The 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference is just two days away, and already the news has been abuzz with speculation as to how the conference will proceed and what it means for the future of the conservative movement. The Washington Post published its list of notable invites and dis-invites, and the American Conservative Union recently updated the official schedule of events.
As I perused the lineup in preparation for my own pilgrimage north to the event, one major item–or, I should say, lack thereof–caught my attention: CPAC doesn’t have any panels directly covering religion or first amendment religious issues at this year’s event.
I had to read the schedule a couple times just to make sure, but each re-read confirmed my initial conclusion. Religion has sort of been sandwiched into a Thursday panel on Obamacare, though it isn’t the main focus. The only other panel that seems to even engage typical social conservative issues is a Friday panel titled “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?” It features a lineup of very intelligent and strong-willed speakers, but this could potentially result in a rhetorical sparring match rather than a substantive discussion. At the end of the day, apart from the ceremonial invocation at the beginning of each day, there is no official program item dedicated to religious issues.
CPAC appears to be almost entirely void of religious sponsors this year as well. Some groups that uphold stereotypically “religious” issues will be operating exhibits, including the National Organization for Marriage and National Right to Life. However, only one “religious” group, known as Tradition, Family and Property, is actually listed as a participating sponsor, and their focus is on culture and economics writ large rather than any narrow or stereotypical “religious” issue.
As a theologian, I am pleased with the inclusion of TFP as a sponsor. Religious issues are often too narrowly limited to abortion, gay marriage, and religious monuments on public land; seeing an expressly religious group focus on other public issues is a positive change. The church cannot and should not be boxed in to a list of litmus-test issues as it so frequently is, and groups like TPF help break down those political and conceptual barriers.
However, I am also very surprised that CPAC has not dedicated any substantive public time to issues related to religion in public life. After all, it’s not as though there haven’t been any incredibly high-profile, public fights over typically religious social issues in the past year that have demanded our attention:
- Wendy Davis’s very public filibuster on the Texas abortion bill drew the nation’s attention last summer.
- The Obama administration’s horrific battle with the Catholic Church over its contraception mandates entered a second phase this past December, when a federal district court ruled in its favor and pushed the case onward toward the Court of Appeals.
- Hobby Lobby’s fight over those same healthcare contraception mandates is still ongoing.
- The New Mexico florist who was sued for refusing to support a gay wedding is still fighting in her case.
- This wedding photographer from New Mexico who also refused to serve a gay wedding ceremony lost their case before the New Mexico Supreme Court.
- The same thing happened in 2008 to a church group in New Jersey.
And let’s not even get into the recent quagmire that was Arizona, where Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a proposed expansion of the state’s religious liberty laws. That entire episode may have been unnecessary in the first place.
Certainly, a couple of the items in the list above will be addressed in the Obamacare panel. But why, if these other issues were equally as big in the news, would CPAC not include a panel of some kind to address them? Admittedly, without more information, trying to figure out the reason religion was left out becomes a purely speculative exercise, but the oversight seems big and obvious enough that it still begs us to look for an answer.
It’s certainly not for lack of expertise: there are major public interest firms and other legal groups all over the country that focus their efforts solely on these types of issues who would likely have volunteered to sit on a panel discussion. (Here are three.) In addition, CPAC hosted a panel on just this topic in 2013, featuring a number of high-profile speakers including Republican Congresswoman Diane Black (TN-6).
Was it an effort to avoid controversy? I can understand and respect CPAC’s efforts to try and stay away from controversial issues in order to shore up the event’s image. In past years, CPAC’s tenuous relationship with GOProud–largely focusing around the ever-fluctuating question of whether to dis-invite or invite them has been a major source of contention surrounding the event. American Atheists was also dis-invited from CPAC 2014 in order to avoid what CPAC thought could become a tense situation at the conference, and CPAC’s schedule also has no mention of Middle Eastern foreign policy or Islam in the program.
Was it due to a lack of time, or an effort to rotate through the “big issues” and focus on other problems leading into 2014? CPAC definitely has a larger emphasis on media engagement, technology, and connectivity this year, with speakers from Google, Twitter, and other major companies running presentations and training sessions in the lead up to 2014 midterms. Xbox is even hosting an exhibition booth.
I find both of these arguments, however, to be a pretty big stretch. On the issue of controversy, CPAC’s very existence seems to court controversy at every turn. While minimizing it is a laudable goal, abandoning aspects of the organizing group’s core values to dodge putting it in the program doesn’t seem to conform to the ACU’s goals. As for lack of time, the schedule is peppered with “fluff” events like meet-and-greets with political figures and entertainment breaks with recording artists. Further, while there are some side panels apart from those featured on the main stage, they appear fewer and farther between in comparison to past years. I highly doubt that some partner group wouldn’t have been able to find space to run a panel or discussion of their own, even if the ACU didn’t want to dedicate its own resources to organizing one.
Is it that no other organization thought that religious liberty issues would be a good cause for them to sponsor an event or side panel of their own? Could it really be just that simple, that no one thought of it? If so, shame on conservatives in general for not coming through on a major political and cultural topic.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that CPAC is hopelessly corrupt because of this one oversight, no matter how significant I think it may be. CPAC is still one of the big direction-setting events each year for conservatives, where activists, journalists, and leaders come together in one big show to raise major topics and educate each other for the months ahead. To that end, the conference still promises to be quite the big event.
And of course, a little bit or myself is escaping into this article as well: as a law/religion/politics junkie, part of me wants to see a big debate on just these subjects. The debates over legal and policy trends relating to religion, over increased inclusion of LGBT individuals within the conservative movement up against competing traditional views on marriage and sexuality, over abortion, and over culture in general need to keep happening. Getting into these kinds of discussions and debates makes everyone wiser and more able to respond when the fight turns from the academic to the political. Not seeing these issues on the docket this year doesn’t mean that they are dead or dying, but more that there was a missed opportunity for real substantive engagement on a larger scale that CPAC didn’t foster.
Whether it was an intentional choice or an oversight, CPAC 2014 appears to be losing its religion this year. And while the show will still go on, I can only wonder what good could have come from keeping religion more centrally placed within the program.
David Giffin | Wake Forest University School of Law | @D_Giffin