The cavernous exhibition hall at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds displays more red, white and blue than a Fourth of July rodeo in central Montana. A crowd of roughly 300 lingers near a spread of empty crockpots and cake pans, meeting new acquaintances or catching up with friends and neighbors. Most of the men sport shortly cropped hair, heavy boots and fabrics ranging from fleece to camouflage khaki. At least 20 carry well-polished handguns on their hips like a fashion statement.
Rev. Hollis Poe opens the latest meeting of the Hamilton-based group Celebrating Conservatism with a prayer, asking God to give them the strength of their forefathers so they might "preserve, save and in some cases take back those very special things you gave way back when." Poe then poses a question to those gathered: Should a pastor carry a weapon? In his view, yes–the double-edged weapon of the Holy Bible. The comment triggers scattered applause.
The stage is ringed with pots of geraniums and backed by flags from nearly every state west of the Mississippi; the Israeli flag is positioned close to the center. A large banner of a cross set over an American flag boasts "In God We Trust, In Jesus Christ We Are Saved." Racks of conservative bumper stickers—"I hate fake Republicans," "America First," "Your politician sold you out," etc.—hem the arena along with a T-shirt booth and a 6-by-10 poster of the Ten Commandments. Opposite the stage, a giant red, white and blue banner shouts "Freedom" in bold font.
Poe yields the floor to group organizer Mona Docteur, an enthusiastic southern California transplant with an obvious passion for debating American politics. The lights dim, and Docteur screens a film—The American Form of Government—reminiscent of the educational ones favored by high school history teachers. American history, government and political science converge in a 10-minute civics lesson that finishes with an ultimatum: The country can continue down its present path toward oligarchy, or return to "the Republic our Founding Fathers intended."
Docteur follows the film by leading the group in a boisterous Pledge of Allegiance and then offers a special treat. Before introducing the evening's speaker, she has some answers for the group on the ongoing troubles with the American Police Force in Hardin.
"You hear a lot of things," Docteur starts, "you see a lot of things on the Internet, you see it in the newspaper, you hear it on the radio, you hear the rumors and you get the rumors running through the e-mails, and what do you believe? Who do you trust? What information can you truly trust?"
Docteur and fellow organizers Mike Rodda and Dan Cox share their experience of traveling to central Montana in early October to question Hardin officials. They drove on their own dime and their own time, a citizen's initiative that drives home the gist of Docteur's lesson: go to the source.
"If we don't get on board," Docteur says, "if we don't start getting the facts, if we don't start using the facts against the enemy, we'll get nowhere.
"It's time for us to get out of our diapers," she continues, paraphrasing conservative talk radio host Alex Jones and drawing emphatic cheers. "I'm going to be serious with you here—we've got to grow up and get the real news. I'm sorry, but Fox News doesn't give you all the real news. It's good, but it's not the best. They give you the surface stuff. They don't give you what's really, truly happening out there."
Over the next two hours, guest speaker John McManus, president of the John Birch Society, lectures the crowd on restoring state sovereignty. He points out the flaws in the Federal Reserve System, rails against the United Nations, calls for an end to foreign aid and bashes mainstream Republicans for being too moderate. Like the video, which McManus narrated, McManus paints a bleak picture of the United States sinking into rule by an elite few.
Heads nod, voices shout from the crowd. They seem accustomed to the rhetoric, almost eager to feed off it.
Those at the core of Celebrating Conservation believe a general frustration over our country's political system is the reason hundreds flock to their monthly informational meetings. The organizers felt their friends and neighbors needed a better outlet to air grievances and learn from outside speakers how to pull the country further to the right. Indeed, Docteur was driven to local activism out of uncertainty about her own knowledge of government.
"Just a couple years ago, I felt really ignorant about politics," Docteur tells the Independent a few days later in Missoula. "I was voting as a Republican but didn't know why. So I got involved with the Republican Women's Club in Ravalli County, became president of it this year, and then decided that we needed to have a new venue because more people need to be educated on the issues and knowing why they were Republicans—actually, conservatives.
"A lot of people felt disenfranchised," she adds. "They didn't feel like they were being listened to by the politicians that are Republicans."
