This Saturday there were Bible verses, Contemporary Christian Music, professions, confessions, tears, and shouts of “amen!” from the pews. A revival, you ask? No, it was the Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines, hosted by The Family Leader.
If The Family Leader has a bit of swagger these days, it’s understandable. Their president Bob Vander Plaats was instrumental in the removal of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had gotten too creative in finding a right to homosexual marriage in the Iowa Constitution. Then The Family Leader convinced two candidates to sign their Marriage Vow Pledge. Now, with moderator Frank Luntz, they were hosting a roundtable with six Republican Presidential candidates.
Each of the candidates gave their testimonies. Michele Bachmann, we learned, had the Holy Spirit knocking on her heart’s door, gave her heart, and now has a biblical worldview. Rick Santorum – who’s a Catholic but clearly knows how to emote evangelically – found the Lord when he was a senator. Herman Cain was not asked if he would forgive someone 999 times, but shared that he became a Christian at age ten in a Baptist church. Newt Gingrich spoke of feeling hollowness and referenced the Alcoholics Anonymous steps. Rick Perry, who nearly morphed into an evangelical preacher at one juncture, was driven to his knees numerous times as governor, and needs God to hold him up (when he’s not on his knees). Ron Paul, at times looking queasy about the personal nature of the discussion, tersely mentioned being catechized (Luther’s, presumably) and made a “is this good enough?” mention of Billy Graham. For the emotional tally, Herman Cain got too choked up to talk and then Rick Santorum cried while telling a personal story. Even Professor Newt cried between his quotes of various “brilliant” books published in this or that year.
In all five and half candidates (1/2 for Ron Paul) walked the evangelical sawdust trail, which has to make evangelicals daydream about “taking America back.”
But some observers noticed a different kind of conversion on Saturday. Michele Bachmann, who has a history of speaking at churches on Sunday mornings, said she would advocate for the repeal of any law restricting political speech in churches. That got cheers and amens from the crowd. It probably pleased the host as well, since The Family Leader’s website informs churches that they have the right to do petitions for legislation, to host political candidates, to distribute candidate surveys, to educate on legislative issues, and other political activities.
Bachmann’s denunciation of anything limiting political speech in churches showed she knew her audience, but it also suggests another way to assess the event. Yes, evangelicals hosted six candidates who came into a church and talked like evangelicals; score one for evangelicals, I guess. But what are we to make of the desire to have more politics – hence less religion – in churches? And what does it mean when evangelicals can’t distinguish political events from religious events? In other words, is politics being converted by evangelicals or are evangelical churches being converted by politics? Who’s walking whose sawdust trail?