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God and gays


Iowans may be witnessing the final days of judgment for Bob Vander Plaats and his Family Leader. The past few years have not been good for Vander Plaats, who is now wandering the political desert, searching to make himself, once again, politically relevant.

How are the mighty fallen – Samuel 1:25

Vander Plaats has now lost on every political front he has waged war on. He has been unsuccessful in three attempts to become governor and declined to seek a U.S. Senate seat he knew he could not win. While he succeeded in spearheading the ouster of Supreme Court justices in 2010, he then lost the next effort to remove another high court judge and has declined challenging district court judges he finds objectionable. His campaign for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage is dead, as a majority of Iowans no longer support his views on either the amendment or this issue. And his ability to shape the outcome of GOP presidential caucuses is now shrouded under a cloud of possible impropriety with pending state and federal investigations underway.

Sign of the times – Matthew 16:3

As Iowa approaches the fifth anniversary of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v. Brien, which opened the door to same-sex marriage, it is clear there has been a seismic shift in attitudes about the rights of gays and lesbians. As a crusader in the fight, Vander Plaats — who for one shining moment was triumphant — now appears battered, bloodied and beaten on the battlefield. He has few reserves left to wage a fight, and many of his soldiers have laid down their swords and walked away from the battle.

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There are 17 states that allow same-sex marriage, and while the other 33 have existing bans, there are now legal and legislative proceedings to change the law in 24 of those states. Recently, judges in the red states of Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah have struck down same-sex-marriage bans.

A Quinnipiac University poll in July 2013 showed that 55 percent of Iowans oppose a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage with just 36 percent favoring passage. Only 1 percent of Iowans said gay marriage was their most important issue in Quinnipiac’s March 2014 poll.

Vander Plaats invested his political farm on an anti-gay position, and he has now lost it all. If same-sex marriage were a stock, he should be jumping out of a Wall Street window. It seems unlikely that he can reinvent himself to be relevant in the political debate.

When gay marriage first began to surface as a political issue, few politicians offered support to the cause. At that juncture, things looked up for the Vander Plaats brand. But since the Varnum ruling, Iowans have discovered the sky has not fallen, and many have subsequently learned — and are no longer ashamed to admit — they have a son or daughter, or grandchild, or niece or nephew, or neighbor or coworker who is gay. The matter is effectively over in Iowa as a political issue. Many religious institutions have taken a similar viewpoint.

Same-sex marriages are allowed in the United Church in Christ, Unitarian Universalists, with Quakers and within Reform and Conservative Judaism. Several other denominations, such as some Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopalians, either bless unions, perform services while not recognizing the marriage or allow local congregations to decide. Buddhism and Hinduism do not have official stances on the matter.

The Pew Research Center released a survey earlier this year which indicated that more than half of Catholics and white non-evangelical Protestants now favor same-sex marriage. When recently asked about homosexuality, Pope Francis said, “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Holier than thou – Isaiah 65:5

Vander Plaats runs the Family Leader, an evangelical Christian political advocacy group that, among other things, “opposes distortions of sexuality or special rights to those practicing distorted sexual behavior.”

This Brian Duffy cartoon depicting the political power of Bob Vander Plaats with the Ames Straw Poll ran in Cityview on July 14, 2011.

This Brian Duffy cartoon depicting the political power of Bob Vander Plaats with the Ames Straw Poll ran in Cityview on July 14, 2011.

Vander Plaats has a long list of interesting beliefs. For instance, he has said, “If we’re teaching the kids, ‘don’t smoke, because that’s a risky health style,’ the same can be true of the homosexual lifestyle.”

He has inferred that marriage equality could result in parents marrying their adult children in order to create advantageous tax situations: “It’s about a parent marrying their child of age … sex probably not even being involved … (to) pass on (their) estate to a married spouse without the tax implications — that can happen.”

