The Revival of the Pastors’ Policy Briefings

The Iowa Independent reports today that GOP presidential hopefuls will be addressing the Pastors’ Policy Briefing, a Des Moines gathering later in March:

An invitation, stamped with the return address of a West Des Moines UPS Store mailbox, went out this week to Iowa’s faithful. Those who received the invitation will have an opportunity to hear from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann during a two-day conference at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel on March 24 and 25.

“Meals and lodging are complimentary,” states the invitation, “and will be provided by the Iowa Renewal Project.”

These events are identical — nearly — to events I reported on in 2007 and 2008. The chief difference: this time, Mike Huckabee isn’t the only presidential hopeful invited to speak.

At the 2007 and 2008 events, Newt Gingrich was a featured speaker, but back then he wasn’t running. But many of the Renewal Project events, held in different states, were based on themes in his book, Rediscovering God in America. (Indeed the idea for Gingrich’s organization Renewing American Leadership was hatched at these meetings.) But in addition to drawing the scrutiny of church-state separation advocates and transparency watchdogs, the events drew the ire of Huckabee’s GOP opponents, who complained that they had been excluded from speaking at the events, which they hinted were designed to bolster Huckabee’s candidacy.

In late 2007:

Huckabee spoke at the secretive Iowa Renewal Project, along with heavy hitters Newt Gingrich, American Family Association president Don Wildmon (who has endorsed Huckabee), and “Christian nation” proponent David Barton. The event bore the same name as Gingrich’s most recent book, Rediscovering God in America. Huckabee has maintained the secrecy of his appearances at Renewal Project events, which appear to be similar to the Texas Restoration Project, launched by Scarborough associate Laurence Wright (also a speaker at the Iowa event), which helped build evangelical support for Rick Perry in his gubernatorial race in 2006.

After the Texas Freedom Network filed an IRS complaint against a non-profit believed to behind the Briefings in 2008, organizer David Lane lashed out at the watchdog group in an interview with me:

Renewal Project organizer David Lane reflected the biblical restoration movement’s hostility toward secularism, the left and the press. Noting that he normally doesn’t take press calls, Lane told me that he nonetheless wanted to answer TFN’s “false” charges, adding that “why the left continues to attack public involvement by folks with faith in the public square is beyond comprehension to most people… What we’re doing is the mobilization of pastors and pews to restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage. That’s our goal.” As for Huckabee’s participation, Lane said there was nothing unusual about it — Huckabee has been speaking at similar events Lane has been organizing since 1994, throughout his tenure as Lieutenant Governor and Governor of Arkansas. Lane added that videotapes of a recent Iowa briefing had been distributed to 5,000 churches. Talk about free advertising!

The other Republican candidates have griped about their exclusion from speaking at the pastors’ briefings. While Lane insisted that he had invited all the candidates, Darrell Ng, a spokeperson for the Fred Thompson campaign, said Thompson was only invited to attend, not to speak, and produced the form invitation the campaign received. He added, “it’s clear which candidate they’re supporting.”

(emphasis added). In the 2008 campaign, Republicans noted Lane’s role in getting out the evangelical vote for Huckabee, with a former Texas Republican Party official writing on his blog in 2007:

Lane brought together some 250 Iowa pastors at a Rediscovering God in America event in Des Moines. Huckabee, a former pastor, spoke at that event; and many of the Iowa pastors are expected to turn out their members for Governor Huckabee at the August straw polls. Lane, who is emerging as a major political force within the evangelical community, last year put together a Pastors Policy Briefing which brought together another 250 Evangelical pastors in Iowa. David Lane also works with the Iowa Christian Alliance which plans on setting up this fall 17 Iowa Caucus Training schools across the state in preparation for the first in the nation vote in the 2008 presidential primaries.

If the Iowa Renewal Project — if not the ones in later primary states like South Carolina and Florida — helped Huckabee win the caucuses there, having other presidential hopefuls will certainly dilute the meetings’ apparent endorsement of one candidate over another. One thing is certain though: there won’t be any dilution of the “Judeo-Christian heritage” themes by any of the candidates who want to get the Iowa advantage, even supposedly culture war-averse Haley Barbour.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email