and her non-journalistic professional work, while obviously political, qualifies her to stand above the crowd on certain topics, including in Constitutional law, a topic of particular interest to me. When she chooses to deploy her academic, professional, and intellectual abilities in a sober fashion, she is a formidable adversary. I don’t like her or enjoy her public persona (maybe she’s absolutely charming in person; I’ll probably never know). But I’ve seen enough good arguments with good law behind them to have developed some respect for her as a lawyer and a commentator.

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      • “I will, but you need to watch some Fox News and CNBC, listen to some Laura Ingraham, read some Ann Coulter, and flip your browser over to Powerline.”

        I’ve done that. I know what these sources think and why (they say) they think it. Now what?

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      • I don’t know. I think it’s largely a matter of how disposed one is toward the truth. That’s a loaded criterion, I admit, but someone with a disposition toward truth probably won’t respond to conflicting evidentiary claim with “well, it must be a conspiracy.”

        I want to be careful here and balance two conflicting tendencies. One, I wish to shy away from the “but both sides do it, so it’s a wash” line of thinking and from the “they’re more dispositionally dishonest and I and mine are more dispositionally honest.” Perhaps one way to resolve these tendencies is, as Tod (and Burt) seems(-) to suggest, getting to know the whole person and recognizing one’s own blind spots and prior epistemological commitments.

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  6. Tod-

    As many have said, this is an outstanding piece. I’ve been eagerly awaiting it and it is officially the longest piece I’ve been able to get through in one sitting in a long time (I don’t have ADHD and won’t pretend to, but my attention span is shit).

    I myself am suffering some pains to accept the great deal of optimism and benefit-of-the-doubtism you offer. These people are *not* smart. Being full of wrong information is not a mark of intelligence. And is even more troubling when it seems to be deliberately sought after. And while these people might have been polite and civil, I have trouble to accept them as “kind” when they support policies aimed at marginalizing, denying the humanity of, or even killing people I consider friends and family. There is nothing kind about that.

    These folks may be genuine and passionate and loving parents to their (straight) children. And I am sure there are many issues with which their position is equally valid and legitimate as my own. But there are a number where they are dead wrong, where they deliberately embrace falsehoods and rejection truth, and where they allow hatred to serve as a prime motivator.

    It is the right that often decries moral and cultural relativism. But it seems that offering these folks legitimacy on these issues is just that.

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    • “These people are *not* smart.”

      They’re not really stupid, though, and neither could you classify them as ill informed. They are people who have both embraced and been enveloped by a political/ideological/religious movement that cloaks itself in Americanism but has more than a passing resemblance to communism. If you doubt that, consider this. Look at all the idolatry that has been directed at entrepreneurs in this campaign season and think of the phrase “vanguard of the proletariat”.

      Mike

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      • Per Mike, I’d agree that a lot of these folks aren’t either stupid or willfully ignorant, but they’re convinced that something has gone deeply and seriously wrong with this country and conservative ideology offers a reasonable explanation as to where and why things have gone wrong.

        Moreover, while change is a constant, the pace and complexity of change over the last few decades has been daunting, leaving a lot of people (even myself on occasion) overwhelmed and uncertain. Hence, all the nonsense about taking the country back. While this slogan is yet another bromide, it expresses genuine anxiety about the demographic, cultural, and technological changes that have rocked our world over the last several decades. I’m in my fifties and this ain’t the place I grew up in. Imagine how it feels for someone in their seventies.

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    • I think you’re going wrong here in impugning their intelligence, Kazzy. I think Tod is quite right that a lot of the VV attendees are bright people. I suspect that the gulf lies largely in the gap between what you’re searching for and what they’re searching for.

      It seems, not only from Tod’s piece but what I know of my friends and acquaintances who are VV-types, is that they’re not searching for truth because theyr’e already convinced it’s known. They’re searching for how to align themselves best to it. Insofar as you and I and almost everyone else that visits this site pretty much either rejects their Truth outright or has serious qualms about their appreciation of it, we necessarily see their pursuit as foolish and misguided, but believing them to be out and out dumb is a mistake.

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    • You’re conflating intelligence, knowledge, rationality and decency here.

      Because you can do all of this:

      But there are a number where they are dead wrong, where they deliberately embrace falsehoods and rejection truth, and where they allow hatred to serve as a prime motivator.

