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Religious zealots as good ol’ boys

COMMENTARY | April 28, 2011

Pity the reporters who’ll be called on to cover the Iowa Republican caucuses, caught between their editors needing stories on the one side and the hard Christian right pushing their views on the other. How to describe these would-be President-makers? Call them evangelicals, don’t dig beyond that – and get out of the state? That's a common approach, but Herb Strentz has a problem with it.

By Herb Strentz

When it comes to the Iowa Republican caucuses, let us venture into a land unexplored by today’s pundits and others who insist on taking the caucuses seriously despite the acknowledged control of the caucuses by the religious right in the Hawkeye State.

That never-never land is a blend of Christian theology, New Testament scripture, and public policy — a concoction avoided by those who would not mix religion and politics. The place also is avoided, curiously, by many of those who report on the Iowa caucuses and dare to toss the word “evangelicals” into their stories before fleeing the scene lest someone ask them to probe a bit deeper.

The aversion to theology and to mentioning Jesus Christ came to mind as I re-read New York Times and Atlantic profiles of Robert Vander Plaats, a right-wing religious Iowa zealot who scares me although he appears to amuse and impress the Times and Atlantic.

The Times magazine profile suggests a Dutch-Reformed good ol’ boy who squires GOP presidential hopefuls to the 69 Pizza Ranch restaurants around Iowa. At those and other locales he continues to inveigh against same-sex marriage in the crusade that ousted three state supreme court justices in last November’s elections. Efforts now are to impeach the remaining four justices who were part of the 7-0 2009 decision that knocked down a state law prohibiting same-sex marriage. 

The Vander Plaats in the Atlantic piece is more of a shrewd political wheeler-dealer — except for his failure to get elected to anything — who may shape the fate of the nation “because Iowa will be crucial in determining who challenges President Obama.” The Times and Atlantic profiles suggest Vander Plaats can deliver Iowa to one candidate or another, or at least assure the winning candidate follows Vander Plaats’ political theology.

What isn’t mentioned in the articles is his “theology.”

When he sought the GOP nomination for governor in 2010, Vander Plaats wrote an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register which said, in essence, that anyone who compromises makes Christ want to vomit. The wording was this: “Jesus Christ, whom many Republicans claim to follow, summoned his followers to be either hot or cold toward Him, because a ‘lukewarm’ commitment makes Him want to vomit.”

Not dealing with how committed followers could be “cold,” the op-ed piece declared that Republicans betray the party and their faith when they compromise. To my knowledge, no one in an interview or at a press conference in Iowa has ever called Vander Plaats on how his “compromise-and-make-Jesus-vomit” approach shapes up as wise or useful public policy. He pretty much gets a free pass from the news media. That’s even though any candidate following his marching order would exacerbate the rancor and ill will that so many of us find unsettling about today’s political decision making.

Perhaps the press just isn’t up to it. The Des Moines Register has not had a religion editor versed in theology since Bill Simbro, a one-time Methodist minister, retired in 1998 after 22 years on the beat. (He died in 2004, and after a few attempts to fill the slot, the position no longer exists.)

Like the Register, the Times, and the Atlantic, the rest of the media seem content to say evangelicals control the GOP caucus in Iowa and to not move beyond that in terms of what such control means for the nature of our self-governance.

Reporters and editors keep avoiding the mix of theology and politics, although coverage of Vander Plaats and the Iowa Republican caucuses pretty much demands they get into it. There are, after all, real issues here. For example, how do you deal with the certainty of Hebrews 13:8 — Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever — with the uncertainty voiced by Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a year before he was executed by the Nazis for his implication in plots to kill Hitler? He wrote in an April 30, 1944, letter, “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.”

I guess, in Vander Plaats’s eyes, Bonhoeffer would make Christ want to vomit.  That seems newsworthy to me, but to most of the press it is not — particularly when covering the “evangelicals” and the Iowa caucuses.


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