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Christian Right Summit Still Wields Clout

Christian Right Summit Still Wields Clout

By Bill Berkowitz

OAKLAND, California, Sep 3 (IPS) - If the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, survives the slings and arrows of intense media coverage, her next major appearance could be before an adoring crowd of conservatives and Christian evangelicals at the Sep. 12-14 Values Voter Summit in Washington.

[As of Tuesday, it was unclear if Palin would attend, and several IPS e-mails to summit organisers inquiring about her presence at the gathering have gone unanswered].

The self-described "hockey mom" -- a surprise choice for vice president of Senator John McCain -- is virulently anti-abortion, and supports the teaching of "creationism" in the public schools as a counterpoint to evolution.

To environmentalists' dismay, she advocates drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has expressed doubts that global warming is attributable to human activities. She also has reportedly opposed giving spousal benefits to same-sex partners of public employees, and already has received hosannas from such long-time Christian conservative evangelical leaders as Pat Robertson, Richard Viguerie, and Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson.

"McCain's decision to put Sarah Palin on the ticket proves that the Religious Right remains a powerful force that must be placated," Rob Boston, the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told IPS.

"It has been widely reported that McCain wanted to put [Democrat-turned-Independent] Joe Lieberman on the ticket but had to drop the idea after receiving a barrage of complaints from Religious Right leaders. A dead movement does not wield such power."

In fact, if Palin does show up, she may be given a heartier welcome than the party's presidential standard bearer, Sen. John McCain, should he choose to accept the summit's invitation to speak. Despite having performed well in last month's "Civil Forum on the Presidency" at Pastor Rick Warren's Lake Forest, California-based Saddleback Church, it should be remembered that at last year's Values Voter Summit, McCain came in dead last in the attendee's presidential preference poll.

The Values Voter Summit 2008 is hosted by the Washington-based lobbying group, the Family Research Council (FRC). In its promotional efforts, the FRC has pointed out that the Cox News Service, in an early-August piece titled "90 days left: Events that may alter contest," called the upcoming Summit an "event that may alter the contest" and will provide "clues to the enthusiasm for the McCain-led GOP ticket among Republican-leaning evangelicals."

Regardless of how the importance of the Summit is parsed, it will be a significant conservative gathering. Ironically, the Values Voter Summit plays host to a convicted Watergate felon, an admitted mega-gambler, a thrice-married man, forced to resign as Speaker of the House over a series of ethical missteps, and a columnist paid by the White House for positive coverage of Bush's agenda.

IPS recently discussed the Values Voter Summit, and related political issues, with Boston, who has been attending Religious Right-sponsored events for more than 20 years. (The Family Research Council did not respond to e-mail questions.)

"Last year, every major Republican hopeful showed up, so clearly they viewed the event as important," Boston, the author of "The Most Dangerous Man in America?: Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition" (Prometheus Books, 1996), pointed out. "With the collapse of the Christian Coalition, the FRC is the biggest game in town when it comes to the Religious Right."

The Values Voter Summit 2008 is organised by Perkins' FRC Action, "The Legislative Action Arm of the Family Research Council," and co-sponsored by Dobson's Focus on the Family Action, American Values, home to former Republican presidential hopeful Gary Bauer, the Alliance Defense Fund, and Bishop Harry Jackson's High Impact Leadership Coalition.

"Perkins and other Religious Right leaders are working overtime to demonise Obama, knowing that if he elected, Obama might get the chance to replace as many as three Supreme Court justices," Boston noted.

When asked whether the Summit would energise the Republican base behind McCain, Boston pointed out that it would "certainly motivate that portion of the base that is intimately connected with the FRC and prone to attend events like this."

"However," Boston added, "The challenge has always been to extrapolate that to larger national stage. Usually, about 2,000-3,000 people attend this event. I've talked to attendees, and it's not hard to see that they are extremely conservative, even by evangelical standards. The tough question is determining what percentage of the electorate these people really represent."

"There has been much talk lately about a new breed of younger evangelicals who are less interested in the familiar issues of opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. While Obama and the Democrats are making a play for this crowd [it is unclear if] they really exist in significant numbers. Can their votes make a difference? I really don't think we'll have the answers to these questions until we see the exit polling data after Election Day."

Regarding Palin's attendance at the Summit, Boston said that he had not "heard anything about her speaking at the Values Voter Summit, but given her popularity in the evangelical community, I'd be real surprised if she doesn't show up."


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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