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As Goes Iowa: Asking Presidential Candidates the Right Religion Questions

Reposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media. by Andy Kopsa Every four years the national political eye shifts to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.  With the 2012 presidential election only 15 months away, the campaign frenzy in Iowa has already begun.  Local and national media are eagerly following Republican presidential hopefuls as they glad-hand farmers, eat local delicacies and stump, flanked by American flags, through soybean fields. In February next year, Iowans will head to their local caucus to give a traditionally coveted victory to one Republican who could go on to face President Obama in the general election. That Republican – be it Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich – will need to secure the blessing of the radical religious-political group The Family Leader. Bob Vander Plaats, the outspoken head of The Family Leader (TFL), is the man The Atlantichas called a Republican political “kingmaker” in Iowa – and the man who The Hill just rankedas having the ability to give one of the top 10 “endorsements the presidential candidates covet most.” The media has documented his – and the TFL’s – statements about homosexuality (worse than second hand smoke) and women’s role in society (producing lots of babies). Last week TFL made national news again with its Marriage Pledge – already signed by Bachmann and Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania – touting the benefits of slavery to African American families (after vocal push-back, TFL has since removed this from the pledge).  None of Vander Plaats’ work would be half as interesting a story if The Family Leader, a Focus on the Family affiliate, hadn’t been built with over $3 million in federal funds. Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, along with Vander Plaats, Tamara Scott of Concerned Women for America, and openly gay Iowa Senator, Matt McCoy, appeared last month on an Iowa Public Television panel discussion called Iowa’s Marriage Battleground. Vander Plaats and Scott argued that the Christian founding of America necessitates the abolition of gay marriage in Iowa. Vander Plaats repeated his claim that gay marriage will lead to fathers marrying sons and other polygamist and incestuous acts.  Ryan Terrell and McCoy refuted these unsupported claims but by the end were clearly frustrated. Vander Plaats and Scott had seemingly made their point with Constitutional “proof” — and some standard gross-out that surely scared those who didn’t know better. The Sunday after the show aired, Ryan Terrell, whose organization advocates respect for all religious and non-believers alike, and aims to challenge extremism and to protect the rights “of all Iowans,” wrote in an editorial for the Des Moines Register:
Bob Vander Plaats and others make declarations about “God’s law” when speaking about the Constitution.  He and others rewrite history to their own political benefit stating that our founders established the United States as a “Christian Nation.”  Enough is enough.  Iowans must demand higher standards for candidates and public officials.
Why do the financial and political objectives of organizations like The Family Leader go unexamined by media?  And what is it about candidates’ religious conviction that makes interviewers and voters so reticent to ask more questions?  Does the Constitutional promise of religious freedom not prohibit politicians from legislating according to their personal belief?  And what lessons should Iowa teach the rest of us? I have interviewed Ryan Terrell several times over the last couple years, specifically to talk about the political involvement of The Family leader in Iowa.  After her op-ed I to reached out again to find out how Iowans and Americans can “demand higher standards” of public officials–and maybe in the process force a shift in the public conversation and resulting media coverage. Below is an excerpt from our email interview. Andy Kopsa: I would really like to ask candidates how they would legislate their personal beliefs for their diverse constituents.  For instance, Christians whose specific beliefs are not held by all.  Reporters aren’t asking these questions.  Are they off limits? Connie Ryan Terrell: Asking any candidate for elected office what role their faith or values will play in creating public policy or making appointments is the purview of the public.  It is in the public’s best interest to understand that relationship.  On a related note, it is always appropriate to ask a candidate how they would deal with a situation when the tenets of their religion come into conflict with the Constitution or a public policy.  What would hold the highest priority? Would they be able to uphold the Constitution, setting aside their religious beliefs? Other questions could include:  How would your values help you formulate public policy that promotes the common good?  What are your views on maintaining a boundary between religion and government?  What steps will you take to protect the rights of your constituents regardless of their faith or beliefs?  Do you believe religion or religious language should ever be used for political gain? What are the standards you set for yourself to ensure that you guard against it? AK: Local and national news outlets have cautioned that Iowa is cruising toward irrelevance as the first caucus-holder in the nation because TFL and others’ extreme beliefs are controlling the political narrative.  Do you find this to be the case?  And if so, could this actually be an opportunity to shift how we address religion in politics, both in Iowa and nationally? CRT: I’m probably a little jaded on this but I think the media helped to create this situation and then the blame is placed solely at the feet of Iowans.  