The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way has created a “Right Wing Watch” website that tracks these and other quotes from Vander Plaats and his organization. The website has audio and video links, one at a gathering where Vander Plaats laments the Iowa Supreme Court ruling stating, “You won’t believe how many people call us, who grew up in Iowa or have Iowa ties and say they’re the butt of a lot of jokes around the office (like) ‘Iowa, you know how those guys are.’ ” But he is interrupted by an audience member who chimes in with an actual joke, “You know what they say, ‘Iowa, the state where you can’t smoke a fag, but you can marry one.’ “ Vander Plaats had the opportunity to condemn such a comment but instead is seen laughing and rubbing his eye.

A nest of vipers – Matthew 3:7

The Family Leader has been at the center of the battle to stop same-sex marriage in Iowa, and Vander Plaats firmly controls the organization. “If their network were a solar system, Bob would be the sun with Chuck Hurley, Danny Carroll, Robert Cramer and everyone else in his orbit, relying on him to take the lead,” said Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, a liberal-leaning advocacy group that has battled the Family Leader agenda.

Bob Vander Plaats has been unsuccessful in three political runs.

Bob Vander Plaats has been unsuccessful in three political runs.

Hurley said Iowans had “done God’s will” by removing the three Supreme Court Justices in 2010, stating that “an intact father-and-mother marriage is by far more important than a good education, by far more important than their physical health or the well-being of a child.”

Carroll is a former state representative who backed Mike Huckabee in 2008 and in 2012 supported Michele Bachmann, whom he declared was “biblically qualified” to be president. In one speech, Carroll implied the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning school-organized prayer is responsible for teen suicide in Iowa. Carroll is vying to be the new chair of the Iowa Republican Party later this month.

Cramer, an accomplished businessman and construction company executive, may be the sole hope of saving the Vander Plaats electoral brand as he makes a bid for the open Third District Congressional seat. But his previous service on the Johnston School Board was criticized for efforts to ban Maya Angelou’s book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which was nominated for a National Book Award.  His 2013 nomination to the State Board of Regents was rejected by Senate Democrats.

The handwriting on the wall – Daniel 5:5

Vander Plaats said he would not run for Sen. Tom Harkin’s open seat because he believed a U.S. Senate campaign would compromise the message of his new book. “The issues we face as a culture and the solutions to these issues are primarily spiritual, not political,” he said.

While most politicians write books to run for office, Vander Plaats is using his book as an excuse not to run. Some political observers believe it is merely a stalling tactic to get him to the next presidential caucus while avoiding any potentially crippling announcement of two pending government investigations.

As you sow so shall you reap – Galatians 6:7

The GOP race for U.S. Senate and the Third Congressional District are crowded, and if no candidate receives 35 percent of the primary vote, the nominee is determined by state or district convention delegates. That is one of the reasons control of the party apparatus is critical if Republicans have hopes of winning those races in the fall, as they must nominate mainstream candidates who can win a general election.

The battle in the Iowa GOP for control of county, district and state delegates, and the summer election of new party leaders, appears to be going in favor of moderate and establishment Republicans.

Party Chairman A.J. Spiker is resigning. This may be a signal that libertarians have lost their grip on control, but it is still too early to tell just how many Vander Plaats followers will be represented in the organization.

Gov. Terry Branstad is largely responsible for rebuilding the Party and giving it a chance to return to moderate leadership this summer when new central committee members are seated. The hard work of his campaign organization may also translate into retaking the state Senate, providing the opportunity to win the two open federal offices and restoring credibility to the caucus system, where Iowa Republicans must show they can be taken seriously in the presidential election system. That means ending the Ames Straw Poll, reducing the influence of extremists like Vander Plaats, and convincing legitimate candidates not to skip the state, which happened with Rudy Giuliani, Jon Huntsman and John McCain.

The only victor from an Ames Straw Poll to be elected president was George W. Bush.  Otherwise the Poll winners have included Pat Robertson, Phil Gramm and Michele Bachmann, not exactly general election material for Republicans serious about winning the White House.

Because Vander Plaats and others had shifted the GOP so hard to the right during the caucuses, the Party has found itself out of touch with mainstream Americans who are not obsessed with same-sex marriage but are more concerned with jobs, pay and the ability to send their kids to college.

