An Iowa Stop in a Broad Effort to Revitalize the Religious Right
By ERIK ECKHOLM
The New York Times
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Hundreds of conservative pastors in Iowa received the enticing invitation. Signed by Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential contender, it invited the pastors and their spouses to an expenses-paid, two-day Pastors’ Policy Briefing at a Sheraton hotel.
Nearly 400 Iowa ministers and many of their spouses accepted, filling a ballroom here on March 24 and 25. Through an evening banquet and long sessions, they heard speakers deplore a secular assault on evangelical Christian verities like the sanctity of male-female marriage, the humanity of the unborn and the divine right to limited government.
The program, sponsored by a temporary entity called the Iowa Renewal Project, featured several superstars of the Christian right as well as four possible Republican contenders for president. It was the latest of dozens of free, two-day conventions in at least 14 states over the past several years, usually with Mr. Huckabee listed as a co-sponsor, that have been attended by nearly 10,000 pastors who have spread the word in their churches and communities.
These meetings are part of a largely quiet drive to revitalize the religious right by drawing evangelical pastors and their flocks more deeply into politics — an effort given new energy by what conservative church leaders see as the ominous creep of laws allowing same-sex marriage and their sense that America is, literally, heading toward hell.
The Iowa pastors heard David Barton, a Christian historian, argue that the country was founded as explicitly Christian and lament that too few evangelicals get out and vote. They heard Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and like Mr. Huckabee a possible 2012 presidential candidate, say that constitutional liberties like the right to bear arms were ordained by God. They heard how to promote “biblically informed” political advocacy by churchgoers within the confines of federal tax law.
The other possible candidates who spoke were Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Support from many of the pastors in the audience here helped Mr. Huckabee, an evangelical minister, win the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2008. He had been the only candidate to appear at a pastors’ meeting before the Republican caucuses and went on to gain a surprise victory, with 60 percent of the caucus voters describing themselves in exit polls as evangelicals.
This year, many more would-be contenders are making plays for support.
Mr. Huckabee, of course, was warmly welcomed back at the event here as he declared: “We face a spiritual war in this country. Let this weekend be a time when you say, ‘We will not fail, and America will not fall.’ ”
He and the other Republican speakers were careful not to sound too much like candidates in this officially nonpartisan forum, instead emphasizing the threats to conservative Christian values and the need for churches to be engaged. Mr. Gingrich, for one, described the “Rediscovering God in America” films he has made with his wife, Callista, and said America is exceptional because its founding documents enshrine rights “endowed by our creator.”
He told the crowd that it was their Christian duty to fight for the “truth,” exposing threats like overreaching by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama health care law that may put the country “on the road to dictatorship.”
Mr. Barbour pledged relentless opposition to abortion and accused liberals of trying to remove religion from politics. Ms. Bachmann challenged the pastors to “be the voice of freedom.”
The organizer and, to many, the unsung hero of this effort to mobilize pastors is David Lane, a 56-year-old born-again Christian from California.
“What we’re doing with the pastor meetings is spiritual, but the end result is political,” Mr. Lane said in a rare interview, outside the doors of the Iowa meeting. “From my perspective, our country is going to hell because pastors won’t lead from the pulpits.”
Mr. Lane shuns publicity as he crosses the country forming local coalitions under names like Renewal Project and securing outside financing to put on the pastor conferences. Something of a stealth weapon for the right, he has also stepped in to assist in special-issue campaigns, like the successful effort in Iowa last year to unseat three State Supreme Court justices who had voted to allow same-sex marriage.
Mr. Lane first started arranging pastor conferences in Texas and California in the 1990s, but the effort has grown in the last five years. The meetings, which cost many tens of thousands of dollars, have been largely paid for by the Mississippi-based American Family Association, he said.
The association, founded by the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, is known for its strident condemnation of same-sex marriage and considers homosexuality to be “immoral, unnatural and unhealthy,” said Bryan Fischer, its director of issue analysis. Mr. Fischer said the association was a co-sponsor of the pastor meetings and maintained e-mail contact with 40,000 to 60,000 pastors nationwide, a list that is expanding.
In 2010, Mr. Lane said, he organized pastor meetings in Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee, as well as two in Iowa. He expects to revisit some of the same states this year, several of which are important battlegrounds in presidential politics.
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