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“Fear Factor”: Iowa Summit Serves Reminder Of Why Religion, Politics Don’t Mix

Of everything coming out of this year’s Iowa Family Leadership Summit, the fear factor is what stayed with me.

It was a constant, discomfiting undercurrent, like a loose nail poking up in your shoe. It was organization President Bob Vander Plaats declaring this a time of “spiritual warfare,” and speaker Joel Rosenberg announcing America is “on the road to collapse” and “implosion,” and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, warning grimly, “We are living in some very dangerous times.”

The third year of the event sponsored by the self-described Christ-centered organization that seeks to influence policy and elections, brought big name politicians Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry to Ames, Iowa, this past weekend. They were there to rally the Republican base in the lead-off caucus state. But the upbeat, love-God-and-country tone of previous events appeared at times to have been replaced by a somber, calamitous note of foreboding. Even Satan got a few mentions.

Projected onto a giant screen to punctuate Vander Plaats’ remarks was a video filled with haunting images of Osama bin Laden, Adam Lanza and the Boston marathon bombings. It depicted a rising national debt, marijuana, Boys Scouts, gay rainbow flag and a woman holding up a “Keep abortion legal” sign. It ended with someone yelling, “God is dead. Hail Satan!”

Sponsors and speakers still exalted matrimony and procreation in heterosexual relationships, called for putting God back in the classroom and government, and called abortion murder. But this year’s message was: The nation is in moral decline. Ignore it at your own peril. That was even carried into foreign policy.

Rosenberg, an evangelical Christian born to a Jewish father, said the United States must not support a two-state solution in Israel because a sovereign Palestinian state “defies the biblical mandate.” Interesting that a Christian American would presume to tell Palestinian Muslims they don’t deserve a homeland because of what the Bible says. This follows an evangelical belief that Jews from around the world will gather in Israel, where the second coming of Christ will occur, and — though Rosenberg didn’t spell this out — be converted to Christianity.

“God loves you but if we don’t receive Christ, there are consequences,” Rosenberg warned.

Is fear a new strategy for the Family Leader and its affiliated Family Research Council and Focus on the Family? Is it a response to flagging interest and political losses? Organizers said there were 1,200 attendees, and that there has been steady growth in three years. But many seats were empty. Is it a concession they’re losing the battle over abortion and gay rights? Abortion has not been completely outlawed, even under a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority. Having succeeded in getting three justices of the Iowa Supreme Court voted out over same-sex marriage, a few years ago, the Family Leader failed in its more recent campaign against a fourth. Same-sex couples are celebrating wedding anniversaries with children and grandchildren, and the planet has survived.

What the planet might not ultimately survive — global warming — wasn’t on the agenda. In fact, if this were a true gathering of faith leaders, one might have expected some commitment to keeping the environment healthy, some compassion for the poor and immigrants. There were calls for abolishing the entire tax system that sustains the poor in times of need. There were calls for boosting border patrols to turn back young asylum seekers before their cases are heard. Iowa’s governor, Terry Branstad, boasted of having cut 1,400 state employees and cut property taxes, which fund education, more than ever in Iowa history.

But if it were a political forum to vet candidates, a Jewish, Muslim, agnostic or atheist one would have had no place there. In one video, Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, said, “The only place you get right with God is at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ.”

Outside in the parking lot, some protestors from Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, which describes itself as a social and educational organization, objected. “The summit is attempting to define legislation through Christian dogma,” said protestor Jason Benell. “They want to blur the line between church and state. That’s not what Iowans want.”

He also objected to the idea that faith was necessary to have a good family. His group sees a ramping up of religious rhetoric in response to the Family Leader’s “fear of losing its base.”

Everyone will, of course, vote according to their own priorities. But America is not a theocracy, so it’s alarming to see politicians, by attending and playing to the sponsors, play into the notion that worshiping Jesus should be a prerequisite for federal or state office. America also cannot base its Mideast policy on some biblical interpretation about Israel. Whatever our religious affiliation or lack of it, I’d guess most voters have better explanations for Sept. 11 or the Sandy Hook shootings than God’s revenge – and would like to practical, reason-based solutions from those seeking office.