      And still be intelligent. That’s the mistake it sounds like the American Atheists made. Being intelligent is no protection from believing ridiculous things, in some ways it makes things worse because you can rationalise more easily and you’re used to being right when everyone around you disagrees. But wrong or not, smart people are good at winning arguments, so be careful when challenging them to an impromptu debate.

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  7. Great piece, Tod. On some level, it confirms what I already suspected about how conservatives and liberals, for lack of better terms, view reality through two very different lenses. It seems that there’s increasingly little overlap between the two, rendering the search for common ground ever more problematic.

    I see it within my own family as my parents have moved ever further into the Fox News universe, convinced that the rest of the media is hopelessly liberal and distorts the facts, whereas Fox offers them a bigger dose of truth. While you’d never catch them at a Values Voter Summit–we are Jews after all and they find the hyper-moralizing of folks like Santorum and Bachman a bit distasteful–they rushed out to see Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016 and have urged me to do likewise because “it will open my eyes.” (Somehow, having read enough of D’Souza, I doubt it.) They subscribe to National Review and to whatever rag Limbaugh publishes, and even defended Limbaugh’s statements about Sandra Fluke. Gaah!

    It’s a chasm that cannot be bridged as I don’t see most of the sources from which they get their information from to be credible, and vice versa. So, we agree not to talk about politics because to venture too far down that road mostly results in screaming matches. Until the circles can show a bit more overlap, what’s the point?

    And on that pessimistic note, once again, great article.

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  8. As much as I enjoyed this piece, I do have to echo the question from Dan Miller.

    More importantly, I suppose, how would you be able to handle their politeness and condescension if you were one of the people they have that “wayward sibling” attitude towards?

    Personally, I’d be inclined to punch them in the face, no matter how much they smiled and how often they said “bless your heart”.

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  9. This article is very well-written. I’m glad you’ve gotten over some of your preconceptions of the attendees, but I’m struck by something: of your list of 17 regular speakers, two of them are Mormon and at least five are Catholic. Are you sure this crowd was monolithically evangelical?

    But the bigger problem I see is that you attended a rally of people who are drawn together on precisely the issues you’re likely to have a problem with them on, and found that it was difficult to relate to them in that environment. These aren’t the typical “values voters”; they’re the kind of people who’d travel across the country to meet with other social conservatives to talk about social conservatism. You noted that you get along with them fine on an airplane. You probably even get along with them fine when they’re talking fiscal issues. You might even agree with them on some social policies. But you’re definitely not going to agree with them when they’re talking about the ideology that informs their social and fiscal thinking.

    Maybe that’s the great lesson of American politics. We don’t ever bridge the gaps between what different factions think. We succeed when we find policies that multiple factions support.

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    • “Are you sure this crowd was monolithically evangelical?”

      No, nor do I claim this. I just said that almost everyone I met with was an evangelical Christian. Those few that weren’t were from other types of Protestant that I do not consider evangelical. No one I met with was Catholic, Mormon or Jewish – although, as with people of color, there were some on stage speaking.

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  10. 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.

    There’s a Christian comedian of some renown called “Mike Warnke”. He had one heck of a testimony. He was a priest in the church of Satan before he turned his life around, so it is said. As it turns out, it looks like there’s significant evidence that he wasn’t.

    Awesome testimony, though.

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  11. Very well done. I really enjoyed reading this in draft some days ago, and I’m happy to see it in public.

    One question: How much of this story is about different sources of information, and how much of it is about different self-constructed identities? If I were to set out to make myself a left-liberal, I’d probably start reading Mother Jones and The Nation more than I do. I’d then have different sources of information, and — arguably, at least — with different inputs, the output might change. Are ideological identities the product of specific inputs, or the product of decisions to consume those inputs? The chicken or the egg?

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    • Ha. Ha. Ha.
      … so if the guy running dailykos is setting out to sculpt liberal thought, and doing so by inviting different folks to headline — is he winning?
      Can you trace the differences? Are there any differences in liberal thought in the past 10 years or so?

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          • Targeted assassination, then.

            Remember that youtube that got out there that showed a handful of furtive people furtively moving around and interacting with a furtive van? There was a journalist with them, if I recall correctly.

