By Eric Eckholm for The New York Times, April 2, 2011:
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Hundreds of conservative pastors in Iowa received the enticing invitation. Signed by Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential contender, it invited the pastors and their spouses to an expenses-paid, two-day Pastors’ Policy Briefing at a Sheraton hotel.
Nearly 400 Iowa ministers and many of their spouses accepted, filling a ballroom here on March 24 and 25. Through an evening banquet and long sessions, they heard speakers deplore a secular assault on evangelical Christian verities like the sanctity of male-female marriage, the humanity of the unborn and the divine right to limited government.
The program, sponsored by a temporary entity called the Iowa Renewal Project, featured several superstars of the Christian right as well as four possible Republican contenders for president. It was the latest of dozens of free, two-day conventions in at least 14 states over the past several years, usually with Mr. Huckabee listed as a co-sponsor, that have been attended by nearly 10,000 pastors who have spread the word in their churches and communities.
These meetings are part of a largely quiet drive to revitalize the religious right by drawing evangelical pastors and their flocks more deeply into politics — an effort given new energy by what conservative church leaders see as the ominous creep of laws allowing same-sex marriage and their sense that America is, literally, heading toward hell.
The Iowa pastors heard David Barton, a Christian historian, argue that the country was founded as explicitly Christian and lament that too few evangelicals get out and vote. They heard Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and like Mr. Huckabee a possible 2012 presidential candidate, say that constitutional liberties like the right to bear arms were ordained by God. They heard how to promote “biblically informed” political advocacy by churchgoers within the confines of federal tax law.
The other possible candidates who spoke were Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Support from many of the pastors in the audience here helped Mr. Huckabee, an evangelical minister, win the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2008. He had been the only candidate to appear at a pastors’ meeting before the Republican caucuses and went on to gain a surprise victory, with 60 percent of the caucus voters describing themselves in exit polls as evangelicals.
This year, many more would-be contenders are making plays for support.
Mr. Huckabee, of course, was warmly welcomed back at the event here as he declared: “We face a spiritual war in this country. Let this weekend be a time when you say, ‘We will not fail, and America will not fall.’ ”
He and the other Republican speakers were careful not to sound too much like candidates in this officially nonpartisan forum, instead emphasizing the threats to conservative Christian values and the need for churches to be engaged. Mr. Gingrich, for one, described the “Rediscovering God in America” films he has made with his wife, Callista, and said America is exceptional because its founding documents enshrine rights “endowed by our creator.”
He told the crowd that it was their Christian duty to fight for the “truth,” exposing threats like overreaching by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama health care law that may put the country “on the road to dictatorship.”
Mr. Barbour pledged relentless opposition to abortion and accused liberals of trying to remove religion from politics. Ms. Bachmann challenged the pastors to “be the voice of freedom.”
The organizer and, to many, the unsung hero of this effort to mobilize pastors is David Lane, a 56-year-old born-again Christian from California.
“What we’re doing with the pastor meetings is spiritual, but the end result is political,” Mr. Lane said in a rare interview, outside the doors of the Iowa meeting. “From my perspective, our country is going to hell because pastors won’t lead from the pulpits.”
Mr. Lane shuns publicity as he crosses the country forming local coalitions under names like Renewal Project and securing outside financing to put on the pastor conferences. Something of a stealth weapon for the right, he has also stepped in to assist in special-issue campaigns, like the successful effort in Iowa last year to unseat three State Supreme Court justices who had voted to allow same-sex marriage.
Mr. Lane first started arranging pastor conferences in Texas and California in the 1990s, but the effort has grown in the last five years. The meetings, which cost many tens of thousands of dollars, have been largely paid for by the Mississippi-based American Family Association, he said.
The association, founded by the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, is known for its strident condemnation of same-sex marriage and considers homosexuality to be “immoral, unnatural and unhealthy,” said Bryan Fischer, its director of issue analysis. Mr. Fischer said the association was a co-sponsor of the pastor meetings and maintained e-mail contact with 40,000 to 60,000 pastors nationwide, a list that is expanding.
In 2010, Mr. Lane said, he organized pastor meetings in Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee, as well as two in Iowa. He expects to revisit some of the same states this year, several of which are important battlegrounds in presidential politics.
Compared with the 1980s, when it was dominated by prominent leaders like the Revs. Jerry Falwell with his Moral Majority and Pat Robertson with the Christian Coalition, the religious right is now decentralized, said Mark DeMoss, who was a close aide to Mr. Falwell.
“But it’s not true to suggest that it’s dead and gone,” he said. Mobilizing pastors has remained important, with “people out there like David Lane, whose names we may not know, who are contributing to a large fabric of involvement,” said Mr. DeMoss, who runs a Georgia public relations company for Christian causes.
The event here was reminiscent of the Christian Coalition’s Road to Victory conventions, which were must-stops for Republican presidential candidates. But with the spread of megachurches emphasizing personal salvation, fewer evangelical pastors than in the 1980s, over all, are deeply involved in politics, said Ralph Reed, who ran the Christian Coalition and is chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
He said it was natural that a movement’s initial phase, with a few charismatic leaders, would give way to one dominated by political operatives.
Mr. Lane and his supporters are hoping to rekindle the force of the church. Addressing the Iowa meeting, Mr. Huckabee lavished praise on Mr. Lane for “bringing pastors together so they go back to their pulpits and light them on fire with enthusiasm, to make America once again the greatest country on earth under God.”
In perhaps no state has the mobilization of churches paid off more than in Iowa, where evangelical Christians now dominate the state Republican Party and presidential caucuses even though their share of the population, one in four, is at the national average.
Republican leaders and pastors call Mr. Lane the unheralded mastermind of the campaign last year to unseat the State Supreme Court justices. The Rev. Jeffrey Mullen, 47, the pastor of Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa, had not been involved politically, he said. But he was jolted by the court’s 2009 decision permitting same-sex marriage, which he called not only morally wrong but also a usurpation of power.
“God used David Lane and his sphere of influence to bring together all the elements” of the campaign to oust the justices, Mr. Mullen said. Mr. Lane secured hundreds of thousands of dollars from the political action committees of Mr. Gingrich and the American Family Association and devised a broad strategy, bringing together the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, which provided voter guides to churches, and the Iowa Family Policy Center, which got 834 ministers to sign a letter stating that marriage was established by God as between a man and a woman.
Beyond presidential politics, the main focus of Iowa conservatives next year, many said, will be taking control of the State Senate, which has blocked their drives for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and stronger anti-abortion laws.
Like all the pastor meetings, the recent one in Iowa was not advertised and was closed to the news media. But the speeches were streamed on the Web site of the American Family Association, and highlights were broadcast online on March 26 to crowds gathered in 177 churches around the country by a California-based group called United in Purpose, which shares the goal of drawing pastors into politics.
Speakers at the conference described what they called the biblical roots of American government and a rich early history of political engagement by the clergy. They exhorted the pastors and their flocks not only to fight harder to have same-sex marriage and abortion banned but also to follow God’s word by opposing activist judges, high taxes, explicit sex education and assaults on private property rights.
A pastor from Louisiana described the political costs of sexual scandals in the church and recommended that pastors avoid temptation by never being alone in a room with women who are not their wives.
The audience heard how to push their flocks to register and vote along “biblical principles” without running afoul of tax laws against endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
The Rev. Michael Demastus, 40, pastor of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, said he was energized: “I came out of there like Seabiscuit out of the gate, ready to do even more.”