Social conservatives gathered Friday to plot midterm election strategy, celebrate the Trump administration — and to wholly reject the allegations threatening Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh on his march to the Supreme Court.
“Don’t get rattled by all of this,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said from the stage of the annual Values Voter Summit. “We’re gonna plow right through it and do our job.”
McConnell’s promise earned an ovation from his audience of around 2,000 faith leaders and activists, many of whom framed the current crisis in scriptural or religious terms. The summit, organized by the Family Research Council and a coalition of other social conservative groups, frequently turned into a rally for Kavanaugh and a place to vent about how attendees perceived the treatment of the court nominee.
In interviews and onstage, conservatives suggested that women like Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, deserved a fair hearing.
None believed she was telling the truth, and many wondered whether the controversy was a setup, a last-ditch effort by an angry, out-of-control Democratic Party to prevent President Trump from creating a long-term conservative majority on the nation’s highest court.
“The further away they get from controlling the courts, the more desperate they become,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who said he was speaking at the conference in a personal capacity.
Carson defended Kavanaugh by telling the crowd he had once faced a frivolous paternity suit from a woman he never met, even though “the only woman I had ever slept with in my entire life was my wife” — an event he said gave him insight into how innocent people could be smeared.
In interviews with more than 20 attendees, all appeared skeptical of Ford’s allegation. Some emphasized the Christian value of forgiveness when asked how they would respond if he was found to be guilty, noting how young Kavanaugh would have been when the alleged assault occurred.
“I was molested by a priest as a young child. If it’s real, I know what it’s like to have the accuser deny it to your face,” said Cathy Marketto, 66, a patient advocate at a hospital in Seaford, Del. “If he’s guilty, they should throw the book at him. But he was seventeen. It was how many years ago? You can’t wait that long.”
“Why in the world, why in the world would you take that long? Why couldn’t she remember where it was or when it happened?” said Marketto, who acknowledged she, too, had waited decades before reporting her alleged abuse. She said her allegation came in a “different era” and when she was a “child”, not a teenager.
Her views were echoed by Sandy Rios, 77, a Christian talk-radio-show host, who said that Ford’s allegation undermined survivors of “real” sex abuse and needed to be placed in the context of teenage sexual antics.
“I’ve had at least two women call my radio show and tell their stories of sexual abuse, [and] they’re very offended by this story,” Rios said. “A lot of people who have experienced real sexual abuse are offended by some trite claim.”
Rios also suggested, incorrectly, that Ford worked for the liberal billionaire George Soros — a claim echoed by several other attendees.
“I heard from a good source,” she said. “I haven’t had the chance to check it myself, but that’s pretty incriminating.”
Others dismissed Ford’s allegations and the wider Me Too movement as politically motivated.
“I think it’s a bunch of ungodly women who don’t like the values of conservative women,” said Dayna Jones, 39, a California Realtor. “They don’t stand up for conservative women because we don’t believe in their left-wing, kill-all-the-babies motives. They think we just voted for Trump because some man told us to.”
For many attendees — and organizers — the Kavanaugh allegations amounted to political deja vu. In 2016, they had stuck with Donald Trump’s campaign even as the Republican nominee was buffeted by accusations of sexual assault. A generation earlier, they had defended Justice Clarence Thomas after Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment after he was nominated to the Supreme Court.
In both cases, the social conservatives said, the fight had been worth it. Onstage, they heard Secretary of State Mike Pompeo describe how the Trump administration had been a “champion for religious liberty,” and heard author Lance Wallnau describe how Trump had fulfilled a prophecy by moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Victories like these were under threat, conservatives said, if accusations were able to derail men like Kavanaugh.
“If this tactic works, no one with our values will be willing to submit their wives or their husbands to this ordeal,” said Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, who called the Kavanaugh hearings “a political waterboarding.”
The Values Voter event, which started in 2006, took its name from the 2004 presidential election exit poll. That year, 22 percent of voters said that “moral values” was their top voting issue — and those voters backed George W. Bush by a landslide.
Social conservatives continue to organize around such issues as banning same-sex marriage, cutting funds for Planned Parenthood and protecting Israel.
“There’s a small group trying to destabilize this administration, trying to take God out of everything, who didn’t care so much when it was Bill Clinton,” said the Rev. Daniel Ulysse, a Haitian immigrant with a church in New York.
This year’s conference drew relatively few candidates; those who attended said they were hoping to provide reinforcements for the president. They said doing so started with protecting Kavanaugh.
“It’s very questionable whether this allegation has any basis in truth, quite frankly, just when you look at the time lapse and the holes in the story,” said Mark Harris, a pastor running in an unexpectedly close House race in North Carolina.
According to Harris, the allegations against Kavanaugh had “the fragrance of politics.”
“Stay the course, press on,” he said. “People thought the same thing about Clarence Thomas. . . . Has it affected Clarence Thomas’s effectiveness on the Supreme Court all these years? I would say, ‘no.’ ”