            Remember that?

            If you do (you might not), could you explain to me the difference between the outrage over that and, say, the drones? I’m not getting it.

            Are we little more than older and wiser now?

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            • Part of the outrage over that video was, if I recall, the cavalier attitude of the helicopter crew as they talked about what they were doing over the radio. Also, the fact that they were shooting an unarmed journalist. If I remember correctly, some of the guys on the ground were actually armed, and they were in the middle of a war zone. I hate war, but that wasn’t quite the same as targeted assassinations in some country where we don’t even have a troop presence, with people who may or may not have anything to do with anything (we just have to trust the government when they tell us they do).

              That said, I didn’t hear much of an uproar over the weekly “who gets to die this week?” meetings.

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      • I don’t think liberal’s discomfort with drones or kill lists has declined so much as they have more faith that Obama will use some restraint, and feel Romney would handle things with less restraint. It’s a lesser of two evils thing.

        I’d point out that dailykos runs post after post after post, some written by the club, some by the official voices, denouncing drones and taking Obama to task for failing at liberal causes. It’s the old Democratic circular firing squad, and they make fun of that, too.

        But there are differences in liberal thought; much less attention paid to environmental concerns; don’t hear much about climate change, much more attention and comprehension of military matters. And believe it or not, a lot of concern about federal debt. But you also have to look at that outside the political season to see it; partisan cheering crowds it out, and that’s the time conservatives are most likely to look.

        So offer me the balance; what changes in conservative thought am I missing by only reading now, in election season, when I go to the pages of The American Conservative or The Weekly Standard?

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    • “I really enjoyed reading this in draft some days ago, and I’m happy to see it in public.”

      I’m always tempted to read drafts I see. Is that kosher? I sort of assumed it wasn’t. I mean, I don’t mind if anyone peaked at mine, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it to others without express permission. Thoughts?

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  12. Space awesome, Tod.

    One area where I have some disagreement is that most of the evangelicals I know don’t consider themselves at all powerful. Like other political demographics, they see themselves as betrayed by the national party and outnumbered by heathens. The only way they can ensure representation is to be active and organize; hence events like the Values Voters Summit.

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    • that most of the evangelicals I know don’t consider themselves at all powerful. Like other political demographics, they see themselves as betrayed by the national party and outnumbered by heathens.

      That’s pretty much my experience, too. When I read that part of Tod’s piece, I just mentally elided it, but now I see it more clearly that I’ve read your comment.

      I do wonder, though, if part of what Tod meant had something to do with a sense of righteousness prevailing in the end, therefore making compromise unnecessary? Just a guess on my part, though.

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      • What I had meant was that, in a land of democratically held elections, the people I spoke with believe that they are the (very large) majority.

        My impression is that they believe that money and media keeps them from having absolute power, and nothing else; however, this played out differently for different people that I spoke with. For example, when we discussed their obvious loss in the 2008 POTUS election, some people said that too many people who were like minded were simply “tricked” into voting for the liberal candidate by the media. Others said they thought that the government and the media doctored the results to make it look like Obama won, even though he lost. Others seemed to think that they used to be the minority back in 2008, but Obama’s election had made the vast majority of Americans realize that secular government and liberalism were wrong all along. So there was no uniform reason to explain their large majority, but there was a uniform belief that such a majority exists.

        And actually, I see that here at the League as well. If there is a conservative that comments here that has said anything over the past 6 months other than Romney is going to win in one of the biggest landslides ever come November, with absolute certainty, despite… well, everything, I have’t seen them.

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        • Thanks for the response, now I know where you’re coming from.

          My database for my claim tends to dispute what you say. However, my database is, well, twenty years ago or so (with a few more current exceptions), so what you saw might very well be how it is, at least for the VV’s.

          I actually suspect–again, based on nothing but my gut instinct–that many of the vv’s believe some combination of “we’re in the majority because we’re right and therefore Barack Obama is countermanding the will of the majority” and “we’re an oppressed minority in this dominant secular world.” However, this is just my suspicion.

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        • To me, Tod, what you seem to be saying (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) is that even though these people think they’re in the majority, they still think that they’re victims of the liberal media, the government, or whoever is the bad guy in the latest conservative conspiracy theory. Thus, if Romney loses in November, they’ll have a ready-made explanation for how the election was somehow stolen from him. I’m sure today’s poll deniers will be tomorrow’s explainers of the various reasons why Obama really didn’t win.

