Though some conservative strategists angle to marry the religious right and the tea party movement -- or at least partially model the tea party movement after the Christian Coalition -- at the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) yesterday, announcing an engagement party would be premature.
CPAC's outreach effort to millenials, the anachronistically named XPAC, featured a seminar by Focus on the Family Action's youth initiative Rising Voice, launched this week through the religious-right powerhouse's advocacy arm. While some factions of the religious right, including Focus on the Family Action itself, appear anxious to combine their platform, opposition to abortion and LGBT rights, with the tea party movement's core issue, antagonism toward "big government," Rising Voice's organizers seem to be going in a different direction.
The crowd in the XPAC lounge was small compared to other breakout sessions and miniscule in light of the 10,000 activists -- half of whom were college students -- organizers said were attending the conference. Although organizers delayed the session start time, after waiting for people to trickle out of Mitt Romney's speech in the main ballroom, only about 100 people sat around the stage. A few drifters wandered the lounge ringed by comfy white couches and video games provided by XPAC.
Invective was a big draw at CPAC, but the tone and rhetoric of the Rising Voice session promoted dialogue and civility, a stark contrast to the tea party-promoting diatribe upstairs. In the main ballroom, Jason Mattera of Young America's Foundation (also a speaker at last fall's Focus-sponsored Values Voters Summit) took pride in his combative tone as he vowed, "We will not idly stand by as Barack and his bevy of czars try to radically redefine this country." Sen. Jim DeMint, a hero both at CPAC and the Values Voters Summit, insisted, "America is teetering toward tyranny" because of "failed and discredited socialist policies" and "enemies of freedom." DeMint maintained, "proven principles are derived from constructive values, and constructive values are derived from Judeo-Christian principles."
While talk of "Judeo-Christian values" has long been a staple of religious-right rhetoric, the Rising Voice "Engaging the Ideas That Really Matter" session took a different tack. Focus on the Family Action's Chris Leland, vice president of college student ministries, and Esther Fleece, the 27-year-old assistant to the president for millennial relations, led the session using measured terms. Leland, a former Republican speechwriter and strategist, criticized "overhandled candidates," the negativity of political campaigns, and focus on "image over issues." Leland is more Rick Warren than James Dobson -- more "let's sit down and talk" than "agree with me or else." The Rising Voice initiative seems intent on emphasizing this approach.
Leland rehashed the curriculum at the Focus Leadership Institute, where college students can take a semester away to study "Christian Worldview Studies," the "Relationship of Family, Church, and Government; Marriage and Family," and "Identity and Leadership." It sounds like religious-right red meat, but Leland took pains to portray the program as removed from rough and tumble politics and instead focused on "character" and "authenticity." He spoke in abstractions using terms like "worldview words," "interchange," and "commonsense solutions versus partisan bickering."
"People are turned off by the term 'culture war,'" he said. "Let's talk about it in terms of cultural engagement." That doesn't mean Focus on the Family is abandoning its positions; its table at CPAC still offered free copies of 101 Frequently Asked Questions About Homosexuality and Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting. But as Fleece told me, the public-relations approach is more Tim Tebow Super Bowl ads and fewer photographs of bloody fetuses.
Rising Voice, like the Tebow ad, is part of Focus on the Family's re-tooled image. But it seemed wildly disconnected from the tea party mania at CPAC. When I asked Leland and Fleece about that, Leland said of millenials, "The adversarial context is turning people off. A few might get fired up because there are those that believe in these issues, but in the long run this dialogue issue becomes more paramount, more important than diatribe in the public square." The tea party voice, he said, "has to be heard ... but pockets of people have taken their First Amendment rights to mouth off."
Although not many millenials broke from the main CPAC events to attend the Rising Voice seminar, Fleece was critical of the tea party movement as part of divisive, partisan politics. "You don't necessarily see a lot of millenials in the tea party movement," Fleece told me, "because we see political parties as something that divides, and that includes the tea party."
Fleece pointed to Focus on the Family president Jim Daly as a model of nonpartisanship. "Millenials resonate with that type and style of speech," she said. "We don't back down from what we stand for, but we want speech to be full of grace when we talk about controversial issues." Daly succeeded the notoriously truculent Dobson, although Fleece was reluctant to engage in a comparison.
Just after the Rising Voice session wrapped up, Focus on the Family Action's lobbyist Tim Goeglein, a former Bush administration official who resigned after admitting to plagiarism, spoke in the main ballroom. Reflecting the same old religious right, he exhorted attendees to sign the latest culture war manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, calling it the "greatest exposition about the most pressing social problems of the 21st century." Focus on the Family was one of the early signers of the Manhattan Declaration, as well as of this week's Mount Vernon Statement, which appeared to be an attempt to capitalize on tea party enthusiasm to fire up CPAC. Focus on the Family's own press release described the Mount Vernon effort as "Conservative Leaders Unite to Put Government in Its Proper Place."
The drafters of the Manhattan Declaration ludicrously fancy their document to be like King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, urging civil disobedience to any "edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family."
Although Leland seemed to agree with the central anti-government, anti-tax message of the tea party movement, Fleece maintained that Focus on the Family Action would steer away from those issues, in contrast to other religious-right groups and fellow Manhattan Declaration signatories like the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America -- and even its parent organization. But Focus on the Family Action's senior vice president of public policy Tom Minnery, in endorsing the Mount Vernon Statement, drew a connection between social conservatism and opposition to "government [that] has grown way outside its proper sphere by getting into moral and spiritual realms, such as redefining marriage, such as encouraging women to leave their children at home and go into the work force."
Nonetheless, Rising Voice isn't ready to make common cause with tea partiers.
"I haven't heard them talk about marriage and sanctity of life," said Fleece. "If they start talking about it, we'd love to talk. But we're going to stick to our piece of the pie."