Guest Post from Pam Chamberlain of the Public Eye
The Values Voters Summit is in its second day here at the Omni Shoreham, the grande dame of D.C. convention hotels, freshly painted and efficiently handling the 1000+ attendees. National press has tended to represent the event as the sound bite opportunity that such events have become. Planners claimed to have drawn 100 members of the media, and especially on Friday, they took up most of the back of the Diplomat Ballroom, spilling into the corridors and exhibit hall.
It’s more than just a media event, though. It is a pep rally, designed to mobilize committed conservative activists to work hard in the coming electoral campaigns, despite their possible hesitation about the Republican Party. Sitting in the audience, I alternately feel as though I’m in church or watching TV. Many of the speakers are pastors or elected officials, and they know how to hold the interest of a crowd. The audience is knowledgeable about scripture and can quote chapter and verse along with the person at the podium. Repeatedly, individuals testify to their faith from all corners of the hall. Nobody seems to be taking notes, and my busy scribbling makes me self-conscious. The “congregation” is, in fact, an important part of this ritual, feeding on the energy of the speakers and building consensus around a litany of topics, summarized by the event’s sponsors as Family, Faith and Freedom.
The stage itself is a TV set, decorated in red white and blue drapes, with elaborate lighting effects and logo backdrops, two huge video monitors, and a central stage with two imposing Ionic columns and twin American flags. Speakers enter from behind a curtain and walk across to the podium (Dobson referred to it as a “pulpit”) accompanied by musical introductions chosen to match their messages. The production quality is impressively high. One of the most popular events was a 20 minute “talk show,” with the FRC’s Tony Perkins, James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and Alan Sears, President of the Alliance Defense Fund comfortably perched on stools, amicably chatting. Perkins was the host, and in the course of the “program” I felt Dobson was publicly passing the torch of leadership over to Perkins, signaling a new era for the American Christian Right. (When talk-show host Sean Hannity referred to Dobson as the man who vetted his bachelor jokes, William Bennett corrected him by reminding us that Perkins was running the show.)
Testifying to how up-to-date this movement has become, the exhibits are media-savvy, with some form of CD, DVD or web-related handout in every booth. Rev. Donald Wildmon, whose ministry consists of boycotts of corporations his American Family Association perceives as being gay friendly — like Ford – says he can mobilize 380,000 emails, representing ten percent of his database, in a matter of days. The organizers may have thought they were introducing Wildmon to their audience, since he was given the podium at a special luncheon to describe his 150 person outfit in Tupelo, MS. But when he asked how many were already on his email alert list, a good 40% raised their hands. His hard-edged brand of non-aplogetic gay-bashing apparently has already been accepted by supporters of the FRC who were simultaneously being asked by other speakers to show their compassionate sides.
The Shoreham is not the only institution here with a face lift. This wing of the Christian Right is positioning itself to influence elections and win both the war on terrorism and the war on liberal culture.