          While I find such abject denial of reality to be scary, a whole industry has grown up to support these folks in their delusions and sense of victimhood. I’m sure Rush Limbaugh and his ilk laugh all the way to the bank.

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  13. I know it makes me uncharitable but I say you go with the instinct that you were so shamed by.

    Like the 911 truthers they are too far down the rabbit hole. Unlike the truthers they ave their hands on real political and social power. People who attend these meetings and the organizations they support are why we have so many homeless gay kids, murdered gay and trans people. They don’t deserve a pass because they seem like nice people in person.

    Frankly given what I know about people I am more likely to be surprised when someone doesn’t have some irrational conspiracy they believe in. It seems like an error that is built into the structure of the human mind.

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      • I would put the odds that I believe in some sort of crazy conspiracy theory as pretty high.

        The problem is that I likely think it isn’t crazy.

        The good news is I think I have avoided most of the popular ones.

        Ones I don’t believe:
        911 truthism
        Any of the anti-Obama ones
        Anti-vaccine nonsense
        Anything that relies on large scale scientific fraud going on.
        Anything that would get made fun of on a skeptics message board.

        Overall I think the best way to get me to start believing in one is to include the following as villains:
        Fox News
        Conservatives elites
        Religious elites
        Alternative medicine advocates or practitioners

        Mostly because my tribal self-identification is skeptical/liberal. So to look in-tribe to me you have to seem like you are being scientific or rational. Relying on faith, intuition, or traditional authority marks you as out-tribe to me. As does anything republican or conservative.

        In writing this I think I realized a conspiracy theory that I actually believe in:
        Senatorial and congressional republicans have intentionally tries to hurt the economy to hurt Obama’s chance of re-election. As I am caught up in it I think it is rational. But it might not be I could be yet another victim of tribal us-vs-them thinking. And if I am it would take quite a bit of effort to shake it out of me. Worse even if you did I would be prone to falling back into it later.

        So yes people while awesome are also just another animal and our brains are not evolved to find the truth but to function in a tribe.

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        • *snort* I’m both. Faith is a part of me, as is being skeptical.
          Thing is? When I need conspiracy theories, there are an abundance of real facts
          to choose from.

          Who killed JFK?
          Who killed the DC Madam?

          I don’t think the Republicans were intentionally trying to hurt the economy to hurt Obama’s chances of reelection. Nah. Maybe because their voodoo priests told them so… (O’Neil called them economic terrorists, and he’s Bush’s Treasury Sec).

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          • Lee Harvey Oswold killed JFK.
            The DC madam killed the DC madam.

            Those are easy for me. Kennedy is especially easy as it is a conspiracy theory long considered debunked by skeptics so I have cultural support in rejecting it. DC madam is easy too since I really have a sour disposition towards secret murder conspiracies and it is really small potatoes at the end of the day.

            Believing that a deeply cynical political party would obstruct policies simply because they would help their opposition doesn’t seem crazy. It could be horribly wrong but at the end of the day I am mostly accusing the republicans of being organized and caring more about power than the country. Heck they could even believe that the economic damage they inflict is less in the long run compared to having Obama get a second term.

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          • Absolutely their are people of faith who are skeptical.

            I mentioned it as appealing to faith or even referencing it is a good way to make me less likely to think something is true.

            For example in a religious community signalling your faith in a shared religion makes you see more trust worthy. But for a non-believing outsider it has the exact opposite effect.

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  14. In my long ago High School days, my physics teacher spoke, at length, about the value of a ‘bullshit detector’. And he had a video tape, entirely of ridiculous scientific claims taken from late night news or talk shows.

    Really the sort of thing Randy made a sizeable career demolishing, and that Snopes is pretty good for as well these days. And this was all in the early 90s, so it was magic batteries and cold fusion and other ridiculous claims.

    And what he did what that tape, and a large handful of physics (and a few math problems — it was my first experience with the Monty Hall problem. And my first experience with the fact that, indeed, some people will never ever EVER get the Monty Hall problem, even if they can work the math) was trying to turn on his student’s “bullshit detectors”.

