For conservatives, military strength a "values" issue

sses the Values Voter Summit, hosted by Family Research Council Action (FRC Action), 2011 October 7, 2011 in Washington, DC. All the major Republican presidential candidates are expected to speak in the annual two-day event.
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Rick Santorum, Values Voters
Rick Santorum was one of many Republican presidential candidates to address the conservative Values Voters Summit over the weekend.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

As the U.S. heads into its eleventh year of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is largely ready to see U.S. troops return home.

To conservative voters gathered in Washington this weekend, listening to military generals and taking a stand against defense cuts matters more than any concerns they may have about the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the annual Values Voter Summit this weekend, the topics of military might and the promotion of conservative values among U.S. troops were seamlessly integrated into the program, alongside talk about gay marriage and abortion laws.

The conservative audience gave hearty applause to politicians decrying potential Defense Department cuts and calling for a stronger partnership with Israel. They listened intently to a lieutenant general warn about the increasing acceptance of gays in the military.

Conservative values voters have already seen their top issues sidelined this election season as concerns about the economy overshadow social issues. But with further budget cuts looming on the horizon, conservative politicians have persuaded their base that preserving the Pentagon's budget is as much of a "values" issue as it is a practical one.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, told those in attendance Friday, "You have a right to be angry" about the federal budget. The U.S. is borrowing 40 cents for every dollar it spends.

But that doesn't mean, Sessions said, that the budget should be balanced on the back of the Pentagon. He pointed out that while the Defense Department's base budget has only increased 10 percent since 2008, Medicaid spending has increased 37 percent over the last three years, and education spending has increased 70 percent.

"We need perspective," he said.

Joining Sessions on stage was Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, there to warn values voters of another threat to the military besides budget cuts. While top military leaders like recently retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have praised the end of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibited gays from serving openly in the military, Mixon made the decision to speak out against it. Now he's concerned that the Pentagon is permitting military chaplains to perform same-sex marriages.

"How does this stack up against the Defense of Marriage Act?" Mixon asked. "Am I being asked to turn a blind eye to the law of the land?"

Attendees of the conference seemed to agree with Mixon. Nancy Carlisle of Annapolis, Md., said that when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, "It should be left up to the military." Her friend Connie Meyer, of Severna Park, Md., agreed.

Asked whether they were concerned U.S. troops could be over-burdened by the decade-long war, Meyer responded, "The stamp of approval of gays in the military has put stress on them."

Jim Matthews of Gaithersberg, Md., said that spending on military operations should be kept out of budget discussions. The war in Afghanistan should continue "if the generals think it's relevant," he said.

More reports from the 2011 Values Voter Summit:

Bachmann talks. And talks. And talks
Cain: "Not Running to Go to Disneyland"
Gingrich: I'd ignore Supreme Court if need be
Rick Perry seeks approval from "values voters"
Santorum rips off Cain gimmick with 0-0-0 plan

"When it comes to military actions that we take around the world... that's not something that is optional, that you can decide to cut," he said. "When you're engaged in military action, it's the right thing to do, or it's the wrong thing to do."

Rebecca Iveson, a 24 year-old student at Liberty University, said it's impossible for the public to know everything about the war on terror.

"I trust the leaders of our military and what they are saying," shes said. "When they say their brothers and sisters in arms need more help, I have to put my trust in them."

Some conference-goers expressed some doubt.

"To give up in there at the eleventh hour would be the wrong thing to do," said Chris Balkema of Channahon, Ill. But, he added, "We need to get the job done and do it as quickly as possible and shore up our own issues here in our own country."

Victor Styrksy, the eastern regional coordinator for the group Christians United for Israel, wouldn't comment on the war in Afghanistan, but he suggested the U.S. may be better off making military investments elsewhere.

"The best investment America can make in the Middle East is Israel," he said.

Israelis, he said, "are fighting our enemies, but they don't ask for our children's blood. They don't ask for us to send troops."

His group, which Styrksy described as the "Christian AIPAC," is "very concerned" about Israel's vulnerability, "from a political standpoint, the standpoint of democracy, and certainly from our Christian theological standpoint," he said.

Styrsky may as well have been talking for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who received standing ovations at the conference when he spoke about Israel as a country under siege.

"She and her people are fighting the same war that we are," he said. "As Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons capability, it not only threatens Israel but it threatens us as well. It's time once again for America to stand up and this time lead from the front."