If there’s anything we know about evangelical Christians, it’s that they comprise a remarkably effective voting block, and the religious right has been a core part of the Republican coalition for decades.
So it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that the two top members of the Republican ticket, presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running-mate, Paul Ryan, would court the Family Research Council at its recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., where, on Friday, Ryan delivered a speech, and Romney appeared via video message. But what is appalling is that the event this duo endorsed quickly devolved into a hate fest directed against an American religious minority.
At the podium in the massive ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, and in the breakout sessions that followed, the conference’s Saturday line-up seemed contrived to demonize Muslims as liars, infiltrators and worse -- and one speaker, retired Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, sought to direct U.S. foreign policy in ways that could affect the outcome of the presidential election, by calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike Iran before November 6.
Religious Tolerance -- For Whom?
At the Saturday plenary session, FRC promoted itself as being all about religious tolerance. "Our founding fathers considered religious liberty our first freedom," intoned FRC president Tony Perkins. "It was the bedrock on which all our freedoms rest."
Perkins then introduced a panel of right-wing activists who set out to enrage the audience with tales of Christian students in American public schools being prohibited from praying, thanks to secular school boards and “activist” judges. One story that drew audible anger from the crowd was of a student in at Medina (not that Muslim one!) High School in Texas who was unable to invoke a call to prayer during her valedictorian speech.
But the discussion quickly turned from the supposed suppression of the Christian faith in the United States to the ostensible privileging of the Islamic one. Fox News Radio's Todd Starnes condemned the Obama administration's criticism of an anti-Islam film that has sparked protests in the Middle East.
"This is not about a film, this is about free speech!" proclaimed Starnes, to thunderous applause from the audience. Overnight, news had broken of the questioning by law enforcement authorities of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, one of the makers of the anti-Islam video, “Innocence of Muslims,” that has inflamed the Islamic world. Nakoula, an Egyptian-born Christian who is currently serving a sentence for bank fraud, was interviewed to determine whether he had violated the terms of his parole, which prohibits him from going on the Internet, through his involvement with video, which was posted on YouTube.
In Starnes’ telling, though, the interrogation of Nakoula was government “intimidation” of a “Christian filmmaker.” He did not mention that Nakoula was a felon on parole.
Ironically, Starnes runs a Web site at Fox News Radio where he routinely condemns what he views as anti-Christian or anti-American behavior.
My God is Bigger Than Yours
But the other speakers at the plenary panel were small fish compared to Jerry Boykin. The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general was perhaps more fitted for being to a case study on religious hostility than to lecture an audience about it.
Boykin, whom FRC hired in July to become its executive vice president, has a controversial history of Muslim-bashing, such as when he claimed that the war on terror was a spiritual war between Muslims and "Christian America" in 2003. (That didn’t stop Romney from meeting with him in August.)
In 2002, Boykin told a church in Daytona Beach, Florida that he was able to pursue a Muslim fighter in Somalia because he knew that "[my] God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." An internal investigation found that his anti-Muslim rhetoric had violated three Pentagon rules, but he was allowed to stay on until his retirement in 2007.
After warning the audience that Hitler was hailed as a progressive, and then equating progressives with Lenin and Stalin, Boykin became particularly animated when he told spoke of how he was rejected, post-retirement, as a speaker at a West Point event. "They asked me to withdraw because atheist groups and the Council on American Islamic Relations asked me not to be there," he said, anger in his voice. "I had to remind myself, you don't take flack until you're over the target. So I reminded myself that I was over the target."
Actually, it was VoteVets, a progressive organization of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, that first raised objections to the scheduled Boykin appearance and applied the relentless pressure that ultimately got Boykin to withdraw, according ThinkProgress.
Barbary Pirates and the Muslim Brotherhood
The hostility against Muslims only grew in the breakout sessions later that afternoon. The first session I attended was called "Understanding Radical Islam 101." Behind me sat William Temple, a tea partier and colonial re-enactor who frequents right-wing events, as he did this one, dressed in full colonial regalia, and carrying a full-sized Gadsden flag on a pole.
Temple told me that he wanted to attend the session because the wars the United States is conducting in the Muslim world today are no different than when, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the U.S. fought the Barbary pirates (a crime syndicate based in Muslim nations known for taking European Christians for ransom, or for the slave trade). In his mind, Muslims have always been at war with America. I reminded him that the first country that recognized America as a sovereign state was Morocco, a Muslim nation. He shrugged off this fact.
After warning attendees and fellow panelists that “there are media in our mix,” moderator and media consultant Kristi Hamrick set the tone for the session, renaming the session “Islam 101,” and ascribing the beliefs of Islamist extremists to the whole of the world’s Muslim population.
In a bid for the credibility of her claim, Hamrick introduced Nonie Darwish, an "ex-Muslim" right-wing author and activist who was at the event hawking her book.