 

By: Rekha Basu, Columnist, The Des Moines Register; The National Memo, August 14, 2014

 

 

August 17, 2014 Posted by | Politics, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The End Of The Evangelical Era”: The Stamp Of Approval Of Christian Conservatives Has Become Far Less Meaningful

Saturday, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, two of the many candidates whose names are being bandied about for the 2016 presidential race, made a pilgrimage to Iowa to speak at the Family Leadership Summit. There, as part of a nine-hour marathon of speeches to an audience of 1,500 evangelical Christians, Cruz and Santorum joined a host of conservative politicians and public figures—including Donald Trump, that standard-bearer of wingnuttery—in lambasting Obamacare, the Internal Revenue Service, and the GOP establishment. Pastor Rafael Cruz, father of Senator Cruz, spoke vividly and at length about liberals’ attempts to turn the country into a socialist paradise. “Socialism requires that government becomes your god,” he said. “That’s why they have to destroy the concept of God. They have to destroy all loyalties except loyalty to government. That’s what’s behind homosexual marriage.”

More than highlighting the candidates and issues that will drive the 2016 primaries, the event illustrates the waning influence of Christian conservative leaders like Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats, the summit organizer. Most GOP contenders will seek a blessing from multiple evangelical heavyweights—Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, to name a few—but these are, increasingly, empty rituals. Even if the aging scions of the Christian Right can agree on the best GOP candidate (which, in 2012, they struggled mightily to do), their stamp of approval is far less meaningful for evangelical voters than it was two decades ago.

At the summit, Congressman Steve King, the Iowa arch-conservative, encouraged pastors to defy the Internal Revenue Service, which forbids religious leaders whose churches have tax-exempt status from speaking out on partisan issues, and preach politics from the pulpit. Ted Cruz mocked his Republican colleagues for their failure to repeal Obamacare and suggested that the U.S. reform its tax code by dismantling the IRS. Santorum scolded moderate and libertarian Republicans for abandoning social issues like same-sex marriage. These are red-meat issues for older conservative Christians, but could hurt Republicans among younger and more moderate evangelicals. For example, a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that a slim majority of young white evangelical Protestants supports same-sex marriage.

Other potential 2016 candidates are already in Vander Plaats’ sights, even if they were absent at the summit. Texas Governor Rick Perry attended last year’s Family Leadership Summit and Vander Plaats has spoken approvingly of Senator Rand Paul. Notably, however, Vander Plaats is less enthusiastic about politicians with even a whiff of moderate sympathies; he decried Senator Marco Rubio’s bipartisan work on immigration reform, saying there was “no way” Iowa evangelicals would vote for him in 2016. He also had critical words for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; according to Vander Plaats, Christie’s conservative credentials aren’t strong enough to capture the nomination.

George W. Bush was the last Republican candidate who was considered sufficiently socially conservative to garner approval from evangelical leaders like Robertson and Jerry Falwell and still win a general election. In January 2012, faced with the prospect of Mitt Romney—a moderate and a Mormon—as the presumptive Republican nominee, 150 members of the evangelical old guard gathered on a ranch in Texas to reach a consensus on the best alternative to Romney. After mulling their alternatives in the motley GOP field, which included Bachmann, Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich, the leaders endorsed Santorum, a Catholic with a strong emphasis on social issues and a sharp contrast to Romney the business maven.

Their followers’ response, in the primaries that followed, was mixed. Romney’s eventual nomination remained almost certain; conservative evangelicals’ support for Santorum only helped delay the inevitable until May. But in the general election, nearly eight in ten evangelicals voted for Romney.

“The days of evangelical leaders crowning political princes are well behind us,” says Robert P. Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit public opinion research organization. “Evangelicals are still a huge part of the GOP base, but they’re no longer taking their cues from a handful of well-known leaders.”

Keeping the spotlight on Iowa is one of the best ways for Christian conservative leaders to retain some influence over the nomination process. But preserving their foothold will be an uphill battle. To Vander Plaats’ chagrin, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, is threatening to do away with the Ames Straw Poll, an event that’s traditionally been important for party fundraising, saying that it has “outlived its usefulness.” The Straw Poll, which was first held in 1979, has been a crucial way for the Christian Right to advance their agenda in the presidential race since 1988, when Pat Robertson pulled off a spectacular first-place finish, setting the tone for the rest of the primary. If the Iowa Republican Party scraps the event, Vander Plaats says, his group is ready to fill the gap with another Family Leadership Summit in 2015. But it wouldn’t be the same kind of media magnet as the Ames Straw Poll, which offers fried butter on a stick as well as GOP candidates.

The extreme rhetoric that revved up the crowd this past weekend isn’t likely to resonate as strongly among mainstream GOP voters or even more moderate evangelicals. If the Family Leadership Summit is any guide, the efforts of potential 2016 candidates like Ted Cruz to secure evangelical leaders’ support—and, by proxy, Christian conservatives’ votes—will define the margins, not the center, of the GOP race.

