At Religious Right Forum, GOP Candidates Weep and Proselytize

 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.

Then, there was much talk of gay rights as being outright "evil" from religious-right dignitaries, and candidates Patrick J. Buchanan, Alan Keyes and Phil Gramm all spoke of same-sex marriage as a harbinger of the downfall of Western civilization should it be allowed to occur. Also speaking that night at what was called the Campaign to Protect Marriage Rally (video here) was a young state legislator named Steve Grubbs, who today runs Herman Cain's Iowa campaign.

Today, the tone was a bit softened, with the candidates all arrayed in a conversational setting, but the invective was present, with Michele Bachmann alleging that liberals were trying to silence pastors from speaking truth from their pulpits, and Newt Gingrich offering a particularly bitter reading of the differences between the left and right.

Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!

Luntz teed up a question with a Glenn-Beckian narrative about the purported "hostility" of a powerful liberal force arrayed against the "3,000 or so people in this room." Those who are part of the anti-3,000 "don't understand" what's happening at the forum, Luntz said, explaining that church-goers are happier than people who don't go to church or pray. The implication, of course, was that liberals neither go to church or pray.

Gingrich concurred, saying that conservatives are "happy" while liberals are "angry" and "miserable" -- the proof presumably being his own cheerful demeanor. The problem, Gingrich explained, was that liberals were all products of the French Revolution -- a repackaged version of the "culture war" Buchanan invoked in his appearance at First Federated a decade and a half ago.

"The French Revolution was an anti-clerical, anti-God rejection of the larger world in favor of secularism," Gingrich said. "It has dominated our academic world; our academic world supplies our news media, our courts and Hollywood. And so you have a faction in America today which believes things which are profoundly wrong. Now that is a fight; that's not a passivity. And in a culture in which they know what they're doing, and they are determined to destroy our value system, and we are passive and confused is a world in which America's going to stay in deep trouble."

Though they left the French out of it, Bachmann and Santorum echoed the notion of liberals and the left as a powerful force that is oppressing the battered remnant of Jesus-believing patriots, seeking to essentially destroy the nation. As an example, Bachmann alleged that the new health care law will force taxpayers to fund "chemical abortion" that is allegedly being "pushed" by Planned Parenthood. In fact, the new health care law does not include taxpayer funding for any kind of abortion. As it stands under the new law, women will have a difficult time getting coverage from private insurers that includes abortion coverage.

Rick Perry's Christian Nation

At The Family Leader forum, Rick Perry was back to his old charming, relaxed self -- feeding my theory that his more incoherent public appearances occur when he feels out of his element, say, being questioned by a bunch of cosmopolitan smarty pants, or trying to play to a roomful of undemonstrative New Hampshirites. But among rural evangelicals, the man can shine.

Perry was loath to describe the cultural divide in America; he was more interested, he said, in discussing the solution, which he saw in the politicization of evangelical preachers. He spoke of a series of public policy forums he's conducted with preachers in Texas, and then touted his controversial prayer gathering, The Response, which was sponsored by the hate group, the American Family Association, and organized with the help of some members of the Apostolic Reformation movement, who preach that gay people are possessed by demons.

 "We brought people from all across the state and the country together to pray for this country," Perry said. He urged pastors to preach every day about about values. "Somebody's values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the president of the United States in going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell ya, it needs to be our values -- values and virtues that this country was based upon by the Judeo-Christian Founding Fathers."

(Sarah Posner reports that Perry supporters are organizing more "The Response" rallies in the early primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.)

Earlier in the forum, Perry seemed to allude to his record of having executed more convicts than any other governor in recent history. "I've been driven to my knees multiple times as the governor of the State of Texas," Perry said, "making decisions that are life or death -- have huge impacts on people's lives. The idea that I would walk into that without God Almighty holding me up would scare me to death." Translation: God told him to kill those people.

 The Broken-Hearted Would-Be President

In evangelical theology, there is a doctrine centered on the notion of the broken heart -- that until one's heart has been broken, usually by one's own sin, one will not be truly ready to receive Jesus as one's personal Lord and Savior.

