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Iowa: A Pastor's Son Notes When Politics Came to the Pulpit

A pastor's son reflects on his evangelical father's beliefs regarding politics in the pulpit.
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Iowa is especially notable for its proud tradition of progressivism, beginning with Josiah Bushnell Grinnell. It was Grinnell, a Congregational minister in New York City who had been hounded out of his Washington, D.C., pulpit because of his abolitionist views, to whom Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, issued his famous advice: “Go West, young man. Go West.” Bushnell obliged, starting a semi-utopian community in eastern Iowa and serving as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Bushnell, who represented Iowa in Congress for two terms, sheltered John Brown following his violent, antislavery campaigns in Missouri and Kansas. And according to tradition, Brown formulated his plans for the raid on Harper’s Ferry while staying in Grinnell, Iowa.

Iowa’s progressive tradition was carried on in the twentieth century by figures like Wallace and Harold Hughes, the truck driver (and recovering alcoholic) from Ida Grove, who served as governor and United States senator. In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court, invoking the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ruled unanimously that the government had no compelling interest in denying marriage licenses on the basis of sexual orientation, thereby making Iowa the second state in the Union, after Vermont, to legalize same-sex marriages.

But the proud tradition of Iowa progressivism has rarely been hegemonic; for every Henry Wallace there’s a Herbert Hoover, for every Tom Harkin there’s a Charles Grassley. In recent years, the rise of the Religious Right has altered the state’s political landscape. The Republican Party itself, once known for its moderation, has turned sharply to the right. The archconservative Steve King has displaced moderate Jim Leach as unofficial head of the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives.

When I lived in Iowa in the 1970s, my father was pastor of one of the largest evangelical congregations in the state. Although he remained a Republican to his death, my father was resolutely apolitical in the pulpit. Things began to change for Iowa evangelicals—and for politically conservative evangelicals elsewhere—in the late 1970s.

Iowa, in fact, served as the proving ground for abortion as a political issue. Until 1978, evangelicals in Iowa were overwhelmingly indifferent about abortion as a political matter. Even after the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, most evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue.” The Iowa race for U.S. Senate in 1978 pitted Dick Clark, the incumbent Democrat, against a Republican challenger, Roger Jepsen. All of the polling and the pundits viewed the election an easy win for Clark, who had walked across the state six years earlier in his successful effort to unseat Republican Jack Miller. In the final weekend of the 1978 campaign, however, pro-lifers (predominantly Catholic) leafleted church parking lots all over the state. Two days later, in an election with a very low turnout, Jepsen narrowly defeated Clark, thereby persuading Paul Weyrich and other architects of the Religious Right that abortion would work for them as a political issue.