Gay marriage is “a state sanction of sinful behavior” and homosexuality “a sinful and socially destructive lifestyle”—according to the author of the Tea Party Manifesto and founder of WorldNetDaily, Joe Farah.
The occasion for his opining was the Friday night fight of WND’s un-ironically named “ Taking America Back” conference in Miami—a debate between Farah and Christopher Barron, the co-founder and chairman of GOProud, a new gay conservative organization.
The battle lines had been drawn this summer when Farah announced he was disinviting Ann Coulter from speaking at his conference because of her decision to emcee GOProud’s “HomoCon” fundraiser in New York later this month. (Full disclosure: my wife, Margaret Hoover, is on the advisory council of GOProud.)
Technically, the topic of debate was “Is GOProud Conservative?” but the underlying issue was whether gays could be conservative at all. At a time when the gay civil rights movement has become mainstream enough to be a subject of debate within the conservative movement—and the Tea Party is trying to reconcile its libertarian promises with social conservative standard—bearers like Christine O’Donnell—this was a debate with wider implications than the 250 people who witnessed it.
WorldNewsDaily—also known as WorldNutDaily to its detractors—is a major online source of “news” to right-wing talk-radio hosts and assorted conservative conspiracy theorists. Farah, a veteran journalist who first made his name pushing anti-Clinton efforts—including serial investigations into the death of Vincent Foster (which were cited by O’Donnell in interviews at the time-in-1996-investigate-bill-clinton-for-murder-of-vince-foster.php)—has been a full-fledged conspiracy entrepreneur when it comes to the Obama administration. The white-haired and black-mustached Farah has funded “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” billboards across the U.S., and the prolific WND press’ newest book is The Manchurian President—a typically toned title. To its defenders, WND is a seeker of conservative truth in a liberal mainstream media world. In researching my book, Wingnuts, which features a profile of Farah, whenever I asked people who believed in FEMA concentration camps and oncoming martial law where they got their “news,” they invariably said “WND.”
• John Batchelor: Gingrich Is the GOP’s Fat Elvis For Barron and GOProud, this was a venture into the lion’s den. For example, a 10-foot-high banner by the conference entrance promoted one of WND’s rising stars, Molotov Mitchell, a self-described Christian zealot who combines hardcore with hate in weekly video missives (you know, for the kids). Among his most notorious offerings was a defense of Uganda’s proposed death-penalty for gays on biblical grounds. It is simply one of the ugliest and most sinister diatribes I’ve ever seen on the Internet.
“I don’t care if you are conservative on 999 issues out of 1,000—if you take the position that men can marry men, or women can marry women, you’re not a conservative.”
Barron had the guts to engage in this seemingly no-win debate. His core pitch to the audience was solidarity on the issues. Citing GOProud’s list of policy priorities, including tax cuts, repealing health-care reform, social-security reform, and a neo-conservative defense for the Global War on Terror, Barron argued for a vision of conservatism that didn’t exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation. On the hot-button issues of gays in the military and marriage equality, Barron—who is an Air Force veteran and married—argued that consistent applications of equality and individual freedom would help ensure the long-term stability of American society. Barron offered the example of Dick Cheney as a conservative who favors marriage equality, and cited Rush Limbaugh’s support for civil unions as a way of making the case that GOProud was indeed a conservative organization. (Farah, an old ally of Limbaugh, sniffed that he was “disappointed” with Rush’s position and called him “ill-informed” on the issue.)
But Farah wasn’t buying any of the big-tent pitch, citing the ultimate primary source as justification for his fundamentalist position. “There is no middle ground—either you believe the Bible or you don’t,” he said. “I don’t care if you are conservative on 999 issues out of 1,000—if you take the position that men can marry men, or women can marry women, you’re not a conservative.”
The threat of gays in general, and GOProud in particular, was nothing less than existential in Farah’s view. “Western civilization, common sense, Judeo-Christian morality and the very definitions of the words 'conservative' and 'marriage'…are under attack by my opponent,” he said. “The conservative movement has been infiltrated by homosexual activists like Christopher Barron."
The language of urgent existential crisis, American culture in decline against the specter of End Times, is standard operating procedure for demagogues who profit from the paranoid style in American politics. The idea of an insidious infiltration comes straight out of Cold War communist conspiracies, but now it is directed against fellow conservatives who are seen as inherently suspect because of their sexuality. It is the cry of traditionalist fundamentalists, biblical literalists fixated on Leviticus, invoking God’s law as their ideological trump card. This vision of American politics does not accept separation of church and state. Asking it to accept the big tent might be a bridge too far.
But Barron can find comfort in the fact that he is on the right side of history. Growing numbers of Americans are comfortable not only with gay rights but marriage equality. The evidence of conservative legal legend Ted Olson fighting to overturn Proposition 8, or the recent coming out of former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman, shows an evolution on this issue even within the GOP. And while both social conservatives and liberal activists might question the existence of gay conservatives, they represent a growing diversity of opinion that undercuts stereotypes. It’s a sign of progress toward further individual freedom.
By and large, grassroots Tea Party activists have resisted the wedge appeal of gay marriage, preferring to focus on fiscal issues (though that didn’t stop shameful gay-baiting in the Mike Castle-O’Donnell campaign). Perhaps that’s part of the reason why attendance at the conference was far below the 1,500 promoted, and why politicians like Michele Bachmann and Tom Tancredo kept their distance despite being advertised as speakers. The competing Value Voters Forum offered connection to grassroots social conservatives without the side-shot of culture war conspiracy.
Conservative populists are, by definition, resistant to change. And the rise of gay civil rights is a significant societal change. But it is the right thing to do, consistent with the expansion of individual freedom and equality that is the goal of our search for a more perfect union. Farah has his followers, but GOProud is winning the larger debate.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.