Docteur says Celebrating Conservatism's intent is merely to educate the public on what it means to be conservative, and to hold accountable the politicians that represent them. She says the group's inspired like-minded citizens in small pockets across the state, including Missoula, to branch out and form groups of their own. She says a growing number of people simply yearn for better answers when it comes to how our country works, and addressing those concerns is her focus.
But not everyone sees Celebrating Conservatism as an innocent gathering of like-minded, curious neighbors. Critics—including both Democrats and Republicans—openly wonder whether this new group is up to something more dangerous, or possibly laying the groundwork for Montana's next militia movement.
Docteur insists Celebrating Conservatism welcomes members from across the political spectrum. She says the group has no radical agenda, works to educate locals on state's rights and their constitutional liberties, and strives for a bipartisan atmosphere at its monthly meetings. During the Oct. 6 gathering in Hamilton, a woman approached an Independent reporter to announce her progressive leanings with a subtle, "You're not alone here."
"We're trying to erase the party line," Docteur says. "We have all parties come to our group—it's not just Republicans. We also really talk about erasing those religious lines because we want to be a group of Americans that are concerned and want to do something about moving our country forward and preserving the Constitution."
Docteur considers the U.S. Constitution to be Celebrating Conservatism's guiding document. It's what our nation was founded on, she says, and what she hopes the nation can turn back to through mass educational initiatives like the one in the Bitterroot.
"I guess I was just fed up with the government, the way they try and push the people around, over-taxing them," says core group member Rodda. "When I heard that Mona was having a celebration of conservatism meeting, she was getting started with that, it sounded like something I wanted to do. There was nothing else out there that was really doing anything other than going along with the regular program, the elected officials."
The group's goal to breakdown party lines seems to contradict the partisan viewpoint implied by the name "Celebrating Conservatism." It's a discrepancy none of the members seem quite able to explain.
"I think there's a lot of people who consider themselves to be a conservative," says Dan Cox, a well-known Bitterroot activist and core member of Celebrating Conservatism. "To tell you the truth, I'm not the type of person that really cares for labels. I think one of the reasons we used the word 'conservative' is because it's opposite of the word 'liberal,' and we're just trying to get some sort of base of people we can start educating ourselves with. A lot of people obviously don't even understand what the word conservative means. George Bush called himself a conservative."
Cox, who moved to Hamilton from Utah in 2002, is a household name in Ravalli County when it comes to challenging local government. He spearheaded an initiative to repeal the county's new growth policy last year. The initiative succeeded, much to the distress of local officials from both sides of the aisle who hoped to use enforced planning and zoning in the increasingly crowded valley.
More recently, Cox made news when he resigned as chair of the Republican Central Committee in Ravalli County over an internal dispute. He had requested that precinct committeewoman Cathy Kulonis step down after she appeared in a Hamilton parade with what he believed to be a racially charged sign against President Barack Obama that read "No Mo Bro." Kulonis refused and Docteur and Jim Thayer, state committee chairs at the time, resigned alongside Cox.
"As officers of the Republican Party we are embarrassed to have been associated with this in any way," the trio said in a statement released prior to their resignations. "We are also upset and concerned for the blemish this has created for the Republican Party as a whole."
They later stated their resignations were also due to concerns that the central committee was infested with "fake" Republicans and did not support the values they promote.
Leaving the controversy behind, Cox, Docteur and Thayer found a ready outlet for their staunch political beliefs in Celebrating Conservatism. Docteur started the group last December as an informal gathering place for anyone interested in furthering their understanding of conservative politics. She explains the idea grew from her involvement with the Republican Women's Club, where she noted a need for a wider forum.
Attendance at Celebrating Conservatism events skyrocketed from 85 at the start to 185 in late spring, Docteur says, when Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman agreed to speak. She formed 10 separate committees on topics ranging from property rights to Constitution studies, which members can attend in addition to the monthly meetings. Former state Rep. Rick Jore of Ronan followed Hoffman's speech last spring, and Docteur considers his appearance an example of how the group welcomes speakers from all political backgrounds.
"He's local," Docteur says of Jore, who's best known for advocating the addition of a "personhood amendment" in the Montana Constitution. "Someone in the group knew him personally, and he's with the Constitution Party. I thought, 'This is a good thing. Let's bring somebody in from another party to really screw up the minds of the Republicans,' which it did. It created a lot of stir, because there's a lot of party loyalists that can't quite get off of that no matter what."