Off The Record: On Religion, Politics & Equality
What’s wrong with Iowa this year? Why all the religious pandering to the far right base? What is turning up the heat for Rick Santorum of all people? Watching national news coverage you would think Iowa is riddled with cross toting religious nuts praying for the rapture and trying to pray away the gay twenty-four seven who should have their first in the nation caucus status yanked.
This is an exhilarating storyline of red red meat. Like everywhere, Iowa has its share of über Christian conservatives and we shouldn’t ignore (or eschew calling out) their hate filled rhetoric aimed at the poor and homosexuals or their repeated attacks on a woman’s right to chose. But overall Iowans know what the national media has paid superficial lip service to: religio-political groups have held their state captive and Iowans – Democrat, Republican or Libertarian – are over it.
This caucus is unlike any I have seen. I live in New York City but as a native Iowan I lived through my share of caucus cycles. I even served time as the editor of small Iowa newspaper in 2007. Looking back over my coverage of that caucus season I see no resemblance to what is happening now. It is not only the overly religious context of the Iowa caucuses but the lack of Iowan’s enthusiasm as contrasted to the energy of 2007 contest. The New York Times picks up this vibe:
“Veterans of Iowa politics say the size and tenor of this year’s Republican crowds across the state have not come close to those in the final days of campaigning by the 2008 candidates — particularly the eventual caucus winners, Barack Obama for the Democrats and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, for the Republicans. “There was more energy four years ago for Huckabee — and even with the last Romney campaign,” said Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa.”
An elementary and high school friend mine, Jessica, now living in Des Moines, is in charge of the caucus for the 87th precinct in Des Moines. She told me that the county Republican Party was predicting a big turnout.
Jess is skeptical saying, “I believe Iowans are mostly non-engaged at this point. I called a gazillion people on my precinct list to ask for volunteers, and had two step up. This could be due to a lack of inspiring candidates, in addition to [far right wing religious involvement in politics].”
My perception, before I got home for a six-day Christmas visit to my parents in Beaman, Iowa, was that I would be greeted at the state line with billboards and neon signs: Vote Santorum! Vote Gingrich! Bachmann! Ron Paul! But there were none.
Driving through the state, first via I-80 through Iowa City, then Tama and Toledo, on to Marshalltown down to Des Moines then winding back on Highway 30 through small towns then Cedar Rapids and finally through Clinton before crossing the Mississippi – I saw one political sign; a banner draped on a fence about two miles from my parents house screaming Draft Sarah Plain! Pretty much says it all to me.
Sitting around the with my family watching the local news I was struck that the coverage was more about the weather (unseasonably warm) and the burgeoning Occupy the Caucus movement than of the candidates or the caucuses themselves. Don’t get me wrong, there was a never ending loop of political ads running on our local stations, but this year bears only a passing resemblance to the 2008 caucuses in that they are the political exercise called a caucus.
The Republicans have – hopefully and at long last – overplayed their religious hand. They will always have their hardcore base, which in Iowa is whipped into shape by Iowa’s leading Christian conservative political group The FAMiLY Leader (TFL) and its president Bob Vander Plaats.
Due to missteps by TFL and Vander Plaats the group is heading toward irrelevancy both in and out of the state. The FAMiLY Leader has done more damage to the Republican Party than the poor field of candidates.
They are responsible for the bizarre “Marriage Vow” made famous in July that extolled the benefits of slavery to African American families (after push-back, TFL removed all reference to slavery from the pledge’s text) and women’s role in society (producing lots of babies) and most recently a possible pay to play scandal where TFL asked Santorum to essentially pay for its endorsement. (Despite all this, TFL wouldn’t be half as interesting a story if the organization hadn’t been built with over $3 million in federal funds.)
Bob Vander Plaats, a former high school principal, has been called a Republican political “kingmaker” by The Atlantic (and almost all national media outlets) and ranked as one of the top 10 “endorsements the presidential candidates covet most” by The Hill last year.
This evangelical Christian organization began building its serious political clout during the 2010 mid terms. Then known as the Iowa FAMiLY Policy Center, The FAMiLY xLeader (the little “i” stands for subserveance to God) scooped up the three-time Iowa gubernatorial race loser Bob Vander Plaats. His assignment? To lead the charge to oust the three Iowa Supreme Court Justices that ruled in favor of same sex marriage. With the help of millions of out of state dollars from groups like The FAMiLY Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage (Rick Santorum even showed up with Bob at whistle stops to oust the judges) they pulled it off.
Vander Plaats leveraged this success and his political Rolodex left over from chairing Huckabee’s campaign to victory in 2008 to become the man that held the door for every single GOP candidate to come through Iowa in 2011. The organization’s coup de grace this caucus season? The Thanksgiving Family Forum featuring Republican candidates taking turns weeping during their personal testimony to cement their Christian conservative cred.
Thanks to The FAMiLY Leader, Bob Vander Plaats and handfuls of Iowa pastors politicking from the pulpit, other states feel justified saying Iowa should be stripped of its first in the nation caucus status. I say if anything, the people of The United States owe Iowans a debt of gratitude this year. The Iowa caucus season exposed the religious right for what it is: a destroyer of political sanity, abusers of women’s and gay rights, and electoral hostage takers.
When thinking about the Iowa GOP’s track record for picking winners lets remember Mike Huckabee took Iowa in 2008 and McCain became the nominee. Iowa Democrats however selected Obama, our President, and in five out of six past election cycles Iowa went blue. Neither the process (our antiquated caucuses) nor Iowans are broken. The Republican Party is. Its decades of allowing religio-political groups, politicians and pundits to commandeer the party haven’t served them – or any of us – well. We are tangled up listening to purported small government Christian conservatives who have no problem with government reigning over a woman’s uterus, bringing an end to same-sex marriage or bestowing citizenship on a fertilized egg.
Realizing the party has shifted so far to the right and the use of evangelicals as voting block to be reckoned with is backfiring on a national scale. Republicans are finally moaning over the religiosity that’s seized Iowa caucuses. They are also (finally) worrying aloud about the overly conservative position growing out of Iowa – too conservative to be maintained through a general election. As a result we may be hearing the death rattle of the religious right playing an outsized roll in national politics; and if it is we have the GOP and Iowa to thank for it.
NOTE: This is my fantasy that the radical Christian right will now play a downsized role in politics – which I think at least on the surface they will. Don’t take this to mean we should let up on being diligent when the back state legislation that is anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-worker – pick your anti. Just keep your eyes peeled.