Where was Religion at the RNC? In the Foreign Policy. No, Really.

The second part of Ohlheisers report from the floor of the RNC.  You  can read the first here.

By Abby Ohlheiser

Here are two of the lines from Mitt Romney’s address last Thursday at the RNC that got the most feverish reactions from the crowd in Tampa:

“America, [Obama] said, had dictated to other nations. No, Mr. President, America has freed other nations from dictators.”


“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”

The first, of course, speaks to a familiar liberty-oriented foreign policy stance that implies the reach of a City on a Hill. The second, which was interrupted after “oceans” with a full laugh from the audience, speaks to a sense that Obama overreaches, attempts to fix things that should remain beyond the reach of humans. The religious implications are right on the surface: Obama built the Tower of Babel (Republicans, help yourself to that reference), but Romney will build the covenant of the chosen people.

But my favorite line of Romney’s whole speech, which slipped under the radar, was this:

“The America we all know has been a story of the many becoming one, uniting to preserve liberty, uniting to build the greatest economy in the world, uniting to save the world from unspeakable darkness.”

Liberty, as understood here, does not necessarily guarantee the right of an individual to be a tool of “darkness.” A particular religious sense of a confirmed right and confirmed wrong orients the Republican platform’s central hypocrisy of preserving “liberty” as a function of limited government without protecting practices, ideas, and people who violate the set of shared values the GOP claims on behalf of the entire country. In the context of foreign policy, “darkness” becomes the imperative for intervention.


By the time Condoleezza Rice took the lectern on Wednesday to advocate for U.S. intervention – moral and literal – in broad swaths of the rest of the world, I’d already spent close to five hours in Liberty Plaza listening to a Rick Santorum-led series of events discussing just what those interventions could be.

So when Rice said this:

It has been hard to muster the resources to support fledgling democracies – or to help the world’s most desperate – the AIDS orphan in Uganda, the refugee fleeing Zimbabwe, the young woman who has been trafficked into the sex trade in Southwest Asia; the world’s poorest in Haiti. Yet this assistance – together with the compassionate works of private charities – people of conscience and people of faith – has shown the soul of our country.

I was already thinking about conservative and religious notions of accountability (with a big hat tip to the work of anthropologist Omri Elisha).  Tellingly, the examples of moral and economic poverty listed by the former Secretary of State share a lack of voice, an inability to participate in western democracies. As such, as those who are familiar with the history of U.S. mission work abroad will note, they represent the potential for an awakening. The compassionate work of helping the poor is weighted for its potential to spread a particularly American brand of liberty, which, many conservatives will (and did) say, comes from Biblical values and Christian practice.

Why? Here’s Romney again, from Thursday of the convention:

“We’re a nation of immigrants, we’re the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life. The driven ones. The ones who woke up at night, hearing that voice telling them that life in a place called America could be better.”

We are, the GOP told us that night, refugees from the rest of the world. It’s a statement with vaguely eugenic implications, the idea of (legal) immigration as a form of international Darwinism.  Romney’s address spoke to the elect, those who believe “they built that,” who by privilege, or extraordinary effort, or (more accurately), some mixture of both, were able to secure the necessities of middle class life in the U.S. The convention floor was the village of The Scarlet Letter, where the elect and aspirants must name their enemies, expelled into the wilderness, in order to preserve the core of their society.

As I moved up to my assigned nosebleed seats for Romney’s speech, red “special press” tag hanging around my neck, I recalled a 30-minute conversation I’d had with a woman in Liberty Plaza that afternoon. She bore a striking resemblance to an older version of my mother. After she finished explaining to me why the Occupy movement should have no place in American discourse, she angrily threatened to sue me if I quoted her. During the course of our interaction, I’d somehow revealed myself to be an outsider. The conversation, she told me, was simply for my benefit. If I informed myself, I’d come ’round. Then maybe we could talk.


I had a college professor who referred to the “Golden Calves of Liberalism,” foremost being, “If you inform someone, they’ll agree with you.” (Incidentally, said professor recited the Golden Calves at a campus-wide pity party the day after George W. Bush’s reelection, which essentially led to the cancellation of afternoon classes.) But the fallacy knows no ideological boundries and is encoded in the message the most conservative members of the GOP are using to rally support for Romney.

Katie Shultman, who came from Celebration, Florida, with her husband Jim to see Rick Santorum speak at a rally for Romney, told me that for her, abortion was not an issue that has two sides. “That’s killing,” she said.  “If you’re aware of all the facts,” she explained, one would see it her way.

I surveyed the room about who they supported for president. Not one person I spoke to was an original Romney supporter. Some leapt from Bachmann to Newt to Santorum as the momentum of the primaries shifted; Shultman and her husband were Santorum all the way. While many reminded me that they would happily vote for Romney against Obama, there was a sense that the political pageantry in the Tampa Bay Times Forum were appealing to, not  speaking for the conservative and Evangelical wings of the party.

The pitch from the Republican establishment to the Tea Party and religious right then was in anticipation of the power of conservative action in the U.S. – a message that a unified Republian party could part the seas, divert a hurricane, or make an unshakeable political majority. With the people of God on his side, Romney would simply ride a wave of worldview and religious revival to real change. Gary Bauer told the packed room in the Liberty Plaza main event tent on Wednesday that, “a united Republican party is the left’s worst nightmare.” For the duration of the event, a Santorum-led rally in support of Romney and Ryan made the case that the nominees for president and vice president were representative of their values, a good starting point to affect change.

