By the Way: Religious Right Eats its Own

According to last week’s Washington Times, the central committee of the Republican Party in Iowa denied Senator Charles Grassley, the state’s senior elected Republican, a place on the state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Iowa Christian Alliance, the state’s most powerful Religious Right organization, has long exerted an outsized influence over the state’s Republican Party, but now it controls a majority of seats on the central committee.

Grassley, who was first elected to the United States Senate in 1980 with the help of Religious Right activists, had submitted what should have been a routine request to be seated with the state party’s delegation. He is the ranking member of the Finance Committee and the fifteenth-highest ranking member of the entire Senate. Grassley would have been the logical choice to head the state’s delegation.

The Religious Right leaders of Iowa, however, said no. Grassley opposes abortion and same-sex unions, but that apparently wasn’t good enough. The Religious Right is irked with Grassley for his attempts to investigate the conspicuous consumption of various televangelists who, he suspects, are living lavishly on the tax-deductible contributions that pour into their organizations.

As matters stand now, Grassley will not be able to cast a vote at the Republican Convention in September.

What makes the snub of Grassley so ironic is that he is, in many ways, a creature of the Religious Right. Iowa was the proving ground for the nascent Religious Right back in 1978 when pro-life activists conducted a stealth campaign against incumbent Senator Dick Clark, who political pundits almost universally regarded as a shoo-in for reelection. During the final weekend of that campaign, pro-life activists—most of them were Roman Catholics; evangelicals, by and large, did not mobilize on the abortion issue until later—distributed leaflets in church parking lots on the Sunday morning before the 1978 election.

Clark lost to Roger Jepsen by a slim margin.

Two years later, the Republicans nominated Grassley, then a member of Congress, to oppose Senator John Culver, the Democratic incumbent. Culver, like Clark, was a liberal who was initially thought to be in a safe seat. Grassley, with considerable help from the Religious Right, however, won handily, and he’s been reelected four times by comfortable margins.

But while Grassley was constructing a respectable record in the United States Senate, the Religious Right in Iowa was becoming more and more rabid. I remember returning to Iowa, my home state, for the 1988 precinct caucuses. At that time Pat Robertson, the televangelist, was mounting a credible campaign for the Republican nomination (he finished second in Iowa, ahead of George H. W. Bush, the eventual nominee). I tracked Religious Right activists during the days leading up to the caucuses, and I came away convinced that they would emerge as a determined, militant force in the state’s politics.

Indeed, they commandeered the state’s Republican Party long ago. “It’s pretty well controlled now by the Christian Alliance,” Steve Roberts, who was ousted as Iowa Republican National Committee member, told the Washington Times. “If somebody came to me and wanted to be a delegate to the national party convention, I used to say, ‘Talk to the state party chairman or to Grassley.’ Now it’s very simple. You go to the Christian Alliance, and they determine who is a delegate, and you have to do exactly as they say.”

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, was chosen to head Iowa’s forty-member delegation to the Republican National Convention. Grassley, the state’s senior Republican official, was denied a seat in the delegation.

Apparently, the leaders of the Religious Right in Iowa are not only determined and militant. They can be churlish and petulant as well, even to an erstwhile ally.

The serpent devours its own tail.

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