Evangelical services at which congregants respond to altar calls often feature the tearful testimonials of those whose hearts are so broken.

And so it was that the candidates were urged by Luntz to reveal the moments when their faith was most tested, leading to tearful displays by several, beginning, most surprisingly, with Herman Cain.

Cain has told the story of his battle with Stage Four cancer many times as part of a stump speech, always with a religious spin: the incision from his surgery was shaped like a "J" for Jesus; his nurse's name was Grace. Any reporter covering Cain can practically recite it. But today, Cain fell apart when he told the tale in a more intimate narrative, one that took the view into the doctor's office where he received the diagnosis with his wife at his side.

The former businessman, whose campaign has been under a cloud since Politico broke the story of settlements made to former employees of Cain's during his tenure as president of the National Restaurant Association -- allegedly for sexual harassment claims -- has generally campaigned without his wife, Gloria, on the trail with him. But tonight, he made a point of mentioning that she was there, and when he tried to tell of how she promised to help him fight the deadly disease, it seemed to be too much for him.

Several times in the telling, Cain stopped, once taking off his glasses to wipe his eyes. (Jennifer Jacobs of the Des Moines Register tells it well, here.) Later, he cried again when saying he hadn't been around enough for his kids, leaving his wife to hold the family together while "I climbed those corporate ladders."

Santorum, too, had a gripping story to tell of the touch-and-go health status of his seventh child, Bella, who was born with a serious genetic disorder. But his tale wasn't simply of a parent's pain at the possible loss of a child. He spoke of how he led the charge in the U.S. Senate against a particular late-term abortion procedure (which anti-choice proponents rhetorically call "partial-birth abortion"), and yet held back from bonding with his own infant daughter for fear of the pain that could come if she died.

"I had been exactly what I had said that I’d fought against at the partial birth abortion," Santorum said. "I had seen her as less a person. It does hurt to say that.”

Bachmann's story of her parent's divorce was poignant, as well. When her father left her mother, she said, she had to work, at the age of 12, to earn the money for her most basic needs: eyeglasses and a winter coat.

Gingrich spoke of a time when his career was on the rise as a politician, but he was "hollow" inside. A friend, he said, gave him the text used by members of Alcoholics Anonymous, he said, and he found his path back to wholeness through it, he said, even though "I wasn't drinking." (The AA program includes a concept called "hitting bottom," which is not unlike the broken-heartedness of evangelicalism.)

But pressed to find a heart-rending tale, Gingrich spoke not of any of his marriages or divorces (he cheated on and divorced his first wife while she battled cancer) or any of his own children or siblings, but rather the story of a friend's child who has severe life-threatening conditions. That was enough to give him a catch in his voice -- "this is someone very close to me," he said -- and to inveigh against the president's health-care reform law.

“Do I want some bureaucracy deciding that, on a percentage basis, this is not worth the investment, or do I want a country that cares about every life? That is what next year’s all about,” Gingrich said.

The case Gingrich described, of a child with brain tumors and a heart defect, is actually the kind of circumstance the new law is designed to take on, preventing the parents of such a child from having to lose their home to cover the medical bills.

Playing Nicely With Others

From the outset of the forum, Luntz stated he expected to conduct a civil discussion, and having had one, he chided the candidates to go forth and play just as nicely together in future debates. He seemed to be saying, do not go on picking on each other.

It was easy forum, though, in which to conduct a civil discussion. First, it was held in a church. Second, there were no journalists to ask pesky questions about inconsistencies between a candidate's words and deeds. So Newt Gingrich, who has made the government-backed mortgage agencies, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, punching bags for his war on government, did not have to speak to revelations that his consulting firm took in more than $1 million from the mortgage giants. Herman Cain, likewise, did not have to respond to any inquiries about those sexual harassment allegations, nor will we ever know if his heart has been broken by serious allegations of financial improprieties by his campaign. And not a word was spoken about Libya.


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