The Iowa GOP needs a culture that allows presidential candidates to campaign in the state unfettered by the demands of people like Vander Plaats. Iowa can look to Arizona, where Republican business interests recently trumped social conservatives in forcing Gov. Jan Brewer to veto a bill aimed at allowing businesses to discriminate based on sexual preference.

The Iowa GOP still needs the support of evangelicals and Christian conservatives, but it needs to detach Vander Plaats and his crew as the perceived leaders. Democrats have groups at the political extremes as well, such as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, but they do not have similar control over the caucus as Vander Plaats and company have had in the GOP.

Sinovic believes all that Vander Plaats has left in his shrinking sphere of influence is the Iowa caucus and his ability to influence the outcome, as he has in the past two cycles promoting the winning candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, neither of whom won the nomination. But Vander Plaats has been very effective intimidating and controlling candidates.

“Vander Plaats is a poodle trainer who makes presidential candidates jump through hoops, threatens them, and makes them come to him if they want support,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

In 2012, that meant signing Vander Plaats’ “Family Leader Marriage Pledge.”  He was able to convince Bachman, Santorum and Rick Perry to sign the pledge, which stated in part, “Slavery had a disastrous impact on African American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.”

While that controversial portion was later removed, the document stated the signatories shall uphold their “fidelity” to the 13 other requirements of the vow, such as the recognition that robust childbearing and reproduction is beneficial to the U.S. economy.

But other than Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential field was the junior varsity team, nearly all kowtowing to Vander Plaats as they were desperate to emerge as a front runner.

The 2016 race should prove dramatically different with a possible star-studded varsity team on the court for the GOP, none who should have the need to sign such a pledge or bend to Vander Plaats’ demands. The line-up could include Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindahl, a stark contrast from the 2012 lineup.

Given the problems the Republican Party is having with social issues and minorities, most of the 2016 candidates would prefer to focus on the economy, jobs and critiquing the Democrats on Obamacare and emerging national security issues.

Sinovic said, “Vander Plaats uses his political influence to bully, plain and simple. If someone stands up to a bully, the bully often lashes out. But the more people stand up and speak out, the more a bully’s influence will be diminished, and that’s what we’re seeing with Vander Plaats and the extreme right.”

A fly in the ointment – Ecclesiastes 10:1

One person who has stood up to Vander Plaats is Fred Karger, a GOP political consultant who became the first openly gay candidate for president in 2012. Karger has filed complaints related to Vander Plaats with both the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Iowa Campaign Finance Disclosure Board (ICFDB).

Karger asserts the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) funneled $1 million to Vander Plaats to endorse Santorum in the 2012 presidential election with the money then being used for advertising to benefit the Santorum campaign. The FEC indicates it has a pending complaint and cannot comment during the investigation phase.

The Iowa case involves whether the NOM violated Iowa law by not disclosing donors who contributed to campaigns opposing the retention of Iowa Supreme Court justices. The ICFDB voted unanimously to accept the complaint and is in the process of investigating the allegations.

The cloud of impropriety surrounding Vander Plaats’ influence in past races may be what has caused him to recede into political darkness rather than run again for office.

Get thee behind me Satan – Luke 4:5, Matthew 16:23, Mark 8:33

There is no question that Vander Plaats is a controversial figure, and he seems to be either loved or hated. Part of his long-term problem is the number of lovers seems to be dwindling.

Like many religious promoters, the approach Vander Plaats has taken seems to be all or nothing — you either have to be all-in believing in the cause and what he preaches, or you are going to hell with very little wiggle room. While that is not uncommon for religious zealots throughout history, in today’s world, it appears to be a waning methodology.

Like the Arab Spring, the Syrian revolution, and the Argentinean and Ukrainian uprisings, it is clear that people around the world want democracy, liberty and personal freedom. That may be the great wave that is sweeping the globe, fueled by education, technology and social media. Increasingly, it appears governments and religions can no longer be controlled by autocrats, totalitarians, dictators or fanatics.

Vander Plaats appears to be losing the political influence he once had. If so, in the not too distant future, he may just slip into the political abyss and never be heard from again. But of that day or hour, no one knows. CV

James Strohman has written about Iowa government and politics for 30 years and teaches political science at Iowa State University. Contact strohman@iastate.edu

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