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Fundamentalism and the slippery slope of New Conservatism



It's a warm September night in Greenwood, just south of Indianapolis, and the few hundred people gathered at the Grace Assembly of God church are visibly angry.

Attorney and lobbyist Eric Miller knows it. He's leading the second of seven "Take Back America" rallies planned around the state by his group, Advance America – a Christian reform group that seeks, among other things, to restore the country to what it believes was its Christian founding.

It's unclear who, exactly, has had America taken away from them. But Miller has an uncanny grasp of the fear and loss impregnating the moment, and knows how to work the crowd accordingly.

"We are approaching, on Nov. 2, quite possibly the most important election in our lifetimes, if not the most important election in the history of America," he intones.

"America is still the greatest country on the face of the earth. We have a window of opportunity we must take full advantage of."

Among the group's major policy points is its position against a long-dead bill to allow transvestite or transgendered males into women's restrooms and locker rooms. At least three times, Miller equates "cross-dressers" with rapists and pedophiles.

Other policy priorities include efforts to: block hate-crime legislation ("it would create two classes of victims"); require doctors to inform women seeking abortions that "life begins at conception and that the unborn baby may feel pain when the abortion occurs"; and create an amendment to the Indiana State Constitution banning same-sex marriage.

The platform also includes a complete repeal of property taxes, despite the fact that local governments around the state have been hobbled by recent property tax caps.

Fired-up cries and raucous applause fill the vaulted space beneath the church's pitched ceiling, punctuating Miller's every talking point.

"Damn right!" they shout. "Heck no!" "Preach it!" When time comes to solicit donations, Miller's bright and toothy smile is as glistening and confident as his folksy manner of speech is free and easy.

It's election season in Indiana, 2010 – not a bad time and place to be a leader in the Christian fundamentalist right wing.

A question of influence

Amid roadside billboards decrying the "socialism" of President Barack Obama, and television ads attacking "the Pelosi agenda," Miller's pro-church, anti-gay, anti-tax rhetoric seems to have found fertile soil across the Hoosier state this season.

Miller made an unsuccessful run for governor in 2004, losing in the Republican primary to Gov. Mitch Daniels. But those were halcyon times, when the economy was thriving.

Since then, Advance America, founded by Miller in 1980, has swelled to include more than 45,000 families, 1,500 businesses, and more than 3,700 churches statewide, according to its website. The group's Greenwood rally was relatively small. The group claims it drew 1,000 attendees to its rally in Crown Point last month.

For this election season, the group plans to print and distribute some 850,000 of these "non-partisan" election guides. At the time this article was reported, Advance America had yet to release this year's guide. Requests by NUVO for advance copies were denied. Requests for an interview with Miller went unanswered.

Of course, intangibles like power and influence are like storm clouds: you can see them, even feel them, but they're tough to measure. State Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis) said he believed the influence of Christian fundamentalists like Miller was waning amid concerns over the economy, rather than social issues like gay marriage.

"They have nothing to contribute on the economic issues," DeLaney said. "I imagine that some people would be intimidated by them, but I can't think of anybody that falls in that category."

Still, it was clear in conversations with people close to Democratic leadership that there was a fear among statehouse liberals of speaking out against conservative leaders like Miller. Some social conservatives could still vote for moderate Democrats because of economic issues. Even long-time Democratic incumbents won't risk alienating even a handful of potential voters.

In that sense, Democrats are nearly as reluctant to stand up to Miller's rhetoric as they are to popular measures like the state property tax cap. Defending the utility of taxes is a tough position, only barely defensible in less frenetic political climates – let alone today, when fears about ballooning deficits and anger over corporate bailouts have voters furious.

That's evident in local Tea Party rhetoric. In a recent correspondence about the U.S. Senate race, Anna Kroyman, administrator for the White County Tea Party Patriots, told NUVO that federal health care reforms were "the greatest to freedom and liberty this country has ever seen."

All this seems to coalesce to the advantage of Christian charismatics like Miller. Despite the inherently intrusive nature of a platform that seeks to legislate Christianity, the Tea Party's anti-tax message has a sizable overlap with Miller's fundamentalists, who, at rallies like the one in Greenwood, seem to lump low taxes, health-care reform and religion into a catch-all vision of "the way things used to be."

The new mainstream?

It is tempting for progressives to believe such opinions lie outside the mainstream. But if the numerous primary losses by relatively moderate, establishment Republicans to extreme-right opponents are any indication, the more extreme voices on the fringe aren't just making noise – they're pulling the GOP center further right.

Tea Party-backed winners like Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, and Joe Miller in Alaska, have openly espoused extremist views that would have spelled mainstream political death just a few years ago – from "Second Amendment remedies" to the dismantling of Social Security and Medicare to the belief that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Closer to home, U.S. Congressman Mike Pence (R-6th District) has won national favor and is a regular on Fox News for his Tea Party leadership. Many view Pence as a presidential hopeful.

Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute (IFI), is a behind-the-scenes embodiment of the cozy relationship between faith-based ideologues and mainstream politics in Indiana. Prior to taking over the IFI, Smith worked in Washington for 15 years as a press secretary, campaign manager, communications director, state director, and chief of staff for Sen. Dan Coats and Rep. John Hostettler.

Smith no longer works in any official capacity for Coats, who is currently running against Democrat Brad Ellsworth to fill Evan Bayh's U.S. Senate seat. But, like Advance America, IFI – a self-described "non-partisan public education and research organization" – also produces voter guides ahead of major elections.

Also like Advance America, major policy priorities include the push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, tighter state restrictions on abortions and blocking anti-hate crime legislation ("the brain-child of activists hoping to promote homosexuality, bisexuality and gender identity disorder," as the group puts it).

Smith noted that there was a tendency among the value-voter set to relax when an openly Christian conservative like George W. Bush was in charge – and to increase activity when more progressive leaders like President Obama took over.

"I think people do kind of look at the national conversation, and if they think that their voice and their values are being expressed, they look less for other alternatives," he said. "In a time when they don't have that sense, when they feel that, actually, there's hostility, then they tend to look to groups like the Family Institute."

Smith rejected the stereotype that the Tea Party movement, for example, was all about the "angry white man." He pointed to a poll from July that showed that seniors in one Indiana Congressional district were considering Republican candidates three-to-one over Democrats – results he attributed to fears that Medicare would be taken away, and that the country's future was being plundered by profligate spending.

"If that happens in November, Republicans are going to get 60 seats," he said.


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