The Christian Right’s annual trade show, Values Voter Summit, is a good place to check the vital signs of the movement that is often—and wrongly—declared dead or dying. And this year’s conference offered a peek into the struggle by Christian Right leaders to tamp down the Neo-Confederate and secessionist ideology growing in, and threatening to break, their ranks.
Some critics tend to cast the Christian Right movement as monolithic, when in actuality it has always been at just as fractious and dynamic as it has been powerful and influential. And yet, its considerable successes are sometimes obscured by its leaders’ perennial fear that they may ultimately fail to “restore” their notion of the Christian Nation—and that an evil darkness will fall upon the land. (Yes, much of the public rhetoric at the Values Voter Summit was that prosaic.)
But a deepening shadow of doubt has crept across the Christian Right’s vision of a shining city on a hill since at least 2012 election. Some leaders of the Religious (and non-religious) Right are revealing their loss of faith in American nationhood, and are turning to Neo-Confederate alternatives, including support to secede from the Union (including by some candidates), and a movement to nullify federal laws, regulations and court decisions—all with the full understanding of the political tensions and violence that would likely accompany most of these efforts.
This Neo-Confederatization of elements of the political and Religious Right is such a problem that the State Policy Network of business/libertarian think tanks, (which work in close coalition with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)) issued a PR manual in 2013 which urged members to avoid language that smacks of “extreme views,” advising: “Stay away from words like radical, nullify, or autonomy,” and especially “states’ rights.”
At the Values Voter Summit, we saw a continued effort to hold the fractious Christian Right movement together, and sharp warnings to those who are considering or turning to these Neo-Confederate options. All of which suggests that the leaders may be more worried about their cohesion than meets the eye.
But rather than deliver the main message themselves, the conference leaders left it to popular, non-evangelical co-belligerents: New York right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who is Jewish, and Mormon right-wing broadcaster Glenn Beck.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, staged a conversation with Levin during a conference plenary which offered some thoughts about how to proceed in the face of Christians being “silenced,” and their religious freedom being “under assault” from so many directions.
Perkins observed (at about 17:30 in the YouTube video) that President Obama has described Islam as a religion of peace, and that the problem we have with Islam is not just far away but right here at home.
“How can we fight an enemy,” Perkins asked, that “transcends not only our international foreign policy but our domestic policy. We are at risk here at home, and we cannot come to the point where we can truly speak the truth because political correctness has basically blinded us to that truth.”
“Well, we need to reject political correctness,” Levin replied on cue. “We need to reject the attempt by the Left to keep us in little boxes, or to move us out to extremes. We are the heart of America,” he declared, jabbing his index finger into the air for emphasis.
“Our belief system is the heart of America. We are the majority of America. And they treat us like we are some minor cult. We are not some minor cult. I don’t need to be lectured by Barack Obama about any damn thing let alone religion or Islam…. I think we need to fight this effort to silence us…. We need to speak out. We need to stand up.”
Levin’s solution is to cast the Religious Right as mainstream America.
“You know, I view the political spectrum quite differently,” he explained. “We are in the middle! You’ve got the radical leftists who’ve taken over the Democrat Party [sic]. You have… this Neo-Confederate group out there,” he said, pointing and waving to his right, “that doesn’t really believe in the Constitution and keeps talking about secession and so forth. We are traditional conservatives who embrace the Constitution, who embrace our heritage. This president does not—from his values to his comments to his attacks on my country—does not represent me, period!”
Likewise, Glenn Beck urged the evangelical conference attendees not to succumb to the temptation of “rage” at anti-Christian persecution and the threats to religious freedom in our time. Jesus, he said, was about a “revolution through peace and love” not violence. “Which spirit is leading you,” he wondered. “Which spirit is leading all of us?” You could hear a pin drop in the carpeted room as Beck failed to answer his own rhetorical question.
That the popular Beck was featured to deliver this sermon suggests that conference leadership recognizes they may have led their people over a hate and fear mongering bridge too far. Part of their task now seems to be to bring them back from the Neo-Confederate temptation.
Pointing to the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Beck said “the Lord would never tell us to do something out of hate, or vengeance, or rage.” He emphasized the need to come together as Americans in the face of the external threat of ISIS, and not to hate one another. Not even LGBTQ people, he said.
Like Levin, Beck sought to position the Christian Right and the conservative movement generally—not as the Right, but as ideologically middle America. He did it in a sly slam on the Tea Party (at about 43:35 in the YouTube video), in which he held up a copy of legendary progressive and civil rights movement organizer Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book, Rules for Radicals—which had been promoted by Tea Party leaders—notably Dick Armey (head of the Koch brothers bankrolled group Freedom Works)—as a manual for anti-establishment disruption.
Beck didn’t mention any of this back story, but stuck to the old Manichean story line. Alinsky had jokingly dedicated the book to Lucifer, giving Beck the opening to read from the book’s dedication, which he said offers a “tip of the hat to the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that at least he won his own Kingdom—Lucifer.” He claimed that “for many in America, this [Rules for Radicals] is their Scripture.”
We have a choice, he declared, between The Bible and Rules for Radicals.
In fairness, Alinsky was obviously being humorous and provocative, and was not really dedicating his book to Satan. But Beck’s target was not Alinsky so much as the colorfully disruptive and often overtly hate-mongering Tea Partiers, many of whom are conservative Christians, with whom VVS leaders seek to contrast themselves as the mainstream of the GOP (if not America itself). They wish to be seen not as the party of mean spiritedness—but as the standard bearers of religious freedom.
Whether they can sufficiently recover to make the center hold, or whether the Christian Right has tea-partied itself into a stupor of permanent neo-Confederate division, remains to be seen.