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At Religious Right Forum, GOP Candidates Weep and Proselytize

In an Iowa megachurch, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Ron Paul put Christianity front and center.

 If you needed evidence of the mainstreaming of right-wing religious culture at the highest level of American electoral politics, Saturday's Webcast presidential forum in the all-important state of Iowa, whose caucuses open the presidential primary season, would serve as Exhibit A.

Gathered around a table decorated with pumpkins, the candidates for the Republican nomination for president shed tears and traded heart-rending personal stories in the sanctuary of the First Federated Church of Des Moines, at an event dubbed a Thanksgiving Family Forum. Neither of the two Mormon candidates, the front-runner Mitt Romney nor the back-of-the-pack John Huntsman, took part.

The forum, sponsored by The Family Leader and livestreamed by the political arm of Focus on the Family, featured right-wing pollster Frank Luntz in the role of a tear-jerking talk-show host, played with the sort of aplomb that would give Barbara Walters a run for her money. Former  Americans For Prosperity operative Herman Cain lost his composure when talking about when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Penn., came apart a bit when berating himself for having stayed emotionally distant from his youngest daughter, who has a grave genetic disorder that has twice brought her close to death.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., told of how her father abandoned her family, leaving her mother to sell their wedding gifts -- "all the pretty dishes" -- at a garage sale. Apparently lacking a personal story to match theirs, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ga., summoned the tale of a friend's gravely injured child to simultaneously choke up and rail against the health-care reform law signed by President Barack Obama.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry talked of finding Jesus. Rep. Ron Paul, Texas, gave hints of Christian Reconstructionist leanings, but proved himself inept at public soul-bearing. Asked to reveal some personal difficulty, he talked of how injury cut short his high school track career, but then said he realized it wasn't that big a deal. He did, however, admit to having trouble watching himself on television, "because all I see are my imperfections.”

Occupy Movement in the House?

Before the forum got under way, Luntz sought to forestall any possible disruptions from Occupy protesters who were believed to have been in the hall. So the moderator offered a deal: he would let an Occupy person have the mic for a few minutes before Luntz began questioning the candidates -- in exchange for a promise that there would be no disruptions.

A man came forward identifying himself as a member of the movement -- but, in truth, he seemed to be more representative of the Ron Paul campaign than of the typical Occupy protester (who would likely be reticent about speaking for the movement on his or her own, according to Occupy consensus strategy). The man identified himself as a senior citizen from Nevada, and then took a few minutes to berate the Federal Reserve Bank, which he said was "foreign-owned" by "anonymous" backers. He also appealed to Luntz to allow Paul ample time to reply to questions. No mention of the 99 percent or the recent violence against protesters seen nationwide last week.

Anti-Gay Mega-Church as Judgment Hall

A center of religious-right activity, First Federated serves, in presidential contests, as a sort of judgment hall for candidates. A large, modern church that resembles a television studio as much as it does a house of worship, First Federated has been at the heart of a jihad against LGBT people for at least 15 years. In 1996, the year in which former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole won the GOP nomination under the skeptical gaze of Iowa's evangelical Christians,  I watched from the sanctuary, on the eve of the caucuses, as the candidates lined up to sign a pledge that they would act to ensure that marriage remained a sanctified institution between "one man and one woman," taking a Sharpie to a giant placard on which the pledge was printed. That pledge was eventually signed into law by President Bill Clinton as the federal Defense of Marriage Act.