Rekha Basu: Iowa summit shows religion and politics don’t mix

08/13/2014 4:36 PM

08/13/2014 4:40 PM

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 Gov. 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, Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Gov. 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 But the upbeat, love-God-and-country tone of previous events appeared at times to have been replaced by a somber, calamitous note of foreboding.

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.

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.

Rosenberg, an evangelical Christian born to a Jewish father, said the U.S. must not support a two-state solution in Israel because a sovereign Palestinian state “defies the biblical mandate.”

Is fear a new strategy for the Family Leader and its affiliated Family Research Council and Focus on the Family? Organizers said there were 1,200 attendees. 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 a recent campaign against a fourth. Same-sex couples are celebrating wedding anniversaries.

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 and 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. 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 wasn’t welcomed. In a 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.”

In the parking lot, some protesters from Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, which describes itself as a social and educational group, objected. “The summit is attempting to define legislation through Christian dogma,” said protester Jason Benell.

People will vote according to their 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.

Whatever our religious affiliation or lack of it, I’d guess most voters have better explanations for 9/11 or the Sandy Hook shootings than God’s revenge and would like practical, reason-based solutions from those seeking office.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register. Reach her at


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