This month I attended my 11th consecutive Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a project of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which drew 11,000 people to Washington, D.C. from every state in the country. This was the 41st annual CPAC, and over the past several years I have watched the gathering grow in size as it remains the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the world.
If you saw any of the media coverage, you may have heard that CPAC now has a reputation for being dominated by libertarians, and that social conservatives and people of faith are becoming an increasingly smaller part of the gathering. While there is some truth to this — one needs only to look at the conference agenda and straw poll results to see this disturbing trend — my experience proved that conservatives who prioritize faith and care about core societal issues such as life and marriage remain an integral part of the movement. In addition, a significant number of young people in my generation are boldly countering what has seemingly become the new norm. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this was on Friday night at CPAC, a time often considered the climax of the conference, where I had the privilege of participating in two parallel events — the Shabbat dinner hosted by the Young Jewish Conservatives, and the Ronald Reagan dinner hosted by the ACU.
I was invited to speak at the Shabbat program, as more than 100 people attended the traditional Jewish meal welcoming the 25-hour time period where we remember that we are here to serve God, not government. The evening featured songs and prayers, which were given context by talk radio show host Michael Medved, as well as remarks from Reps. Louie Gohmert and Trent Franks, and former Rep. Allen West, along with former Sen. Rick Santorum.
As I looked at the diverse crowd of fellow Jews gathered, I spoke about the how the pressures of conformity are nothing new to humankind and especially not to politically conservative American Jews who are often in the minority. As conservative Jews in a predominantly liberal-leaning community, we are on the receiving end of awkward stares when we espouse principles of limited government, lower taxes, personal responsibility and freedom, and strong families. We must be willing to advance and defend our beliefs in hostile territory, even if it means taking hits around the holiday dinner table.
Further, I explained, as a religious minority in America we are constantly tempted to assimilate, to be part of the crowd and not to stand out by observing the laws of the Torah. Whether it is in our dress or appearance, Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, or trading days off for Passover and working on Christmas, it is obvious: We are Jews and we are different. This sort of noticeable difference in an image-centric and over-connected society makes some uncomfortable to the point where they question their faith, or worse, renounce the community they were born into. As believers in ethical monotheism, we are obligated to do what is right regardless of what others around us are doing. When we are living up to this ideal, we are thinking beyond the impact of our actions on us as individuals but also the potential impact on our community and circles of influence.
At the same time as the Shabbat gathering, the American Conservative Union’s Ronald Reagan dinner was taking place. In addition to presenting the night’s awards, the American Conservative Union was marking its 50th, “golden” anniversary with speeches from distinguished leaders in the conservative movement, including M. Stanton Evans, Becky Norton Dunlop and the Rev. James Robison. The audience listened with fascination as they retraced 50 years of conservative activism and recounted both the successes and the challenges, and Rev. Robison delivered a stirring message on the importance of faith in our nation — from America’s founding to the present day — and in the lives of individuals.
It was also another anniversary. Five years earlier at that same event, my colleague, Ruth Malhotra, and I received the 2009 Ronald Reagan Award for our efforts in advancing free speech and religious liberty at Georgia Tech. After years of censorship and intimidation by the institute’s administrators for advancing conservative ideas (for example, that marriage is between one man and one woman or that affirmative action policies are inherently unfair and damaging), we were left with no other choice but to file a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging four unconstitutional policies that denied our most fundamental and precious first freedoms. The threats from those who opposed our actions were vicious and terroristic in nature, resulting in the need for police protection at times, but we knew our actions were right and that the truth would set us free.
When filing the lawsuit, I took into consideration the potential impact on my life but I also thought about the potential negative impact on my family, the student groups I was involved in, and on the university. Ultimately, the idea of being able to liberate the entire study body from an oppressive regime seeking conformity to a narrow and radical worldview outweighed all the supposed costs. Following three intense years in court, we emerged victorious and the First Amendment rights of all students on campus were restored. Receiving the Reagan Award five years ago was added vindication and a distinct honor we will always treasure.
It was my experience as a student where I first encountered the left’s war on faith and religious freedom and their belief that we are not free to disagree or hold opposing views, but that conformity to their worldview is absolutely necessary. After the past more than five years of the Obama administration, it is clear this problem extends far beyond America’s campuses. “Our freedom as Americans to practice our religious beliefs and to express our faith in God is under assault as never before,” said Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, at CPAC. “There is in truth a war on religion and religious values being waged by this administration and by their radical allies.”
Our nation has drifted so far from what our Founding Fathers knew to be true: that America’s greatness was a result of a people free to exercise their faith. “This country did not create free speech and religious liberty,” said Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, at CPAC. “Free speech and religious liberty created this country.” Religious freedom should be an issue, regardless of political affiliation or party, all elected officials and Americans hold in the highest regard.
While many things have changed about CPAC — attendance has soared, venues have shifted, candidates have come and gone — there remains a constant, and it is the same reason I attended as a college freshman in 2004: to meet like-minded Americans, to recharge our batteries to go back to our states and communities to fight for what is right and good, and to grow our movement.
The Shabbat program’s success is a microcosm of this recipe, having gone from an informal suite gathering only a couple years ago to outgrowing their current banquet space. CPAC was not a final point in a journey but rather the beginning for some, or the continuation for others, to dedicate themselves to advancing liberty. For all who attended the Shabbat program and for those at the Reagan dinner for Rev. James Robison’s keynote address, there is strong evidence that conservative leaders and activists still affirm the inextricable link between faith and freedom.
It is precisely this freedom that strengthens our faith, and our faith that strengthens our dedication to freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Freedom regards religion as the companion in all its battles and all its triumphs as the very cradle of its infancy and the source of all its claims … because religion alone is the safeguard of morality, and morality is the best and surest pledge for the survival of freedom.” There are those forces within and outside of the conservative movement who would like to see people of faith relegated to the sidelines, but as people of faith we are only more motivated to ensure that our voices are heard loud and clear — from Washington, D.C. to every state capital in our great nation.
Orit Sklar is the director of development for the Faith and Freedom Coalition.