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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tea Party Jesus: Koch's Americans For Prosperity Sidles Up to Religious Right for 2012 Campaign



Tea Party Jesus: Koch's Americans For Prosperity Sidles Up to Religious Right for 2012 Campaign

David Koch's key operative, Tim Phillips, is moving to merge the religious right with the Tea Party movement -- just in time for the presidential race.

Jesus, it seems, is a fiscal conservative. Make that a tax-cut-loving, labor-union-busting, supply-side fiscal conservative. How else to explain the presence of Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-funded Tea Party astroturf group, Americans for Prosperity, as a presenter at the Awakening conference sponsored by the religious-right group, Freedom Federation?

Now effectively in the employ of the libertarian David Koch, who founded Americans for Prosperity and chairs the board of its foundation, Phillips has deep ties to the evangelical Right, most notably with Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, who now heads a new entity, the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Reed and Phillips go way back; the two were partners in Century Strategies, the political consulting group through which Reed played a role in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. Now, it seems Phillips is partnered with Reed and other Religious Right leaders in a much greater conquest: a merger of the Religious Right and the ostensibly secular Tea Party movement to create an electoral juggernaut that will determine the outcome of the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

It’s not new for Religious Right leaders to embrace conservative economics. Back in the 1990s, Ralph Reed, then at the Christian Coalition's helm, endorsed Newt Gingrich’s "Contract with America," calling taxes a “family values” issue. Reed shrewdly calculated that the Religious Right would gain more influence within the Republican Party if it set its sights beyond a focus on abortion and gay rights. Now Reed is back in the game with his Faith and Freedom Coalition, a kind of hybrid Religious Right/Tea Party get-out-the-vote operation.

Reed, who promises to mobilize a massive conservative evangelical vote in 2012, has been organizing in Iowa, whose party caucuses mark the opening of the presidential campaign season, for more than a year. According to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Faith and Freedom Coalition has a database of 20 million evangelical voters. Last month, Reed's FFC hosted the first major Iowa gathering of a motley group of GOP presidential contenders, each eager to appeal to both religious and economic conservatives.

But there’s something more at work here than just good coalition politics. Movement strategists, such as Reed and Phillips, want to fully co-opt or merge the Religious Right, its organizing infrastructure, and its activists into the Tea Party wing of the GOP. So conservative Christian voters are being told that a radically limited federal government is God’s idea, and that right-wing economic policies are mandated by the Bible. That could be effective in places like Iowa, with its crucial early presidential caucus, where conservative voters are mobilized through evangelical churches and home-schooling groups. According to Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, “There is no comparable network for fiscal-minded or moderate Republicans.” Not even the impressive organizing prowess of Americans for Prosperity can match it.

This political strategy – claiming a biblical foundation for the anti-government agenda of the Tea Party and its corporate backers – was on full display last weekend at the Lynchburg, Va., campus of Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, where the Freedom Federation’s Awakening conference took place. In a video message, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a heroine in both movements and possible presidential candidate, hit all the Religious Right and Tea Party high points: abortion, gays, “anti-family” health care reform, and the “immoral” and “fundamentally evil” national debt. She praised Iowa voters for rejecting three state supreme court judges in a protest against the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples in the state.

“Do you see what we can do when we all work together?” asked Bachmann, who is also a popular speaker at Americans for Prosperity events. “It’s that kind of unyielding stand that I know each of you is willing to make,” she said, segueing immediately into one of her favorite Bible passages, “about a woman who also laid it all on the line.” Recounting the story of a woman who was criticized for pouring an expensive fragrant ointment over Jesus’ head, Bachmann said “[w]e should pour ourselves out for Jesus” and recounted, in what had the feel of a campaign speech, the many ways she personally has done so. Before the conference ended, Bachmann would win the Awakening’s presidential straw poll with 22 percent of the vote.

Bachmann didn’t make her scheduled appearance in person because Congress was consumed with the last-minute budget brinksmanship that ultimately averted a government shutdown. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose presidential positioning is increasingly focused on appeals to religious conservatives, did make it to Liberty, where he spoke to an invitation-only “leadership luncheon” alongside prominent “birther” Joseph Farah.

The thrice-married Gingrich began taking up the God cause about five years ago, as he sought to reclaim his place in public life after he was forced to step down as speaker and his adulterous affair, with his current wife while still married to his second wife, was exposed. His 2006 book, Rediscovering God in America, makes the case that the nation’s founders intended the Christian God to occupy a central role in the work of the republic. In 2007, Falwell offered this justification for inviting the less-than-pure Gingrich to speak at Liberty University’s graduation: “Gingrich has dedicated much of his time to calling America back to our Christian heritage,” Falwell wrote in an op-ed.

Gingrich appears to derive much of his God-and-country rhetoric from the revisionist “Christian nation” history of David Barton, a Religious Right “historian” and GOP operative who has reached millions of Americans with his frequent appearances on Glenn Beck’s soon-to-end Fox News television show. According to Barton, Jesus himself is also opposed to progressive taxation, the capital gains tax, the minimum wage, and even collective bargaining.

