Last weekend, as Chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition (HILC), I was privileged to be a co-sponsor of the premiere Christian, political conference - the Values Voter Summit. The summit featured a combination of some of the nation’s most popular talk show hosts, pundits, ministers, and newsmakers. Over 2,100 people were physically present with approximately 8,000 additional folks watching via Internet.
This conference typically attracts a combination of lay people, clergy, and Christian activists. Interestingly the term “Values Voters” was created by the news media as a way of describing people that voted against John Kerry in 2004. The conference was first launched just three short years ago; the event has grown steadily in influence each year. Although it’s hard to measure the impact of a conference upon a regional or national election, the national media widely covered the event.
Last year the entire field of Republican presidential candidates was present and accounted for. During last year’s conference, Senator Sam Brownback made his exit announcement from the campaign – in addition Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee emerged as forces to contend with in the primary elections. Although no Democratic candidates showed up at all, it gave values voters an opportunity to decide how to engage in the primary season.
This year’s event had much fewer opportunities for surprises. Occurring just days after both the Republican and Democratic conventions, it was the perfect place to ascertain how motivated the participants would be to support either Obama or McCain. The event was awash with enthusiasm for the McCain/Palin ticket. In fact this was the most unified I have seen the evangelical camp in over two years.
If the McCain campaign continues to fan the flames of the enthusiasm of this group, he may well overcome the popularity of Obama and his “history making” campaign. After all, the Palin factor gives McCain a “history making” campaign as well.
There is one thing that could torpedo McCain’s efforts – a sense that McCain is playing the race card against his opponent instead of using a legitimate political strategy. If the race is determined by the content of the candidates’ character and a sportsman like contest, Americans will have realized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. Therefore, even if Senator Obama is not elected president, the nation will acknowledge this as a watershed moment for the entire country. On the other hand, if racial slurs and prejudice are used by McCain supports it could cause a backlash among undecided voters that will cause the McCain/Palin ticket to lose.
The only negative thing that came out of the Values Voter’s Summit was that two men from Franklin Tennessee (Mark Whitlock and Bob DeMoss) sold a product called “Obama Waffles” at the event until the conference leaders shut them down on Saturday. The Family Research Council issued a statement on behalf of all of the sponsors of the summit that we “strongly condemned the tone and content of the materials” of the product’s packaging. As far as HILC is concerned, the so-called political “satire” on the boxes of waffles is racist and makes fun of all African Americans – not to mention unfairly demeaning Barak Obama. Two hundred and six newspaper articles carried the story of the waffles this weekend. Newspapers from Jerusalem to China felt that this story was newsworthy. If this last seven weeks of the campaign becomes a referendum on race, it will hurt race relations and the McCain campaign.
Let me explain.
The images on the box play off of the Aunt Jemima pancake-mix product. The senator is depicted with bulging eyes and thick lips. The packaging also portrays the senator in Arab or Islamic headdress. The back of the box depicts Obama in a Mexican sombrero above a recipe for “Open Border Fiesta Waffles.” The copy implies that Obama will be easy on illegal aliens. People who read the box say that it poked fun at Michelle Obama, Pastor Jeremiah Wright, and John Kerry.
When African-American members of my conference staff and volunteers saw the product, it deeply offended them. They felt that it reflected badly on all participants - especially our organization. Here we were at the event talking about racial reconciliation and the need for evangelicals to vote based on their principles, while another “unofficial group” of people were undermining our message and making money on this distortion to boot.
Conservatives should repudiate people that want to use racism as a weapon in this election. It will backfire on us. As an African American I think that it’s time that the conservative movement shed the image of being racially insensitive. Republicans should be especially zealous to restore their image and their legacy as a reform party - the party of Lincoln.
If the contest stays tough but clean, and evangelicals remain engaged with enthusiasm McCain may have a shot at a positive photo finish. My prayer is simply that the best man wins.