    Which, I might add, I’ve come to believe is a critical life skill. I wish more people learned how to turn theirs on.

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    • ” some people will never ever EVER get the Monty Hall problem, even if they can work the math”

      ME!!! (I think a lot of that came from the fact that I first saw it from Marylin vos Savant, who is clearly math-illiterate.)

      I also believe that Bush, Rice, et al were guilty of criminal malfeasance and misfeasance, to the point of aiding and abetting, but not of having a direct hand in the 9/11 bombings.

      I don’t know whether the two are related or not..

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      • Probability is a confusing subject. The Monty Hall problem only has the customary solution with the right preconditions, which are left unstated 90% of the time it’s discussed.
        (Hint: suppose Monty only offers you another room when you’ve guessed right?)

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      • > The deliberate creation of low-information voters.

        You’re probably coming from somewhere else than where I’m coming from, but that’s what my engineering comment was about, above.

        It appears from my perspective that the forces which create disinformation that is consumed primarily by the left operate in their own world. The anti-GMO people, the anti-vax people, the crystal healing people, they’re all independently pushing various bits of what I regard as woo, but they’re generally doing it because they believe it and they’re trying to get other people to believe it. They’re on a small mission.

        I look at this Value Voter bit and I see a lot of woo-overlap. I see packaging. I see a collaboration. I see a Mission.

        I readily admit this is one of those unfalsifiable things that I try to de-emphasize in my analysis of issues and whatnot, simply because it’s unfalsifiable. But it still strikes me as particularly creepy in a way that the independent woo-operators on the left don’t.

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    • Well, the Framer’s also thought it was a good idea to keep people in bondage. So, maybe they weren’t all knowing God-King’s who we shouldn’t question?

      And I think it’s just an odd coincidence I’m seeing all the right wingers I know linking to the same exact Youtube videos. Hmmm.

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  15. Thank you for doing this.

    I’d fear being burned at the stake for a witch in such a crowd, so your attendance seems a testament to your courage and bravery.

    And I’m not surprised the atheists couldn’t marshall much logic to their side, they seem to struggle so with the notion of organizing, Christians have many centuries of organizing and getting their arguments arranged like ducks in a row. Sad.

    I like my conservatives one on one; where there’s a chance to find our common ground before we dig in to our differences.

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    • “I like my conservatives one on one; where there’s a chance to find our common ground before we dig in to our differences.”

      This made me smile, and it reminded me of an old Sting lyric from the Soul Cages album, one of my favorite lyrics ever:

      “Men go crazy in congregations,
      They only get better one by one”

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      • Sweet. My favorite Sting album. Sadly, I saw him perform shortly after. (Disclaimer here: I’m married to a jazz musician; I thrive on improvisational music.) Even with much of the crew from the album, it sounded like, well, the album. Sigh. Audience can be a cult, too, and often don’t want that digging in to new territory; they want to hear music of familiar paths and comforting resolutions.

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  16. I’m just sad that Sarah Palin wasn’t there so that we could smear her for “palling around with [fake] terrorists”!

    Seriously, good job, and you have a lot more patience and reserve than I do (as everyone here can attest).

    I have one Draw Something friend who’s knee-deep in the Big Muddy the VV nonsense. We’ve agreed to keep politics totally out of our conversations.

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  17. 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 goes beyond the usual examples of believing your side’s story but not the other side’s story. If the AP, or the Journal, for the Times, or CBS, or even Fox reports “The White House issued statement X” and quotes X verbatim, I’m going to believe that X exists and says what was reported. What you’re describing isn’t skepticism or even insularity, it’s cult-like disbelief in anything that doesn’t come from within the cult.

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  18. “Peter Sprigg, the Council’s Senior Researcher for Policy Studies, states that the government should enforce “criminal sanctions against homosexual behavior.”

    Men caught singing show tunes in public will serve 3 months of community service. Ladies, don’t worry – getting caught wearing sensible shoes is merely a $75 fix-it ticket.

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  19. I always feel bad reading pieces like this because, mostly, the VV people are “my people”. The kids you describe in that wonderful opening were raised the way that I was raised.

