Headlines, Human Rights, North America

POLITICS-US: From Prodigal Child to Wayward Waif

Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 2007 (IPS) - The nation&#39s most powerful Religious Right organisations gathered last weekend in Washington to find a presidential candidate who shared their values. And every single Republican hopeful made the pilgrimage to state his case.

Republican candidate Fred Thompson addresses the Values Voters Summit on Oct. 19, 2007. Credit: Fred Thompson

Republican candidate Fred Thompson addresses the Values Voters Summit on Oct. 19, 2007. Credit: Fred Thompson

But after three days of wooing at the Oct. 19-21 Values Voter Summit, sponsored by child psychologist Dr. James Dobson&#39s Family Research Council (FRC), Christian conservatives appeared divided on the pool of candidates, with some even calling for a third party that would better represent their beliefs, rooted in a Biblical worldview.

"Why is homosexuality a bad idea?" asked Rabbi Daniel Lapin, co-chair of the conservative American Alliance of Jews and Christians, during a speech to the packed crowd of 2,500 attendees in the Washington Hilton.

"Because the Bible says so," they responded.

"You see, it&#39s not so hard," said Lapin, who is also president of Toward Tradition, a conservative group that values "faith-based American principles", including "free markets", a "strong military", and "a moral public culture".

Toward Tradition came to public attention when it was revealed that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff had served as its director from the early 1990s until 2004.

"The Bible is our blueprint that powers our politics and passion," added Lapin. "Politics is the application of our most deeply held values."

The goal of the Religious Right remains focused on enacting legislation based on "pro-family, pro-marriage" values. The broader movement – which aims to Christianise society from a grassroots level on up – rose to political prominence as a crucial base of support for President Ronald Reagan during the 1970s and 1980s. Evangelical Christian voters accounted for two-thirds of Reagan&#39s 10-point victory over Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election.

For the Christian conservatives who attended the conference last weekend, the most important issues were opposition to legal abortion and same-sex marriage, according to a straw poll. Other issues include abstinence-only sex education, regulation of pornography, and opposition to stem cell research.

In addition to candidates, the meet brought together influential conservative leaders, advocacy booths, and "break-out" sessions decrying everything from "The Homosexual Agenda" to the dual threat of immigration and "Radical Islam", highlighting the discomfort of many in the Christian conservative bloc who feel alienated by the Republican Party. And the direction of the base has enormous implications for whether a Republican stands a chance against the Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"You are the sand, you are the pebble in the shoe," said former Congressman Rick Santorum to the ballroom audience on Saturday afternoon. "You are that uncomfortable group in the base of the Republican Party or the conservative movement that most of the leadership of this party and the leadership of this country would just like not to have to deal with."

At a gala event on Saturday night, Dobson lamented the lack of a clear candidate to represent the interests of the crucial constituency of the Republicans. Former FRC head Gary Bauer was more explicit when he said, "Evangelicals have always been against suicide, and a third party is political suicide."

Dobson was introduced by Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, a board member of FRC and the mother of Eric Prince, CEO of the security-firm Blackwater.

The FRC is the political lobbying wing of Dobson&#39s evangelical non-profit Focus on the Family, and it has exerted tremendous influence in political races as well as policy based on his ultra-conservative agenda. Seen by many as a successor to evangelical leaders Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Dobson has used television and radio to broadcast his message to more than 220 million people in 164 countries.

The uneasy union between Christian conservatives and the Republican Party was apparent as national frontrunner for the Republican nomination Rudy Giuliani was given an at-best lukewarm reception by the crowd and finished second to last in the straw poll taken at the event.

During his speech, the former mayor of New York and self-styled 9/11 hero assured voters by saying they had nothing to fear from him.

"I&#39m not going to pretend with you that I can be all things to all people," said Giuliani. "But I believe we have many, many more areas of agreement. And the one thing you can count on with me is I&#39ll always be honest with you."

That wasn&#39t reassuring enough for Charles Mitchell, who works on the "Evangelicals for Mitt" website. "Giuliani disagrees with us on the most important issue for some of us here – abortion," said Mitchell, noting that Giuliani is pro-choice.

Governor Mitt Romney, Giuliani&#39s main competition for the Republican nomination, placed highest in the straw poll, but was followed closely by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who ignited the crowd with a fiery sermon as the last candidate to address the gathering.

For many of the pundits who spoke at this year&#39s summit, the debate was, as it always has been, about the broader "cultural war" simmering at home and abroad. Absent were the most vitriolic pundits and religious figures, such as Bishop Wellington Boone, who took to the podium in 2006 to denounce homosexuals with the pejorative term "faggots". They had apparently been filtred out.

But the main message was explicit and coherent: to seek a candidate who is uncompromising in his Judeo-Christian views, and who would help reinstitute Christian Conservative dominance over what Dobson described as the "Triple Crown: the White House, the Congress, and the Judiciary."

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