While the media spotlight Friday was on the religious right’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, nearby the Christian left staged its own modest event meant to challenge “the misguided priorities and immoral economic agenda” of the right.
Just a half block away from the Renaissance hotel in Washington, D.C., where the Faith and Freedom Coalition event was being held, progressive Christians organized a lunch and press briefing for members of the media at the Acadiana restaurant. Several mainline Protestant, evangelical and Catholic leaders attended to denounce the religious right’s support of free-market ideology and, as they describe it, a “culture of selfishness over the common good.”
“The religious right’s agenda of punishing hard-hit families with drastic, irresponsible budget cuts while giving trillions in tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires is immoral, and people recognize that,” said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life and Faithful America.
Faithful America is responsible for sending thousands of petition signatures to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, about budget cut proposals that they say will hurt the poor.
“The radical economic agenda religious right political operatives are pushing has a lot more in common with the teachings of Ayn Rand than the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Butler asserted.
The new Faith and Freedom Coalition, founded by Ralph Reed, the former head of the once-influential Christian Coalition, is trying to revive the religious right voting bloc ahead of the 2012 presidential election. It held its first major event on Friday, drawing nearly every GOP presidential hopeful – declared or still considering – to speak on the same stage.
Notably, the South Carolina debate and the New Hampshire forum could not pull together the same GOP star power as Reed, showing that the Christian right political strategist still has major pull within the party.
Seven declared or potential Republican presidential candidates are speaking at the conference: former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain, and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.)
Business mogul Donald Trump, who last month said he won’t run for president, was also a featured speaker.
Out of the five GOP presidential candidates to speak Friday, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was the one that spoke the most about social issues. She voiced strong support for traditional marriage, Israel and defunding Planned Parenthood. She also made a fiscal vow that got the crowd to stand up in support.
“I will not rest until we repeal ObamaCare,” declared Bachmann, who received a standing ovation. “America will not rest until we repeal ObamaCare … The American people are with us on this issue, that’s why the window of opportunity we have in 2012 is so crucial.”
Fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty focused more on fiscal issues, but opened and closed his speech with Scripture.
"The best sermons aren't preached, they're lived," said Pawlenty, according to The Minnesota Star Tribune. "All the candidates are going to come out here and say, 'I'm for cutting taxes, I'm for reducing spending, I'm for promoting judges who are strict constructionists' ... I hope you'll also ask the question, 'Who's actually done it and not just talked about it?'”
Pawlenty is often heard during campaign speeches touting that he balanced the budget while serving as Minnesota governor.
While Republican presidential hopefuls were busy trying to win the evangelical vote at Reed’s event, the Christian left was preoccupied with denouncing GOP and religious right leaders for supporting an “immoral budget.”
“The real faith and values voters in this next election will be heeding God's call to protect the poor and vulnerable, children and the elderly, and not just serve the interests of campaign donors and corporations,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners. “They will uphold the principle that a budget is a moral document. While some people who gather here this weekend still seem confused, the faith community has now recognized that God is not a Republican or a Democrat.”
Those gathered at the Christian left event opposed giving wealthy Americans tax breaks while cutting aid to the nation’s poor as proposed in the House budget.
“Instead of statements that simply echo right-wing talking points that show concern for the wealthy and powerful, I would hope that Ralph Reed and those gathered with him would engage in the real and important work of seeking solutions that work for all Americans,” said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
Father Clete Kiley, director for immigration policy at Unite Here, also spoke at the gathering.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition conference will continue Saturday, ending with a 7 p.m. gala dinner.