    The chastity they try to cultivate against the tide of the hormone bath their brains are drowning in, the secure knowledge that the culture is 100% against people of faith as demonstrated by all of the violent movies out there (and, at the same time, we’re showing movies in the church like Thief in the Night… if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. A more modern movie that we’d watch after complaining about violence would be stuff like The Passion Of The Christ). I don’t know if they still do the whole “this is what kids are listening to these days” things but they used to show slides of album covers (“This is the WASP album cover for Animal (F**k Like A Beast)… YOUR CHILDRENS’ FRIENDS ARE LISTENING TO THIS ALBUM!!!”). Pointing out how bad it was outside “in the world” was a way to scare us and bring us all together at the same time.

    I always feel bad because I know that, for the most part, they’re not bad people. They’re just dreaming about a world that never existed and dealing with the existential threat of their memes dying out because the other memes out there are so much more tempting (not to mention the memes out there that have a lot more scientific backing).

    I probably sound like an abused spouse. “They’re not that bad. They’re pretty good most of the time. Sure, they say hurtful things about gay marriage but, deep down, they’re not bad people.”

    I wish there were ways to bring them into the 20th Century gently (let alone the 21st).

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    • HOLY CRAP THIEF IN THE NIGHT!!!

      I was shown these too, JB. I was trying to explain these films to a friend recently based on a conversation we were having, prompted by the Built To Spill song ‘Randy Described Eternity’ (if you know the song, you’ll know why) and had no idea what they were called (I just called them ‘Rapture/Tribulation’ films).

      They were terrifying to us kids. So thanks, I guess, for filling in a blank. I have some weird compulsion to re-watch these now, and see if they are as scary as I remember.

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          • Wow, I really am gonna have to re-watch these.

            Here’s the plot summary for ‘Thief’ from wiki (I’d forgotten there’s a Twilight Zone/Shyamalan twist at the end!):

            Patty Jo Myers is a young woman who considers herself a Christian because she occasionally reads her Bible and goes to church regularly. She refuses to believe the warnings of her friends and family that she will go through the Great Tribulation if she does not accept Jesus. One morning, she awakens to find that her husband and millions of others have suddenly disappeared. Gradually, Patty realizes that the Rapture, an event some interpret from the Bible, has happened and she and everyone else left behind are entering into the Great Tribulation, the last days of Earth, dominated by the Antichrist. A government system called UNITE (United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency) is set up and those who do not receive the mark identifying them with UNITE will be arrested. Patty desperately tries to avoid the law and the mark but is captured by UNITE. Patty escapes but is cornered by UNITE on a bridge, and falls from the bridge to her death.

            Patty then awakens, this time for real, and realizes that all she had experienced was only a dream. Her relief is short-lived when the radio announces that millions of people have disappeared. Horrified, Patty frantically searches for her husband only to find him missing too. Traumatized and distraught, Patty realizes that the Rapture has indeed occurred and she’s been left behind.

            And there are 3 more films!

            There’s a pretty entertaining review here:

            http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/3199/thief-in-the-night-se-a/

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      • When I was a kid, my dentist had two “bible stories for kids” books in his waiting room, each published as a companion to the other. One told actual stories from the The Bible, with all the predictable selection choices. (Noah’s Ark, in. David killing Bathsheba’s husband, out. Jesus turning water into wine, in. Jesus killing a fig tree, out.)

        The second book, though, was full of stories about modern kids; these stories were simply inspired by the Bible. I only ever read one story from that book, and I can still remember it decades later:

        A boy goes into the hospital, and is assigned to a room with another boy. The other boy is a good Christian, and tells his new friend that if he believes in Jesus and prays, he will get through his operation just fine and live to play again. The first boy rejects this message of salvation. Later, he is operated on, but things do not go well and he passes away. The surviving boy talks with his parents about how sad he is that his new friend is not only dead, but will suffer pain and misery for eternity. In the back of the room, a ghostly Jesus watches, smiling at the boy’s words and faith.

        It really upset me.

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        • I was raised an Evangelical Christian with experiences similar to the ones Jaybird and Glyph describe, though perhaps a little less sheltered than most American evangelical kids due to being an Air Force brat gowing up overseas, constantly moving. I remember being 14, and filled with terror at the idea that the Rapture was due to happen in the next three month. A cassette tape, from whatever end-times prophet du jour was all the rage then, had me utterly convinced. I was “saved”, but I didn’t feel saved. Maybe I’d be left behind, because somehow, in spite of reassurances to the contrary and in spite of my iron clad conviction that “it” was all true, I wasn’t truly saved, and I’d be left behind.

