Going to the RNC: Tampa in August
I spent a few weeks in central Florida this August gathering threads for a longer story. While I was there, I ended up reporting from the RNC for the Revealer. Here are the two dispatches I churned out from Florida, despite the heat’s best efforts to make me procrastinate with naps instead:
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.
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.