The Fundamentalist (No. 58)

1. The Council for National Policy Tries To Regroup by Living in the Past.

In the bowels of the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington last Friday, as the G20 met across town and the Republican Governors' Association assembled in Florida, the activist elites of the conservative movement gathered to plot their resurgence. The Council for National Policy (CNP), founded in the early 1980s by the power brokers who brought together cold warriors, moral majoritarians, John Birchers, dispensationalists, anti-government libertarians, free-enterprise zealots, and national-security hawks under one roof, has long been the incubator for the conservative movement's political strategy, and an essential stop for Republican presidential aspirants.

At its last meeting, in August, the CNP blessed John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. At the time, the move was deemed prescient and brilliant, but the religious right was -- as usual -- blind to the notion that picking "one of us" from "real America" can be alienating to everyone else.

While the CNP was trying to look to the future last week, it seemed hopelessly enamored of its aging leaders. When I arrived to meet Warren Smith, the conservative evangelical activist and journalist who had invited me to chat, we ambled past anti-evolutionist Ken Ham, who was holding court to a small but rapt audience in the hallway; eyed Left Behind author and CNP co-founder Tim LaHaye, who was shuffling in and out of the "CNP Networking Room;" caught a glimpse of Rick Santorum, who since being booted out of his Senate seat has led the charge against "radical Islam" from his perch at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center; and spotted the religious right's anti-feminism doyenne Phyllis Schlafly, 84, who had earlier that day delivered a speech to the CNP Youth Council on how to "find your place in the conservative movement."

I wanted to ask LaHaye if he thought the end-times would happen during Obama's presidency, but when I circled back to where I had seen him, he was gone. Rapture, anyone?

2. Can the Republican Party Rebuild on the Religious Right?

Although the CNP's meetings are closed to the press, Smith filled me in on some details: Conservative direct-mail entrepreneur Richard Viguerie, a patriarch of the modern conservative movement, rallied the troops by pointing to prior comebacks, from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush. Viguerie, Smith told me, "is saying that we need to fight for conservative ideas and conservative values and not worry about who embraces them." Smith added that the group talked "about changing the culture, entertainment, media, TV" -- a longtime goal of the religious right's dominionism that it seeks to achieve by taking over social, cultural, and government institutions, much like religious-right figures are now plotting their new takeover of the Republican National Committee.

"What I'm hearing is that there is no loyalty to the Republican Party," said Smith, meaning no loyalty to the party as constituted but loyalty to one purged of insufficiently conservative members. "What Richard Viguerie talks about is not a third party but a third wave. Basically there needs to be a flowering of grass-roots conservative activism and local groups, local PACs. He's basically saying you've got a Republican county commissioner in Buzzard's Breath, Texas, and he's not a conservative? Run a conservative against him."

That is exactly what has excised moderates from the Republican Party and led to its losses in 2006 and 2008. Of course, there aren't really that many new ideas to run with if you believe that the Bible is God's literal word that should dictate policy, and that government should be starved of funding and required to do as little as possible, unless it involves using military might to combat perceived threats to Western Civilization As We Know It. But the religious right is still steering the Republican ship, and the strategy of the emerging governors -- Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who was just installed at the helm of the Republican Governors' Association -- will be to figure out a way to continue to endear themselves to the religious right while expanding the base. A tall order in the current political environment.

3. Not Fringe?

Speaking of (former) governors, Smith didn't mention Mike Huckabee, but activist and radio host Janet Porter, an early Huckabee backer in the 2008 campaign, told me she favored either Palin or Huckabee in 2012. Porter is straight out of the wing of the movement that is all frothing ideology, and no stone-cold strategy. That explains her ongoing fixation with the long-debunked lie that Barack Obama does not have a U.S. birth certificate, and her attempt to stop the electoral college from voting next month in the formality that will officially make him president.

Porter insists that Obama has not produced a U.S. birth certificate (he has) and that he was actually born in Kenya (he was born in Hawaii). She claims to be awaiting the results of the lawsuits filed by attorney Philip J. Berg, whose effort to halt the presidential election because of the alleged question of Obama's U.S. citizenship was rebuffed by the United States Supreme Court.

When I asked Porter about the mood around the CNP meeting, she said, "My mood is more upbeat than those who don't actually know these cases are being filed and that there's actually still a chance to maintain the freedom that we have. We're not going away. Win or lose, whether this goes through, whether it amounts to anything, we just believe that [for] something this important we need the answers. And we're going to fight for freedom, and we're going to use whatever freedom we have until it's taken away with the efforts of hate crimes, ENDA, fairness doctrine, wiping out all the pro-life legislation. Everything's on the line."

My skepticism showed, I suspect. "I think this might be a little more newsworthy than you think," she insisted and handed me a flyer about her effort that read: "Not extreme. Not fringe. Just Constitutional."

4. Huckabee Dishes and It's Delish!

Huckabee is out with a new book this week, and Time's Michael Sherer has a preview:

Many conservative Christian leaders -- who never backed Huckabee, despite their holding similar stances on social issues -- are spared neither the rod nor the lash. Huckabee writes of Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, as having an "ever-changing reason to deny me his support." ... Huckabee describes other elders of the social-conservative movement, many of whom meet in private as part of an organization called the Arlington Group, as "more enamored with the process, the political strategies, and the party hierarchy than with the simple principles that had originally motivated the Founders." ... He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power.

Most of this is not new from Huckabee. Last year, in advance of the Values Voters Summit, he criticized Bauer and the Arlington Group crew -- not by name -- for being "more intoxicated with power than principle." The grass roots, themselves tired of the leadership dithering over whom to endorse, ate up Huckabee's criticism, as well as his anti-Wall Street rhetoric. The split over Huckabee shows that it's not just the Republican Party that's experiencing a crack-up; the religious right is as well.

While the governors are trying to build something the Republicans have been sorely lacking -- governing cred -- Huckabee is building a movement, through his television program on Fox News, upcoming radio program on ABC Radio Networks, and his newly launched Vertical Politics Institute. It remains to be seen whether he is the man of the hour, but he surely is positioning himself to move up as the old CNP-ers age out.

5. What Obama Can Do. Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has some

suggestions for what President-elect Obama and his administration can do to reverse the successes of the religious right during Bush's presidency:

  • Repeal six Bush executive orders relating to his Faith-Based Initiative and replace them with one or more executive orders that prohibit discriminatory hiring by faith-based grantees, prohibit proselytizing by any tax-funded programs, and distribute taxpayer dollars through separate tax-exempt organizations, not churches themselves.
  • Issue a clear and unequivocal directive from the Department of Defense prohibiting evangelism and other religious discrimination in the military.
  • Open up new stem-cell lines for federal research funding.
  • End funding for abstinence-only education and replace it with comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education.

Contact me at tapthefundamentalist at gmail dot com.

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