The New “Values Voters” Mantra

Government oppresses you. That’s the theme of the ad released yesterday by the political arm of religious right powerhouse Family Research Council, the FRC Action PAC, and which it is running against House Democratic incumbents Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-8), Betsy Markey (CO-4), Carol Shea-Porter (NH-1), John Boccieri (OH-16), and Tom Perriello (VA-5).

In a press release about the $125,000 ad buy, FRC highlighted its campaign against Perriello, a Democrat representing a swath of central and southwest Virginia who was once considered a poster child for the Democrats’ faith outreach. After helping to launch Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Faithful America, Perriello beat Republican incumbent Virgil Goode in 2008, but is now virtually tied in the polls with his Republican challenger Robert Hurt.

The ad, which FRC considers “one of the most humorous” of this election cycle, uses fat cat men in suits as a metaphor for government — on your back, slowing you down, hampering your progress in life. It declares that “Perriello caved” by voting for the “big health care, big bailouts, and big debt:”

Note the framing: the ad doesn’t say anything about abortion, homosexuality, values, morals, or faith, although on FRC Action’s website Perriello’s enumerated sins include supporting repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and voting for the abortion provisions in the health care law that the religious right falsely claims includes federal funding for abortions.

This is the terrain of the religious right-tea party alliance: government is the enemy, they agree. Any further alliance will be forged not on whether tea partiers start to talk about abortion and gay marriage at rallies, but whether they can agree on a second point, after government is the enemy: that the Bible, church and family (narrowly defined) should be the foundation of political life.

Conservatives are not all lined up: the National Rifle Association has endorsed Perriello over Hurt, along with incumbent Democrats in 57 other races, according to today’s Washington Post. That’s because the NRA’s policy is to endorse the incumbent, regardless of party, all things ammunition-related being equal. In Perriello’s district, though, as in many others, few political observers would guess that gun rights are going to trump economic issues for voters, and it’s hard to say whether the NRA’s endorsement will mean much in the end. By contrast, though, if the “values” issues are packed into the anti-government rhetoric (which masquerades as a “humorous,” purely economic argument), as in the FRC Action ad, the religious right is making an attempt to burrow into the conservative consciousness in a way it has not before. The “values voters” stalwarts of 2004 are now talking about government as a dude stealing your money, rather than talking about two dudes getting married.

Gun Owners of America, which considers the NRA too moderate, and which has endorsed hard right (and tea party-supported) candidates like Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and Rand Paul, has called the pro-gun rights Democrats endorsed by the NRA the “deceptive blue dogs.”

On the surface, the GOA, like the FRC, seems to share the “government=tyranny” ideology with the tea party movement. But it shares far more with the religious right (and indeed shares far more with the religious right than the NRA does). “Big government”=”tyranny,” for the GOA and many others on the religious right, is code for government is supplanting God’s will and plan for what America is and should be. As Julie and I reported in a piece about the GOA over the summer, GOA’s position is rooted in its religion, not the Constitution (which it believes is a reflection of God’s will, not human hands):

The militia movement and Christian Reconstructionism both contend that our current civil government, most especially the federal government, is illegitimate: that it has overreached the limits of its divinely ordained authority, and that it continues to do so. At this intersection of the religious right and the militia movement, gun ownership is portrayed as a religious issue. “When we’re talking about firearms,” GOA executive director Larry Pratt told RD, “we’re not really talking about a right but an obligation, as creatures of God, to protect the life that was given them.”

Many in the militia movement, the Tea Party Movement, and Christian Reconstruction also share the view that civil government should be reformed according to the dictates of biblical law.

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Like Rushdoony, [GOA lawyer Herb] Titus argues that government is by covenant; that authority is distributed by God among three institutions with distinct (and distinctly limited) jurisdictions: family, church, and civil government. To root this view in the American Constitutional system, Rushdoony and Titus both read the secular language of the Constitution in the context of the invocation of “the Creator” in the Declaration of Independence: “Inalienable rights are endowed by the Creator.” These rights, both Rushdoony and Titus contend, are not granted by either document, only recognized in them; these rights exist only because they were granted by God. 

That “endowed by the Creator” argument has been made repeatedly by Republican politicians in speeches lately, including Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich. That’s the new “values voters” rhetoric: government is a tyrant, disobedient to God. Sure, all the anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-secularism stuff is packed in there. But at its core — and at its dangerous intersection with the tea party — the new mantra is fundamentally about subverting the “tyrannical” federal government.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email