Conservative Iowa Church Tries to Oust Judges Who Voted to Legalize Gay Marriage

Church leaders are not allowed to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit. Yet that is exactly what one Church is doing in Iowa.

In early September, Iowa’s Cornerstone World Outreach Church circulated a letter to hundreds of Iowa clergy urging them to join a crusade to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges. The targeted judges are three of the sevenwho ruled unanimously in 2009 that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, legalizing gay marriage in the state. The remaining four aren’t up for retention votes in this election cycle. 

Project Jeremiah 2010, launched by Cornerstone’s Rev. Cary Gordon as a pulpit electioneering campaign, calls on clergy to tell their congregations to vote “no” in the upcoming judicial retention vote.

The clergy letter wastes no time likening “secular fundamentalists” (the ACLU, Americans United, the unchurched masses) to Hitler:

Secular fundamentalists in the United States know the same thing that Hitler knew. The only thing that stands in their way of the total takeover of our American culture, the final removal of any mention of God from the public arena, and the shredding of the last remains of our Judeo-Christian value system, is the church of Jesus Christ.”

I contacted Gordon via email to see if we could talk about Project Jeremiah. He replied with a press release and a directive to use it as an interview. In the release he quotes Camille Paglia, references John Locke and an Iowa anti-sodomy law from 1857 as the reason the Iowa Constitution could not produce the “canard of ‘gay marriage.”

“I don’t think I have ever seen a more outrageous effort to politicize churches,” said Americans United’s Rev. Barry Lynn in a press release calling for an IRS investigation. Churches with tax-exempt status are prohibited from making political endorsements.

Reading further into Cornerstone’s letter you discover the The Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC) is organizing this campaign. And, the Family Research Council’s Liberty Institute is offering free legal counsel to any pastor willing to follow the politicking initiative.

The Iowa Family Policy Center, a leading anti-gay voice in Iowa, claims that homosexual activity is more dangerous than smoking, driving the point home with an image of openly gay congressman Barney Frank smoking a cigarette. This same IFPC has received over $3 million in federal funding since 2004 from the U.S. Healthy Marriage Demonstration Project, a program through the Department of Health and Human Services.

Cornerstone World Outreach is building on a well-funded astroturf movement called Iowa For Freedom.   The organization was formed by three-time Iowa gubernatorial candidate Bob VanderPlaats to vote out judges deemed "activist."

But it quickly came to light that Iowa for Freedom is bought and paid for by the American Family Association,which pledged to dump at least $200K into the organization before November 2. Bryan Fischer, the de facto mouthpiece of the organization, routinely spouts analogies between the Holocaust and gays, says all Muslims must be deported and wholeheartedly supports Senator Demint’s claim that unwed pregnant women shouldn’t teach.  The Cornerstone clergy letter quotes from a 2009 analysis by Bryan Fischer called “What Hitler Knew.” 

I spoke with Reverend Dr. Welton Gaddy, President of Interfaith Alliance, about the effort to politicize Iowa’s churches, specifically about Reverend Gordon’s letter.  I felt like it was a hysterical response of a kind of an abomination to religion,” he said, “I didn’t see that letter as religious I saw that letter as penned and distributed by people trying to play God and trying to say that the only kind of nation worth our support is one in which we prevail.”

The nation Cornerstone, AFA, IFPC, FRC -- pick your acronym -- would like to live in is one governed by white conservative Christian heterosexual males. The nation we do live in, thank God, is one where you are free to be as religious or non-religious as you like; and where -- no matter how much history revision they do -- there is separation of church and state.

Reverend Gordon, Bob VanderPlaats and the lot absurdly claim this is a First Amendment issue. Legally, houses of worship can talk with their congregation about the imperative to vote -- the civil responsibility to vote. Pastors have a right to speak out for or against issues -- gay marriage, abortion, stem-cell research -- until they are blue in the face. They can even host political debates as long as all candidates are invited. But there is one thing they can’t do: endorse a candidate from the pulpit.

“Tax exemption is a benefit and a very lucrative one,” said Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Rob Boston, “and as such it comes with conditions -- one is that you don’t engage in politicking. They [churches] are being asked to abide by a fairly common sense rule and they don’t even want to do that.”

I asked Mr. Boston specifically about claim the pulpit initiative is purely a First Amendment issue, “Some of these pastors might actually believe that they are striking a blow for free speech but I think many of them have been mislead or in other cases part of a fundraising scheme for the Alliance Defense Fund -- I shudder to think of how many millions of dollars they have raised by running around painting pictures of gagged pastors being told they can’t speak from the pulpit anymore.” American’s united filed a complaint letter with the IRS regarding Cornerstone’s politicking.

A much larger issue -- and one that must be addressed -- is the lack of political and societal will to take on the religious right. In America, to avoid being labeled as an Atheist, anti-religion or unpatriotic, the moderate middle gives Christian fundamentalists a wide berth. The commandeering of religion to leverage fear and wrangle voter capitulation should disturb us. What is happening in Iowa is a startling reminder of what happens when religion is dissolved into politics and vice versa.

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