By Abby Ohlheiser
Reporters flying into Tampa for the Republican National Convention this week were greeted with a “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media!” billboard at the airport exit. Turns out, the billboard was mobile, so as I walked into the Tampa Theatre downtown on Sunday, a lime green van plastered with the imperative was there, circling on the few streets not totally shut down in anticipation of the convention proper a few blocks away. I walked up to the press desk and checked in for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative, 501 c4 “social welfare” non-profit founded by Ralph Reed, a Christian activist who resigned from the Christian Coalition in 1997 while the organization was under investigation.
The messages at the Faith And Freedom Coalition shared a focus on Obama’s perceived failures as president. But unlike the messages at the first night of the convention proper, themed “We Built it!” The nightmare version of the Obama presidency being painted on Sunday was oriented, not coded, in terms of a spiritual battle for the nation. On one side: secularism, Obama, pretty much all of the Middle East, and the “elite” media. On the other? The faithful, Christian Americans whom it seems are still not fully sold on the idea of a Romney presidency, as opposed to simply a presidency that is not Obama’s.
The event was a call to action for conservative, Evangelical Christians, whose America was the one at stake for Reed, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, and others speaking that afternoon. We were reminded by Reed that approximately 17 million Evangelicals didn’t vote in the previous election. That couldn’t happen this time, Reed admonished. Every true believer needs to vote. For Romney. Or, more accurately, against Obama. Romney’s name was barely mentioned. He got some play from Gingrich, who was the only speaker to make a specific case for Romney as president. Newt even went so far as to say that he was “delighted” by Romney’s Mormonism, in contrast to the “secular” orientation he says Obama has.
The Tampa Theatre’s intricate decor stood out like a drip castle in a grandma’s living room, and completely overwhelmed the clean lines of the Coalition’s stage setup, which included a giant American flag and, to the side, the flag of Israel. It wasn’t just there for show. During the two and a half hour event, we prayed for Israel. We prayed “as if your life depended on it” for Israel. This was a room where preaching to the choir means calling the Arab Spring the “anti-Christian spring,” and calling Egypt a “mortal” threat to the U.S.,” as Newt Gingrich did. It was a media-insulting, standing ovation generating, rowdy tent revival dressed up as a preamble to the convention. It was honest.
Revealer readers will be familiar with the greatest hits of the Faith and Freedom platform, presented as a series of threats to “Americans.” Foremost among these at the event was “religious freedom,” discussed mainly in terms of the contraceptive debate from early 2012. The specter of that debate was so present in the rhetoric of the event that the issue of abortion was an elision, not a canopy, for it. The stakes on the social issues were clear to the believers in the audience, but Gingrich laid it out for the rest of us, to whoops from the rowdy crowd: “Obama does not believe in the idea of an “America,” he said, calling the current president “a direct threat to the survival of the country I grew up in.”
If you were looking for the message of the Faith and Freedom coalition in Tuesday’s speeches, you’d have to read code. The evening in the official Forum was a parade of short speeches by some of the GOP’s rising stars, interrupted by a video series in which an edited version of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” was played, his voice echoing through the hall like a supervillan waiting in the wings. But it was there. Ted Cruz, who also spoke at Faith and Freedom, told us we were “seeing a great awakening,” to be sure a conscious reference to spiritual, as well as political, revival.
The uncoded version of the religious call to action was just a block away from the center in Liberty Plaza, which turns out to be a fenced-off fortress of tents and a private security team. Michele Bachmann,visible on the floor of the convention during the day, was apparently a no-show for the Tea Party event.
The Tea Party and evangelical Christians have long painted themselves as the blood pumping through the GOP’s veins – the party doesn’t live without them. But on Day One of the convention, the party was mainly concerned with engineering a love story between Mitt Romney and the portions of the American votership who are open to voting for anyone who isn’t Obama. Delegates on the floor held signs that said “Mitt!” and runners passed out nearly identical hand-made signs with the GOP’s desired message of the night: a handful held “We Built It!” written in blue-red-blue, and later, “We Love You Ann!” and “Women <3 Ann!” For a party banking on a caricature of Obama as a false messiah, the Republicans know they don’t want to pit the incumbent against a second coming of Kerry, often seen as the loser in his face-off against an incumbent Bush because of his robotic personality and failure to stir up widespread support.
Outside the conference, I bumped into Loren Spivack who was hawking his “Cat in the Hat” parody of Obama just beyond the security perimeter. I asked him if he was a Mitt Romney supporter. He paused, and said. “I”m an anti-Obama supporter.” He’d previously backed Michele Bachmann, who matched his political and religious beliefs, he told me. Nevertheless, in his book Mitt Romney plays the role of the conscience-surrogate fish. He’ll vote Romney against Obama, sure. But it’s certianly not a love story.
To be sure, on night one the GOP wasn’t aiming their cupidinous political aspirations at Spivack, or those camped out in Liberty Plaza, or even at the Ron Paul delegates who’d been all but ignored on the floor earlier that afternoon during a discussion of the rules for delegate selection. Their arrows were pointed directly at the center, at independent voters. Artur Davis, who got a standing ovation, spoke directly to people who had voted for Obama once, urging those “open” to now consider voting for Mitt Romney as an opportunity for penance. The party took the language of an impending religious revival — which was also at the heart of the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s message to the most conservative voters in the party (notably, many of that event’s speakers will make appearances on the official party stage) — and equated such renewal with Romney’s grab at the presidency.
I rather took the surreal experience of sitting through Newt’s tirade on the “elite media” (as a freelancer barely making Gingrich’s speaking fee annually) as something other than the peculiar unity presented by the GOP on their first night in the spotlight. The edited version of Obama’s “you didn’t build that” clip was played three times before I left, soon after I noticed that one of my shoes had literally fallen apart as Rick Santorum fetishized the hands of men who do manual labor. Outside the big convention floor, ousted Ron Paul delegates milled around and Tea Partiers in costumes posed for photos. But inside, the GOP was making it clear that, more than their message that America can’t afford another Obama presidency, the party itself cannot afford dissent.
Abby Ohlheiser is a freelance journalist. She writes for Slate’s newsblog, the Slatest, and contributes to The Revealer and the New Humanist.