Look at the number of Google Alerts for Vander Plaats as opposed to the attention given to moderates or progressives, religious or not. Let’s remember, the religious right is still a minority, even in Iowa. However, media attention leans heavily toward the conservative message and events. Why?  Because that message creates fun, sensationalized and sometimes even crazy headlines.  The moderates and even the progressives are much less exciting and certainly not nearly so entertaining.  There is little effort on the part of the media to provide balance for the public, in Iowa or nationally. The moderate and traditional Republicans aren’t interested in the extreme, tea party candidates. This places them in a bind since all we are seeing in Iowa are the ultra-conservative folks.  The GOP needs to do a better job in attracting the moderate candidates to our state so there is a balance in the message and opportunity for moderates to explore the policy positions of the candidates that match their values and that they would consider viable. AK: Maggie Gallagher of The National Organization for Marriage appeared on PBS’ The News Hour to decry the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York.  During her conversation with the host, she declared that the marriage battle is just getting started.  She briefly referenced Iowa as part of that fight.  While Iowa has marriage equality, it is clear that TFL and others are pushing for an amendment.  What could Maggie Gallagher be hinting at? CRT: It is our understanding that Focus on the Family, NOM (National Organization for Marriage), AFA (American Family Association) and more are fully financing Vander Plaats and his efforts.  Certainly national money is being leveraged and spent for a flurry of Caucus-related activities that promote TFL and Bob, including the bus tour hosting most of the extremist candidates along the way. Without a doubt Bob will continue his attacks on the current and future civil marriages of families who are just trying to live their lives as anyone else would.  He will undoubtedly continue to receive the lion’s share of his financing from out of state extremist organizations who want to destroy those marriages for their own personal religious reasons, even though their attacks have no basis in the Constitution or the law. It is simply a misuse of religion and power.  Most Iowans are fair-minded and respect our Constitution, which in the end will keep civil marriage for all families firmly in place. Note:  Iowa Family Policy Center AKA The Family Leader has beengenerously fundedby NOM, AFA and The Family Research Council in the past AK: What counter measures is Interfaith Iowa planning for the eventual dumping of big money into Iowa from out-of-state anti-gay organizations? CRT: Interfaith Alliance of Iowa is a founding member of Justice Not Politics and I serve as the Board Chair.  Justice Not Politics is the lead organization in Iowa to educate the public on the role of the court, the judicial retention process and the critical need for judicial independence.  Justice Not Politics, with all of its supporters and coalition partners, will take an active role throughout this year and next in providing that necessary education to successfully defend the courts. In addition, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa will continue to broaden our network across the state to engage and empower progressive people of faith and goodwill to help us protect religious freedom, sustain equality for all Iowans, and promote civility in our state. It is through these grassroots efforts that we will be successful on all fronts. AK: I am continually amazed that the media gives Bob Vander Plaats a pass on his arguably extreme religious views as well as his misrepresentation of fact. How can the media hold candidates and kingmakers to a higher standard?  How do you and Interfaith Iowa plan to do the same? CRT: The public and media need to more vigorously question public figures and candidates when they make broad, general statements or statements of fact.  If broad or general, ask the candidate to elaborate and to give examples.  If it is a statement of fact, ask them for a reference of proof. If they hold themselves up as an expert or scholar (e.g. historian; theologian), ask them if they are indeed an expert or scholar or if the statement is just their personal opinion. Making statements as if they are fact does not make it so. Regarding higher standards, I was challenging the public specifically to hold candidates to higher standards in regard to respecting the religious beliefs and religious freedom of every American.  We as a public must demand that respect from our candidates and our elected officials.  We must call them on it when they step over a line.  We must ask them questions that help us understand their commitment to religious freedom.  We must be actively involved in the fate of our own democracy. I was at my optometrist’s office the other day. I got into a conversation with two of the office staff who both said neither had ever voted. Ever!  They had lots of opinions about politics but they had never voted.  My assumption was if they never took seriously their right to vote then most likely they had also never taken seriously their responsibility to be an informed voter. I gently urged them to do both. Religious freedom is arguably the most important right necessary to maintain a healthy democracy. The electorate must take this right and the associated responsibilities seriously.  Our elected officials and candidates must honor the religious freedom of every American and work tirelessly to defend it at every corner. The health of our democracy, to state it simply, is at stake. Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The Washington IndependentandAlterNet.  As a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor, Andy writes frequently for theIowa Independent. For more on The Family Leader’s marriage pledge, read herehereherehere and here. Reposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media.