To reach the Washington, D.C., hotel where he delivered a speech to right-wing extremists, Paul Ryan had to pass demonstrators waving signs that read, “The TV cameras are on. Fold the white sheets” and “Value love not hate.”
Inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel, the Wisconsin congressman and Republican vice presidential nominee hammered at Barack Obama on foreign affairs, health care, abortion, religious freedom and gay marriage before about 2,500 disciples of the Values Voter Summit, which was co-hosted by the Family Research Council and the American Family Association.
Both organizations have been labeled as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a coalition of civil rights groups had urged Ryan and other public officials to skip the summit.
Civil rights leaders have characterized the annual event that began in 2006 as an extremist affair promoting hate rhetoric and recycling lies about Jews and Muslims, gays and Latinos – and also Democrats.
But for a Republican Party pitched to the right, the summit is seen as a must-do event on the political calendar, something of a second convention.
For civil rights activists outside the Omni, the issue was less about what Ryan said – which was predictable – and more about his appearance at a hate-group event.
“Congressman Ryan has long been on the very edge of the con servative Republican party,” said Nicole Safar, public policy director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.
“American Jews will feel a sense of profound disappointment that two of the most important Republicans in the country have chosen to address – and thus court and legitimize – some of America’s most extreme and deeply disturbing social conservatives at today’s Values Voter Summit,” said National Jewish Democratic Council CEO David A. Harris, referring to Ryan and U.S. Rep Eric Cantor of Virginia, who promoted “traditional marriage” in his remarks.
Harris noted FRC’s “infamous history of gay bashing, (as well as) anti-Muslim and intolerant statements, including disgustingly and directly linking homosexuality to the Holocaust. But equally concerning is the history of hate-filled toxic rhetoric that flows from many of its participants year after year. This is above and beyond one of the summit’s organizers’ calls for Jews to be converted to Christianity.”
FRC was launched in 1981 by James Dobson, who created it as a lobbying group tied to Focus on the Family, his early Christian right group formed to block LGBT civil rights efforts and reproductive freedoms.
FRC became its own entity in the early 1990s, with Tony Perkins, a former Louisiana legislator, at the helm. Today FRC is a right-wing powerhouse that lobbies Congress and makes PAC contributions, including to Wisconsin’s Sean Duffy and Mark Neumann. According to Perkins, the group had enough influence to be given the job of writing the anti-gay marriage provisions that are contained in the Republican Party’s national platform.
But political positions didn’t earn FRC its hate group status, according to SPLC president Richard Cohen. The classification is based on the organization’s demonizing of LGBT people, spreading lies and misinformation about a class of people, to incite prejudice and hatred.
FRC “isn’t some policy shop that attempts to find constructive solutions to problems facing our society,” said Human Rights Campaign vice president Fred Sainz. “Tony Perkins wants you to believe that FRC is a family-focused advocacy organization, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The only thing FRC advocates for is the demonization of those who do not fit into their narrow worldview. They are a hate group that actively spreads blatant lies about LGBT people – with absolutely no regard for the impact of their harmful rhetoric.”
Both FRC and AFA, for example, advocate therapy to turn gays straight – a treatment that’s not supported by any credible medical or mental health organization.
At the 2011 Values Voter Summit, the AFA’s Bryan Fischer said the “homosexual agenda” is the nation’s “greatest immediate threat.” Perkins, opening this year’s summit, compared homosexuality to drug abuse. He also has said pedophilia is a “homosexual problem” and others at FRC have called for recriminalizing homosexuality.
In early September, the SPLC and HRC, along with People for the American Way, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, National Black Justice Coalition, National Council of La Raza and Faithful America, called on public officials not to attend the Values Voter Summit.
“Our message is a simple one,” Cohen said. “Public officials should not lend the prestige of their office to groups that spread demeaning and false propaganda about other people.”
The news events of the week – the killing of U.S. diplomats in Libya and escalating anti-American violence in the Middle East sparked over an anti-Islam video – dictated the substance of higher-profile speeches. Traditionally, the summit is devoted to challenging reproductive freedom, marriage equality and immigration reform.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, speaking mid-morning on Sept. 14, focused her ire on “radical Islamists … who seek to impose their set of beliefs on the rest of the world.” In an address about foreign affairs and national security, she remembered the Alamo and quoted Gen. Douglas Macarthur.
Ryan spoke during the same session, focusing much of his speech on the Obama administration’s handling of foreign affairs. But he also nodded at domestic issues. He boasted of Mitt Romney’s pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act on day one if he’s elected and said Barack Obama has sought to dictate Catholic Church policy on contraception.
To cheers, Ryan attacked Obama’s support for the right of women to terminate their pregnancies. “‘We’re all in this together’ – it has a nice ring,” he said. “For everyone who loves this country, it is not only true but obvious. Yet how hollow it sounds coming from a politician who has never once lifted a hand to defend the most helpless and innocent of all human beings, the child waiting to be born.”
In his only reference to LGBT issues, Ryan, who has a consistent anti-gay record, said, “We can be confident in the rightness of our cause, and also in the integrity and readiness of the man who leads it (Mitt Romney). He’s solid and trustworthy, faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best.”
The remarks rang familiar to those who have heard Ryan’s stump speech in recent weeks, and to those in the congressman’s home state.
Safar said that Ryan “would rather appeal to a narrow conservative political view than address the issues that women are facing every day in this country.”
She added, “To be clear, Congressman Ryan believes that politicians should ban abortion access – no exceptions, even when a woman will die or is the victim of rape or incest. This is a view that over two-thirds of voters consistently reject. President Obama is clearly on the side of the majority of voters and frankly the side of women when he says that politicians should not be involved in women’s medical decisions. Congressman Ryan is out of touch with what women in our country know: We don’t consult politicians when it comes to advice about mammograms or cancer screenings or treatment. Politicians should not be involved in a woman’s personal medical decisions about her pregnancy.”
In the week before the conference, the Values Voter website contained a long list of speakers – many confirmed, but some not, including Mitt Romney. Late in the week, after organizers indicated to the press that the candidate’s wife would speak, the Romney campaign said she had no such plan. Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who delivered prayers at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, also was a listed speaker but said he never planned to attend.
The summit did feature Ryan, Bachmann and Cantor, as well as:
• U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
• TV actor Kirk Cameron.
• U.S. Reps. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Steve King of Iowa and James Lankford of Oklahoma.
• Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona.
• U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas.
American Family Association leaders Tim Wildmon and Buddy Smith also had microphones, as did retired Lt. Col. Oliver North of Iran-Contra Affair fame and anti-choice activist Lila Rose, who has called for abortions to be performed in the public square.
Perkins said the summit is so popular with Republican officeholders that “we have a waiting list of those who want to speak. We’ve had to turn away members of Congress.”