Faith, Freedom, and Fissures in the Right Wing Veneer

The cream of the right wing will gather in Washington this weekend to join entertainer Lee Greenwood and top GOP presidential candidates in showering Focus on the Family founder James Dobson with tributes and praise – and attend workshops on topics including the homosexual agenda and discrimination against Christians on college campuses.

But at least one historian wonders whether the Religious Right’s time – in an era of Mark Foley, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard and the Iraq War – has come and gone.For several decades, evangelical leaders like Dobson and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and, more recently Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have elevated themselves as the moral arbiters of the nation, notes Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University and an ordained Episcopal priest.

However, especially in recent times, Balmer says, “the whole Religious Right is suffering from a lack of credibility.”

Underscoring his point, Balmer rattles off a list of right wing scandals of the recent past – Rep. Mark Foley and underage male interns, Ted Haggard and meth and a male prostitute, Sen. Larry Craig in a bathroom stall – men who claimed to have been living the pious life who became victims of their own hypocrisy.

“The Haggard thing is a sadness, it’s a tragedy,” Balmer says.

And in fact, many Christians, he argues, are torn between the inconsistencies of their faith and the political agenda adopted by many of their political leaders.

“There are a growing number of evangelicals who are saying, `we’ve been throwing ourselves into the political arena and what do have to show for it?’ The answer is: Not much.

“Dobson and [Tony] Perkins and other leaders are saying the crucial issues of our day are abortion and same sex unions, and I respectfully disagree,” says Balmer, whose recently completed book about religion and the presidency, titled “God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush,” is scheduled for release in January.

Rather, the professor predicts that historians will likely give far more prominence to the war in Iraq. From a Christian tradition and perspective, is this a just war? Balmer asks. A defensive war? Have provisions been made to shield civilians from collateral damage? How will Christians, looking back on the early years of the 21st century, explain the current administration’s systematic use of torture? Balmer wonders.

“These are people who say they’re pro-life – how can they rationalize the use of torture?” he asks of religious leaders who have not stepped forward to condemn the practices.

Such topics are notably missing from the agenda for this weekend’s conference – called the Washington Briefing: A Call To Action. Rather, the gathering is advertised, at the group’s Website, as “the largest gathering of Values Voters from across the nation” and will feature a gala dinner honoring Dobson (The theme is “Family, Faith and Freedom”) with entertainment by country star Lee Greenwood. Breakout sessions promise to explore such topics as “The Political Blogosphere” and “Science `Friction’ in the Bioethics Debate.”

Though no Democrat is currently listed on the roster of featured speakers, the Republican candidates for president have faithfully lined up to speak – including Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter and Ron Paul.

Dobson, the star of the show, has already publicly rejected three of the GOP’s top-tier candidates – Giuliani, McCain and Thompson. Another top candidate, Romney, is Mormon – which some Christian leaders consider a cult.

Newt Gingrich, the thrice-married former Speaker of the House who some evangelical leaders seemed to favor but who recently announced he won’t be running, will also be there.

Other speakers will include many of the stalwarts of the old guard of the far right: Phyllis Schlafley, Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, Robert Bork,  Ed Meese, Tony Perkins, Rick Santorum and Paul Weyrich.

Also scheduled to speak is Richard Land, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the influential Southern Baptist Convention. Land recently made headlines by challenging Dobson over the Focus leader’s harsh dismissal of Thompson’s presidential candidacy; some have called the split a microcosm of a fissure that is growing within the ranks of evangelical leadership.

Meanwhile, in between the speakers and the Republican presidential group hug, conference attendees will be treated to breakout sessions – many of them conducted by attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, an army of litigators that was organized by Dobson and other evangelical leaders with the mission to go to battle for the right wing cause.

Among the weekend’s planned sessions:

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