"When it comes to Islam, Americans are confused,” Darwish said, in her thick Egyptian accent. “The whole world is confused," she explained as audience members nodded along. "The only way to understand the most dangerous ideology of our time is through honest discussion, we should have the courage to speak."
Lest anyone in the audience think she was referring only to radicals within the faith, she then launched into a no-holds-barred attack on Muslims as a whole. "Islam's number one enemy is the truth, that's the truth! America's number one virtue is the truth!" she said to applause.
"Islam is rotten to the core...ultimately the West is giving them a bloodline of credibility that they don't deserve," she advised.
Darwish then picked up on a theme that would be repeated throughout the day: Don't trust Muslims, they'll just lie to you.
"Islam obliges Muslims to lie...,” Darwish claimed. “There is sharia law that says lying is obligatory if the purpose is obligatory...It's a daily thing in Arab media to slander Israel, to lie about Israel, to lie about America."
At the conclusion of her speech, the audience gave her a standing ovation. "Yeah, hey, yeah!" yelled out Temple behind me.
Arab Spring as Pan-Islamist Conspiracy
Then the Christian Broadcasting Network's Erick Stakelbeck -- who was also hawking a book offering his supposed expert take on the Muslim world -- spoke. His target? The Arab Spring.
"Who has benefited from the Arab Spring? The Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and Iran," he said, somehow conflating three groups with very different sets of interests. It would also probably surprise the government in Tehran to know that the Arab Spring that threatens to topple their closest regional ally, Bashar Al-Assad, is to their benefit.
"[Shia Muslim] ideology is they believe the Mahdi, the Islamic Messiah, disappeared down a well in the 9th century," he said to laughter from crowd full of Biblical literalists who believe in talking snakes and men who can walk on water that apparently lacked a sense of irony. "I'm just the messenger here!"
Tarring Administration Officials as Enemies of the State
The last speaker was far-right kingpin Frank Gaffney, who was also selling a book. Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official, specializes in a particular brand of Islamophobia that involves spreading the fear of "sharia law” -- the idea that Muslims will take hold of the legal system and force Americans to live under the dictates of the Quran.
Thanking the "great heroes" who spoke before him, Gaffney launched into a tirade about "Muslim Brotherhood" infiltration in the United States. If you listen to Gaffney, who runs a think tank called the Center for Security Policy, the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative political movement in the Islamic world, has total control over the thoughts and actions of prominent Muslims all over the United States.
He pulled up a PowerPoint slide of Muslim organizations in the United States, and explained that "all" of the major Muslim organizations in the country are basically offshoots of the Brotherhood, and that they are all committed to "civilizational jihad."
He then pulled up the pictures of eight prominent Muslims who serve in or are near to the Obama administration. These people, Gaffney said, are "working to subvert our nation from within." The one Gaffney focused on the most was Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against whom Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann famously led a witch hunt.
Gaffney also fear-mongered about Rashad Hussein, Obama's envoy to the Organization of Islamic Countries. Hussein, he warned, "has memorized every word of the Quran. My experience of [Islam] is that you kind of have to be into it to do it...So is this guy representing us to this dangerous group or this dangerous group to us?" For Gaffney, even knowledge of the Quran's words is a national security threat.
In the last part of his presentation, he warned attendees against trusting Grover Norquist (who happens to be married to a Muslim woman). He bizarrely claimed that Norquist was intent on letting the "Muslim Brotherhood get access to people like George W. Bush," and that Romney was in his sights next. (Gaffney’s claim against Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform is a well-funded, secular right-wing operation, got Gaffney barred from speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year in Washington.)
Gaffney closed his presentation with a quotation from Ronald Reagan. The choice of Reagan is actually quite ironic for a "pro-Israel" and anti-Muslim panel. After all, it was Reagan who allied with and funded jihadists to battle the Soviet Union, and who once furiously demanded to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that he stop bombing Arabs in South Lebanon.
Advice to Bibi: Bomb Iran Now!
The last panel I attended -- "Israel, Iran, and the Future of Western Civilization" -- brought the Values Voter Summit to its logical conclusion. First, attendees were told that Christians were under attack. Second, they were told that Muslims were the ones leading the attack. This panel was designed to get these evangelicals to the polls to vote out the man who, they are told, is standing by and letting it happen: Barack Obama.
Boykin returned for this event, and he was joined by Kamal Saleem, another "ex-Muslim" convert to Christianity who has claimed that he was once trained to be an Islamic terrorist -- a story that has not stood up to scrutiny.
"The problem is grim while the American people are still sleeping about this," warned Saleem in his broken English. "The infiltration has gone to the core of this nation."
Saleem told the audience that the Shia Islam philosophy followed by the leaders of Islam dictates to them that they must first "destroy the world" so that they can later "Islamisize" it. "These people are not looking to make a friendship," he said of the world's Muslims. "When our president bowed before them, he gave full permission to bow before Islam."