          Fast forward to adulthood, and I it turns out my 14 year old self’s intuiton about being truly saved was right!

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          • Yeah, I was ‘saved’ at a very young age (<5) and around maybe 12, I didn't 'feel' saved (Jesus supposedly 'lived in my heart', but I didn't really ever seem to hear from him, despite being close neighbors).

            So, my parents had me speak to a pastor at the church, and I re-did the whole 'accept Jesus into your heart' with him, but I still didn't feel any different. The pastor was later ousted for having an affair with a congregant (this also led to his divorce), and the last I saw him he was working behind the counter in a Subway sandwich shop (I was in high school ,or maybe just out at that point; all I know is that was the most awkward sandwich-related transaction I have ever had).

            I have no idea if these events were related.

            I didn't turn as against the church or my parents' beliefs as many others that I know did – I would describe myself as agnostic, not atheist (though that could just be my innate optimism – I have difficulty believing that this – all this, including the conversation we are having right now in which it appears to me that I am interacting with other minds, and 2-way communicating with them – is all a completely random meaningless electrochemical reaction) – I think Jesus was largely right on in the things he said, and that he and the Buddha have much to discuss; and that the Bible, understood as myth and metaphor, has much to teach us.

            But no way can I in good conscience put my kids through what I went through. When they ask about God, I may have to tell them the jury's still out.

            As for my personality and political leanings, I have no idea if these formative experiences are in any way responsible, or if this is just the way I am naturally, but as long as I can recall I have never been a 'joiner' – not politically, not personally.

            Hell, to this day I have been known to dodge out of being in *group photos*. It's that bad.

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            • Your pastor story reminds me of a classic moment from the original Honeymooners:
              :
              Ralph: I got a phone call today down at the bus depot. Who do you think called me?

              Ed: Who?

              Ralph: None other than the Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler himself.

              Ed: You got a telephone call from the Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler? The Emperor of all Raccoondom? I don’t believe it.

              Ralph: Sure you don’t because you never got a call from him.

              Ed: He doesn’t have to call me. He works right beside me in the sewer.

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        • It sounds exactly like a Jack Chick tract, except that

          1. The unfortunate boy would be Jewish/Mormon/Catholic.
          2. He would refuse to acknowledge the real (Protestant) Jesus on the advice of his parents and/or spiritual adviser.
          3. Who, on the boy’s death, would realize that he was going to spend eternity in Hell and would start to regret their fully conscious rejection of the true (Protestant) Jesus.

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    • I remember going to CCD/Confirmation classes and being forced to watch a movie that showed before, during, and after abortions… over and over and over again. Inside, outside. Successful ones and botches ones. Blood, blood, blood.

      I was 13.

      Good people my ass.

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  20. When I was reading this, I kept thinking, “Boy is this good writing! I could see this being run in the New Yorker or the Atlantic or one of those journals.” By the end, I was of the opinion that it’s better than the things they usually publish now.

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  21. Tod, I am a values voter and wish I had the funds to make the trip you did. So, it is pretty obvious we would not agree on most, if not all, public policy decisions. But I wanted to say that I enjoyed your article and hope that more sleeve tugging will occur between the two camps. I am saddened that civility has left the current discussions, that your opponent is not just mistaken but is evil and that true compromise is not tolerated by either extreme wings. BTW, most vv I know read vociferously and not just the stuff from Fox. I wish you well and thanks again for your article.

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    • Thank you for the comment JM, and for taking the time to read a post that you must have known right away you weren’t going to agree with. That in itself is quite heartening.

      If by chance you are still in earshot, do you mind if I ask how you came across this post?

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      • Tod, I spend an hour or so a night reading articles from various sources on the internet. Yours was a link from Politico. You are right…I did not think we would agree but wanted see how you would treat the speakers and attendees. I was pleasantly surprised and wrote to thank you for your civil tone and respect. Also, your honesty was refreshing. Value voters have moments of cognitive dissonance, myself included. I would suggest that this is a universal condition and from what I read from you so far suggests you would agree. Thanks again for writing as you have. Have a great day.

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