That sounds like the kind of Jesus that David Koch, not known for his religiosity, could get behind. Koch, the billionaire who, with his brother, Charles, leads Koch Industries (the second-largest privately held corporation in the U.S.) recently gained additional notoriety for his role, and that of Americans for Prosperity, in fomenting the anti-labor actions of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

But long before the current battles over the budgets of states and nations, the strategists of the Right were plotting the merger of the Tea Party and the conservative evangelical movement. In 2009, the Freedom Federation, an umbrella group, was launched by a constellation of right-wing groups, and described as a collaboration among religious groups. Federation members include familiar Religious Right political groups like the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America, as well as dominionist “apostolic” groups that are increasingly being embraced by the Religious Right, such as Generals International and Morningstar Ministries. But also among the founders was Americans for Prosperity, which may account for the fact that the Federation’s "Declaration of American Values" not only proclaims the groups’ allegiance to the social agenda of the Religious Right but also to a system of taxes that “are not progressive in nature, and within a limited government framework, to encourage economic opportunity, free enterprise, and free market competition.”

Today, Republican officeholders in Washington and state capitals across the nation are trying to keep both economic and social conservative voters happy by simultaneously pushing attacks on government and on women’s access to reproductive choice, linking the latter to government spending on women's health programs.

During the weeks of public debate over various short-term continuing resolutions to fund the federal government -- leading up to the recent last-minute budget deal that kept the federal government operating -- Religious Right groups called budget cuts a moral imperative, so much so that Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service wrote in February that the debt had become the “new hot issue for evangelicals.”

“America’s growing debt is not just a financial issue, it’s a spiritual one," Jerry Newcombe of Coral Ridge Ministries told Burke. "The Bible is very clear about the moral dangers of debt.”

In Lynchburg, speaker after speaker at the Awakening conference pounded that theme. The Family Research Council’s Kenneth Blackwell argued that the debt is a moral issue because it amounts to “intergenerational theft.” Evangelical leader Samuel Rodriguez, often regarded as the Right’s bridge to Latinos, equated “big government” with “the spirit of Pharaoh,” referring to the Egyptian ruler who enslaved the Jews in the biblical Book of Exodus before God sent Moses to deliver them to freedom.

AFP’s Phillips hosted a panel on what he claimed was a looming economic disaster. In introducing Blackwell, Phillips praised the Family Research Council as “one of the best organizations in the country,” saying FRC “does so much work, protecting our values, our faith, our freedom.” Also on the panel were former Reagan official Marc Nuttle, who serves on the board of the dominionist Oak Initiative, and Grover Norquist, the fiscal conservative who is one of the best-known figures on the secular right. Nuttle stayed to the weekend's script, calling big government an “idol” and warning that failure to get the nation’s fiscal house in order in the next two years could lead to “1,000 years of darkness” on the earth, while Norquist spoke in secular language.

Under normal circumstances, Liberty University would be a strange place to find Norquist, who last year joined the board of the right-wing gay Republican group GOProud, whose participation in the Conservative Political Action Conference led to a boycott by some religious conservatives. But his value as an anti-tax zealot -- best known for saying his goal was to shrink the federal government until it was small enough to drown in the bathtub -- appeared to win him a dispensation. (Norquist seems to have a drowning fetish: at Awakening he joked that an economic recovery plan would be to put all the trial lawyers in a bag and throw them in the river.) Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform, according to a report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has received $60,000 in funding from the Claude Lambe Foundation, which is headed by Charles Koch.

Norquist was there to support Tim Phillips’ push for religious and economic conservatives to work together on “limited government” and electoral victories. Blackwell and Norquist engaged in a bit of indirect jockeying, with Blackwell warning that economic conservatives would not be able to win the future if they try to marginalize social conservatives.

Norquist did not address the point directly, but described the whole of the conservative movement as a coalition grounded in a desire to be left alone by the government -- a libertarian characterization that rankles many Religious Right activists. But under Phillips’ watchful gaze, they were on their best eye-on-the-prize behavior; when asked about their differences, they declined to criticize each other and instead talked of how their followers needed to work together to win.

Norquist suggested there are no major divisions among the conservative on “vote-moving issues.” But Blackwell struck a warning: “There is no way that we can win this battle, culturally or economically, if we don’t take a stand -- for marriage, for the family, and school choice and religious liberty,” he said.

Just a few days after Bachmann, won the Awakening straw poll, Ralph Reed tweeted an upcoming appearance of his own: “Can't wait to see Tea Party friends in Orlando & Tampa on 4/15 for tax day rallies!” In Orlando, Reed will share the stage with Tea Party favorites Marco Rubio, the freshman U.S. senator from Florida who is already being touted as a potential future president, and Herman Cain, the prospective presidential candidate with strong ties to AFP. As could be said of Bachmann and Cain, that Tax Day Rally is co-sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.

Peter Montgomery is a senior fellow at People For the American Way Foundation.

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