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The rise of the Christian right within the Republican Party could be the galvanizing event that organizes the evangelical vote. Or, if the Democrats have their way, it could tar the GOP as the party of Jesus freaks. "The religious right is now institutionalized in the Republican Party . . . they have gained more influence over hitherto moderate candidates," says Kevin Phillips, the political analyst. Having to address the interests of a fringe within the party, he says, "is likely to cause trouble for the Republicans rather than being an almost unmitigated plus."
Up the hill from sterile downtown Des Moines lies the political redoubt of the new Christian rightthe large complex that houses the First Federated Church, its offices, and its Christian school. A few blocks away stands the equally impressive First Assembly of God Church. Within these buildings, fundamentalist churchmen preach both the Bible and politics. First Federated, which has a Sunday television worship program and a congregation of over 2000, has contacts with Falwell's Moral Majority and Robertson's Freedom Council. The church is active in voter registration and issues report cards on how politicians stand on issue that matter to its members. Recently, officials of the churches and members of their congregations have begun to organize the priorities of the city's Republican Party apparatus.
Iowa is in the news these days because of the farm crisis. But it may turn out that religious conservatism will play a stronger role in the state's politics than the demise of the family farm. The social issues of the Christian right have had a thorough airing in Iowa. The state, for example, has been the center of a fight to win equal time for creationism in the public schools.
The center of the Christian movement is in Des Moines (Polk County) and its suburbs (Dallas County). In mid-January, some two dozen fundamentalists in Dallas County met to organize for precinct caucuses. Both Republicans and Democrats were scheduled to hold 22 caucuses where they would elect delegates for county conventions and begin work for political platforms.
"God is giving us one last chance to get our act together," Steve Scheffler told the group of fundamentalists in Dallas County last January. Scheffler is the state coordinator for the Freedom Council, the Virginia Beach-based organization, founded by Pat Robertson and dedicated to restoring "traditional" American values in government. The Freedom Council is a tax-exempt organization and refrains from overt political endorsement. Scheffler never mentioned Robertson's campaign; instead he encouraged the group to form a Christian caucus to plan for the precinct meetings.
Scheffler himself has little experience in political organizing. He previously ran unsuccessfully for state office in Iowa; then last summer he took a training course in political organizing at the Freedom Council's headquarters. This past winter in Des Moines, Scheffler became the catalyst for fundamentalist organizing.
"So many times we holler, but we don't take a stand," Scheffler told the Dallas County group. "If we want those Christian values returned, we have to get out of the pew."
Two weeks later, 50 fundamentalists caucused informally at the Dallas Country Christian School and, taking Scheffler at his word, broke into 22 groups, one for each precinct in the county, decided who to nominate at the upcoming caucuses, and discussed possible platforms. Having shown their strength at the precinct caucuses, the Christians moved on to the county conventions and, in Dallas County, easily established dominance. Marc Stiles, a reporter for the Dallas County Newswho covered the event, gave a description of the debate: Moderate Republican attempts to water down a plank against abortion were easily beaten; an effort to weaken a plank supporting stronger laws against pornography, on grounds that such a law would infringe on the First Amendment, was quickly silenced. "Pornography," said one fundamentalist delegate, "is stench on the nostrils of the holy God."
A motion to strike the word "prayer" from a plank supporting a return to prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance in the public school system drew the ire of the Christians. "Removing prayer from the public school system was the same as removing God," said one. The motion was decisively beaten. Next was a platform supporting the rights of business people and landlords not to accommodate gays. "Everyone thinks it's cute to see two men kiss," said another Christian delegate. "I think it's sick." The plank that labeled homosexual acts as "perverted sexual deviations not socially acceptable by American society" easily passed over objections by a man who said it was against the law in the U.S. to discriminate against people on the basis of race, religion, and lifestyle.
Don Morris, the associate pastor of the First Federated Church in Des Moines, began to preach politics during the presidential campaign in 1984. This year he was a delegate to the Republican district convention. Morris says he was drawn to politics by other fundamentalist ministers he admires, and by the examples of Falwell and Robertson. Like many of the fundamentalists I spoke with in Des Moines in late April, Morris voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, then, realizing the error of his ways, supported Reagan. Morris now supports Bush for president in 1988, as do, he says, many members of his church. In Morris's view, Bush has been a loyal Reagan-supporter, and he is a more realistic candidate than Robertson.
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