Pilgrims in an Unholy Land

The Omni Shoreham, in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington D.C., is one of those hotels with décor that makes you feel like, as Holly Golightly said of a certain iconic jewelry store in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The chandeliers are crystal, the carpets are plush, the glow is golden. The wallpaper isn’t even wallpaper—it’s some kind of delicately brocaded fabric. One half expects Audrey Hepburn’s rendition of “Moon River” to pipe into the lobby; instead, there’s a constant stream of big band numbers. La Belle Epoche with an American twist—emphasis on the American, at least this past weekend, when the hotel bedecked with stars and stripes, played host to the Values Voter Summit, a yearly gathering of conservatives spotlighting social issues that is sponsored by, among others, The Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, and Liberty University. 

Like any good conference, the Summit had oodles of speakers, and Friday morning’s oratorical festivities began with a talk by former child star Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame, who has spent the last 20 years ageing gracefully—albeit in a Hollywood way, with gently-spiked hair and a penchant for wearing suit jackets with no tie— and honing his conservative politics. In March, Cameron premiered his documentary, Monumental: In Search of America’s National Treasure, which, according to the official synopsis, “follows this father of six across Europe and the U.S. as he seeks to discover America’s true ’national treasure’—the people, places, and principles that made America the freest, most prosperous and generous nation the world has ever known.” The trailer for the film features a montage of ominous fires, frightened children, the Capitol building, what appears to be a praying 17th-century Puritan, and shots of Cameron striding purposefully through a graveyard. His remarks centered on an anti-abortion theme, and Cameron got his biggest round of applause from the crowd, when he proclaimed “God is the platform.”

A few minutes later, in an address that could be placed somewhere in the general realm of foreign policy, Michele Bachmann read aloud the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood, which includes the lines “Allah is our objective. The prophet is our leader. The Quran is our law.” An outraged murmur rippled through the crowd. The God-as-party-platform enthusiasm was gone. Bachmann went on to lambast the Brotherhood, which came to power in Egypt in democratic elections in June, as part of a growing movement to impose Sharia law in Western countries. By the end of the speech, Bachmann, her hair done in a sleekly updated version of the Rachel—non-candidacy seems to suit her—really had the crowd going. When she laid out the claim that the White House bowed to “Islamic organizations” and ordered a re-writing of government counter-terrorism training guides to, as she put it “ensure that all trainers … be brainwashed in political correctness toward Islam,” a man in the crowd shouted, “No, No!” (The White House order referenced by Bachmann came last November after revelations that certain FBI counter-terrorism trainers had called “mainstream” Muslims violent, framing Islam as an “expansive doctrine with a single agenda: world imperium.” This April, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered a similar overhaul for military training manuals.) This ‘All is not well in Mudville’, message rang from the lectern throughout the morning, as speakers from Jim DeMint, Bill Bennett, and Eric Cantor held forth on the president’s foreign affairs impotence and poo-pooed the war on women as pure myth. Paul Ryan was welcomed as a prodigal son, though he was not without his hecklers. The crowd drowned the offending voices out with chants of “USA! USA!” Ryan calmly sipped his water and waited for them to finish.

Saturday, refreshed after a Friday evening with speakers like Mike Huckabee and, for the youngsters, a mixer, Summit attendees were ready for a day of smaller breakout sessions, which featured lectures on a variety of subjects, including “Can You Protect Your Children From the Commercial Sex Industry?” One of the best-attended lectures was “Understanding Radical Islam 101,” held in front of a faded mural of a pastoral scene and ionic columns in the Palladium Room. It’s a dignified space, vaguely Federalist in style. As the room filled, a middle-aged couple kissed amorously, their frameless glasses knocking together. A man with a buzz cut and two tattoos on either side of his neck, like a pair of Ming vases, strolled in. He held a speckled black and white notebook and a pencil, the picture of an eager student. Before beginning, the moderator reminded the crowd, “there are members for the media in our midst, so let’s all be cordial to win friends and influence people.”

The panel discussion kicked off with Nonie Darwish, the Egyptian-born founder of the group Arabs for Israel. Darwish, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, told the crowd, “Islam’s number one enemy is the truth,” and said that because of her conversion, she would be “killed on the street in Egypt.” Erick Stakelbeck, a reporter with the Christian Broadcasting Network followed to talk about the insidious, creeping influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, who, he said, dress “like us”—one of the many reasons the “leftist media falls for it hook, line, and sinker,” referring to what he described as sympathetic coverage of the Egyptian Islamist party.

Down the hall, conference attendees not participating in smaller sessions wandered through the maze of roll-up posters and tables set up in another stately room —the walls dappled with sunlight. The “Porn Harms, Morality in the Media” table had brownies. Another group handed out buttons emblazoned with the slogan, “Ex-Gay is Ok!” A young woman in a slim fitting grey pencil skirt walked by on the phone. A sign hanging from her neck read, “Real Men Marry Women.”

Eighteen-year-old Grace Hendry of Lynchburg, Virginia, looking dressed up and slightly bored, sat on a bench outside the hotel’s in-house jewelry store. She went to the conference on a scholarship from the Family Research Council. She says she had hoped Mitt Romney would be there, but loved the speakers regardless, including Governor Bob McDonald, whom she calls “adorable.” Hendry, excited to vote in her first election, says that pro-life issues will be foremost in her mind, come November. When asked what she thinks of Missouri congressman Todd Akin’s comments that pregnancy isn’t likely to arise in the situation of a “legitimate rape” because a woman’s body has a way to “shut that whole thing down,” Hendry’s kohl-rimmed eyes widen. “Is this a Republican saying this? Absolutely do not agree!”

Late Saturday afternoon, Lila Rose, the 24-year-old founder and president of Live Action, an anti-abortion group, and a cable news regular, sat in the dark-paneled hotel bar, standing out from the sea of boxy, knee-length skirts and graying page-boy haircuts in an elegant, sleeveless blue dress, a couple of slender silver bracelets at her wrist. Rose, who attended UCLA, is against abortion in all circumstances, and says she believes that the morning after pill causes early-term abortions. Though she demurs on the question of whether or not political office lies in her future, Rose allow that she hopes she’ll have a family someday and that she will be “continuing to grow the message about the culture of life,” making people understand, as she says, that, “we don’t have to ever kill our children to accomplish our goals. ”

The interview over, Rose smiles politely across the table laid with white napkins and Pellegrino in tapered wine glasses, excuses herself, then disappears into the lobby crowd streaming out of lectures on the evils of Islam and gay marriage and the mooching classes of society, flush with righteous outrage and comforted by the knowledge that there are so many others who feel just like them—they’re all right here, slipping into the golden glow of the lobby in the hotel where nothing very bad could ever happen to you. It’s just a beautiful place filled with ugly ideas on a September afternoon.

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