Winning the War on Conscience: Where the Streets Have No ShameS

TAMPA, Fla.— There are many important things to take away from yesterday's Faith and Freedom Conference in the historic Tampa Theater. That Bono must have no idea that "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Beautiful Day" are busy amping up a crowd of people who hold a Malthusian attitude toward his work in Africa. That the Tampa theater, while beautiful, exudes a slightly surreal gorgeous craftsmanship—like Muppet Rococo. And that a complete misunderstanding of the First Amendment will be a significant GOP plank for the rest of the election.

My colleague Hamilton Nolan has already covered the embarrassing highlights, but some of the subtler thematic lowlights are likely to be repeated across the state and the country.

  • At least half the audience was bused in from retiree mega-community/Geritocracy The Villages, which reliably provided ancient seat-warmers for Paul Ryan's cynical mom-pimping Medicare pitch. Now, it's funny to see these people bused over 90 miles to shore up their demographic, because most of these people are old enough to have spent a lifetime opposing busing. But their contingent is important, because these people represent the welcome demographics of old and evangelical, two groups that vote in large numbers either because they have nothing else to do or can be reliably whipped into an apocalyptic level of paranoia about the democratic process.
  • To that end, a spry senior citizen made his way down the rows, handing out what appeared to be a refrigerator magnet, saying, "These are three [Florida] liberal judges who are legislating from the bench." He skipped over every person in the audience under 50, specifically targeting seniors, for a pitch about abortion and freedom of conscience. When asked what he meant by "legislating from the bench" he gave what could best be described as a halting book report on the Wikipedia definition of "Judicial Review."

But Magnet Man hammered home the message succinctly and effectively for his audience, and any doubt as to the intent of his book-report exegesis of the judicial branch was confirmed by Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and prohibitive favorite to play the president in the They Live remake. "How did we get to this point in America?" Reed asked, describing restrictions on employers' abilities to pick and choose the services provided in employer-provided health care packages. "We were sleeping," shouted an audience member, who has apparently been taking half a Rip van Winkle since the 1960s.

Mike Huckabee took up the mantle of glower next. "The day that the government believes that it can define the limits of conscience for a person of faith—and you tell us how broad, how wide, how deep our faith can be—is a day that America best wake up," he said. He then stared at the audience portentously: "Our founders said that congress shall make NO LAW that—."

Apart from the word "conscience," the rest was drowned out and unintelligible, which is fitting, because so is his point.

What Reed, Huckabee and others hammered home is a reading of the First Amendment that says, "Congress shall make no law inconvenient to the conscience of Christians." (They make sure to throw out encomia about other religions, but aside from the useful Jews who vote for cruise missiles over the Middle East or who are rapture-ready targets, you know who they mean.) The Affordable Care Act and Democratic activists agitating for women's reproductive rights aren't fighting a rear-guard action against conservative inroads on health care choice: they are, in fact, the first wave of an unconstitutional attack on religious conscience, as if the choices they demand for themselves become personal impositions for all.

This is the land of Rand McNally, where people wear shoes on their head, and hamburgers eat people. When an employer decides that he can prevent women workers from getting birth control on their health plan because of his religious faith, that is not a kind of establishment of religion but a defense of it. When the government says that employers cannot compel large and diverse groups of employees to adhere the articles of a single person's faith, that's a tyrannical intrusion of the powerful government trammeling the beliefs of the weak.

It's a great message, and there's sure to be a lot more of it. It appeals to the anti-choice crowd, general misogyny, evangelicals, small business owners, the anti-labor wing and, finally, the general mass of American conservatism that looks on the last four decades of controlling the political climate of this country as an endless source of victimization.