 

By: Amelia Thompson-Deveaux, The American Prospect, August 13, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rodeo Of Racism”: GOP Content To Play To An Increasingly Shrill And Xenophobic Primary Base

It’s been quite a week for anti-Obama racism. At the Missouri State Fair Sunday, rodeo fans cheered to see a “clown” in an Obama mask get run down by a bull. On Friday in Florida the president faced a gaggle of protesters on the way to address a disabled veterans’ group; one carried a sign reading “Kenyan Go Home.” Three days earlier, Arizonans protested Obama’s visit by singing “Bye Bye Black Sheep.” One man mocked him by calling him “47 percent Negro;” another held a sign that read, “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!”

Also on Sunday, the same day as the Missouri State Fair incident, ABC’s “This Week” hosted the birther-in-chief, Donald Trump, who was fresh from a visit to the right-wing Family Leadership Summit in Iowa and a golf outing with GOP House Speaker John Boehner. When Jon Karl asked him, “You don’t still question [Barack Obama] was born in the United States, do you?” Trump let loose his tiresome birther spew. “I have no idea,” Trump replied. “Was there a birth certificate? You tell me. You know, some people say that was not his birth certificate. I’m saying I don’t know. Nobody knows and you don’t know either, Jonathan.”

With Republicans like Boehner and Iowa’s Family Leader embracing Trump as a loyal and treasured party figure, and mainstream media figures like Karl treating him like a legitimate newsmaker, it’s clear that the party, and some of the media, learned nothing from its 2012 drubbing. Reince Priebus’ infamous “autopsy” has itself gone wherever it is that fraudulent ideas go to die. Calling for more “inclusion,” the report didn’t outline policy change but rather better communication strategies to avoid repelling young voters, women, African-Americans and Latinos. “Our policies are sound, but I think in many ways the way we communicate can be a real problem,” Priebus said in March.

But now they’ve given up even on changing the way they communicate.

It’s not just Trump; one candidate after another in Iowa demonized Obama, and/or his electoral coalition. Rep. Steve King, he of the “calves the size of cantaloupes” remark, told the audience to ignore guidelines on what churches can do politically and “go ahead and defy the IRS.” King is said to be mulling his own 2016 presidential run; we can only dream. Sen. Ted Cruz got big ovations for advocating the repeal of not just Obamacare but the IRS.

But the scary demagogue award has to go to Cruz’s father, Rafael, an immigrant from Cuba who accused Obama of trying to eliminate God and impose socialism on the U.S. After all, he’d seen it happen before. “A young charismatic leader rose up, talking about ‘hope’ and ‘change,’” Cruz yelled, as the crowd booed. “His name was Fidel Castro.” Got it? Obama = Castro. Cruz doesn’t mention that he actually supported Fidel Castro’s revolution against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, then turned against him. Now we know where the Texas senator got his penchant for demagoguery and distortion. (Imagine replacing Marion Robinson in the White House with Rafael Cruz.)

Although the Iowa convening didn’t feature anyone in an Obama mask being chased by bulls, or “Kenyan Go Home” signs, and nobody sang “Bye Bye Black Sheep” to the president, it made clear that the GOP project of inclusion is a farce. Judging from Iowa, the 2016 primary field is set to be every bit as extreme as in 2012 but without even the patina of diversity provided by Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. And it will play to an increasingly shrill and xenophobic primary base where three nasty racist anti-Obama events can take place in one week, with near-complete silence from Republican leaders.

I should note that the Missouri State Fair rodeo was so sickening that Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder had to denounce it as “disrespectful” to the president, adding, “We are better than this.” Fairgoer Perry Beam told the Associated Press that “everybody screamed” and “just went wild” when an announcer asked if they’d like to see “Obama run down by a bull.”

“It was at that point I began to feel a sense of fear. It was that level of enthusiasm,” the 48-year-old white musician said. Another clown approached and began to play with the lips of the Obama mask. “There would have been no reason to play with his lips if he were a white president,” Beam said. “They mentioned the president’s name, I don’t know, 100 times. It was sickening. It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally you’d see on TV. I’ve never seen anything so blatantly racist in my life,” he added. “If an old country boy picks up on something like that, imagine what a person of color would think.”

Meanwhile, John Boehner golfs with birther-in-chief Trump, while he headlines ABC’s respected Sunday news show. The GOP seems content to live on the fumes of Obama-hatred. It’s not a strategy for a post-Obama politics, but they seem to reckon there are enough rodeo clowns out there to get them through 2014.

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, August 12, 2013

August 13, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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