Matt Romney spoke for his father at Santorum’s Romney/Ryan rally for Tea Partiers on Wednesday night. After telling the crowd that he’d “choked up a little” at Santorum’s sentimental remarks about hands and his daughter Bella.  The Romney son said, “We have a lot to look forward to in [Santorum’s] political career,” which might indicates a favorable future for the former fringe candidate who continues playing ball with the current nominee (unlike, say, Ron Paul). Matt Romney then added, “We need so badly to hear your voices this fall.” It is telling that a portion of the GOP routinely referred to as a “base” of the party would be the subject of this appeal. While the GOP platform has taken a hard right in 2012, it, and Paul Ryan’s nomination as VP, reads like a consolation prize.

Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America also pushed the message. “We need every one of you,” she implored, “It’s up to you.” While such language is routine on the campaign trail, in this room of Santorum supporters, it had a certain urgency to it. The lead-in to Santorum’s speech, indeed, was a video recapping the former candidate’s bid for the nomination, which the rally spun as an unlikely outsider moving from fringe to best hope for an alternative to Romney, thanks in part to evangelical support. By this point, the speakers had worked hard to convince the crowd that the rest of the GOP stood with their values, so Santorum launched right into the social issues, working his way up to urging his supporters to enthusiastically support Romney’s run.

“We are a pro-life party,” Santorum said, “There is no division.”  On the official RNC stage as well as in the sideshows in Liberty Plaza and downtown Tampa, nods to this idea of a “unified” party that supports conservative social issues. But, coming from Santorum, that statement actually meant something to the audience. After all, as some insinuated, Santorum could now make a go at 2016 with the head start of his strong showing at the end of the 2012 primary season. Notably absent from Santorum’s speech were the affirmations of Romney’s clean character that dominated Thursday night’s proceedings.

Santorum looked more relaxed than he did on the primary trail, and had dropped the sweater vests for a blue blazer and crisp shirt. I spotted heeled cowboy boots on his feet, which did nothing to conceal his tallness. He can simultaneously smile, pose for the camera with a supporter and stonewall a reporter.  Of all the events I attended, Santorum was the most generous with his time, lingering in the praise of Republicans who had hoped to see him address the nation on Thursday.

But, as indicated in debates, the former candidate is not immune to combativeness. Santorum has a history with funny numbers, so it wasn’t surprising when he tussled with reporters over the statement that only about 2 percent of the American population are homosexual. Before being whisked away as the conversation turned contentious, Santorum said, “Equality is a great term but there are certain things that aren’t equal, you know? There are certain things that are better than other things.”

For some of us, the beauty of the potential of American society is its capacity to contain multitudes of difference. For the GOP, it is in its capacity to feign unity. But unity requires intervention, moral intervention included, and it requires enemies.


“I’ve been exonerated in my comments,” Sharron Angle, former Tea Party candidate who ran and lost to Harry Reid in 2010, told me. Angle is known for claiming that Sharia Law is already alive and well in the U.S. and for making a series of other comments that did nothing to dissuade the media and public from seeing her as a kook.  At Liberty Plaza, she was relaxed, sitting in the back of the theater with two alternate delegates from Pennsylvania who’d taken the bus with her from the hotel. Her lipstick, red suit and, well, Angle-esque bob haircut were the giveaways from a distance that it was, in fact, the notorious former Nevada assembly member I thought she was.

She and I talked about Dearborn, Michigan, where I’ve spent some time and where Angle believes Sharia is already governing the population. She told me that the Internet had proven her right, that all I’d have to do is Google “Dearborn” and I’d find the information I’d need.  She then told me the message she’d apparently come to the convention to tell reporters: “I was saying the things that are common place that were called extreme in 2010.” She added that now, you turn on the TV and think, “Oh my gosh you just saw a Romney-Ryan ad that says exactly what Sharron Angle was saying!”

“Its too bad that politicians don’t lead, they follow the trend. Maybe I shouldn’t say that,” she concluded.


Romney’s task last Thursday was to get the audience on their feet, presumably to march towards the polls, dragging as many like-minded voters with them as they can.  In my opinion, he did. The substance of his speech was not the content of his policies or the facts presented (which, as many reporters have noted, seem to be uttered by this campaign with a cavalier dismissal of accuracy). It was the conviction of his conservative worldview Romney desperately needed the far right of his party to accept. His specific policies simply don’t matter to those eager voters, so long as they’re rooted in the right sense of right and wrong.

Despite the media’s fact checking, the nature of Romney’s speech says something about those on the floor who feel facts simply don’t matter. Fact checking may inform those who
Romney’s speech was, at least on the surface, aimed at: independent voters who may have supported Obama in 2008. But the speech was in fact a hard right turn towards American government as worldwide mission, protected by a god-given orientation against those who are, or who would tolerate, those in the wilderness.

Abby Ohlheiser is a freelance journalist. She writes for Slate’s newsblog, the Slatest, and contributes to The Revealer and The New Humanist.

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