Boykin informed the crowd that Obama's unwillingness to attack Iran is especially dangerous. "I believe that Iran has a nuclear weapon today, I think they have a weapon already," he said, making a claim that not even the most hawkish of Israeli politicians have.
At this point, the crowd was ready for blood. And Boykin did not disappoint. "They've had several of their leading scientists," said Boykin of Iranian nuclear researchers," for whatever reason blow up." The crowd roared in laughter. "They've just had some bad, bad luck." The crowd applauded rigorously.
The reason why we should all applaud the deaths of Iranian scientists is simple, according to Boykin. "[Iranian leader Ahmedinijad] believes he has been called by Allah to usher in the reign of the Mahdi," he said, explaining that Iran is not deterred by the threat of mutually assured destruction. "Every Iranian, every Shia, every Muslim that is killed in a return [nuclear] strike becomes a martyr and goes straight to heaven. That is his theology."
"If we come close to the November 6th election and it appears that there is a high probability that the current administration will return, I think [Israel has] to run a pre-election strike," recommended Boykin. "That is the one secure way to assure [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] has U.S. support for a strike."
That might just sound like a self-important former general talking to himself, until one considers that the Values Voter Summit kicked off the day before with a breakfast event featuring Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States.
But in recommending war with Iran, Boykin doesn't have any illusions about the scope of the conflict. "It's going to have impact globally. And it's going to have impact globally because the Iranians will unleash a reign of terror not only on Israel itself from Hezbollah and South Lebanon, but they will unleash a reign of terror on America."
In Boykin's mind, these are merely the consequences of God's plan. (A common element of Christian evangelical theology is the requirement for a war known as Armageddon in the Middle East, and the existence of the state of Israel, before Jesus can return to earth.)
"It is up to us as Christians, A, to pray for Israel, and B to stand with Israel if they are forced into this situation that they have to strike,” he instructed the crowd. “We need to pray for Israel, God bless you!"
Rape Metaphor and a Gay Joke, as Attacks on Black Officials
During the question-and-answer session, a number of attendees wanted to know more about how Muslims were supposedly infiltrating the U.S. government.
Saleem alleged that a U.N. treaty that Obama was working to enforce to replace the constitution with sharia law. Under this new, purportedly Obama-enforced regime, "churches and synagogues will go down underground because now you'll have to submit your sermons to the government." The consequences of an Obama re-election, he said, would be to "lose this nation.”
“We can lose our sovereignty," he claimed.
One questioner, an older woman, wanted to know how Americans can trust the words of any Muslim if they are instructed by their faith to lie.
"It's the Muslim Brotherhood that speaks for all Muslims in America," replied Boykin. "Find the Muslim community, find the Imam and say if you'll make statements condemning sharia...and then ask him, ‘Do you support Hamas?’ -- then if he won't answer that question...forget him -- move on to the next one."
"But even in that regard they are obligated to lie about Hamas," she began to reply.
"If they will make a public statement saying, ‘We'll condemn Hamas...’" Boykin interjected.
This went on for a while until Saleem jumped back in. "There's a very, very small formula, any Muslim that defend Islamic act, or like the senator (sic) from, you know, Minnesota, Ellison, yes -- and he defended the action of the Egyptian this or this or that, this is what we need to watch.” (Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., an African American, is the only Muslim member of Congress.)
“Anyone who is defending the act of Islam you will know that he is radical,” Saleem continued, “because liberal Muslim will not defend the actions of Islam. That's how you will know. There are those who are fruitful and those who are fruity!" The audience erupted in laughter at what seemed to be an anti-gay joke.
Saleem had the chance to propose one more conspiracy theory at the very end of the panel. One questioner asked, if a President Romney expanded domestic drilling, could the United States wean itself from dependence on oil from Muslim countries.
"This president is holding us in headlock so we can be raped by Islamic nations," said Saleem, offering the most brutal imagery yet of Barack Obama doing the bidding of his Muslim minions.
Hate as a Hail Mary Pass
It is difficult to imagine any other religious group facing the sort of rank hatred that Muslims faced at the Values Voters Summit and still getting the ringing endorsement of a major political candidate like Mitt Romney. Surely if the FRC was telling people to blacklist rabbis or that all Christians are deluded liars, Romney and Ryan would be running as far away from the event as possible.
But for the religious right, the promotion of Islamophobia is its Hail Mary pass -- one last ditch attempt to retain relevancy. The country is becoming increasingly tolerant and socially liberal, and one day soon Christian conservatives will no longer be able to turn out the votes in battleground states that wins pandering from Republican presidential candidates. For all of us who wish to live in a country where no group is demonized or hated for political points, that day couldn't come soon enough.