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

By Randall Balmer | October 27, 2012

(Getty/Justin Sullivan)

“I prefer to think of Iowa as I saw it through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy,” Herbert Hoover, the only Iowan ever elected president of the United States, wrote at the beginning of his memoir. “Those were eyes filled with the wonders of Iowa’s streams and woods, of the mystery of growing crops.”

Having spent my high school years in Des Moines, I too have fond and nostalgic recollections of Iowa. Although I initially harbored an adolescent’s resentment at being uprooted from Michigan to what I reviled as “farm country,” Iowa soon won me over with its lovely undulating hills, its strong progressive tradition, its independent, statewide newspaper, the Des Moines Register, and the sturdy values of its citizens.

Politically, like the mythic figure Janus, Iowa looks in two different directions. Its current United States senators, Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley enjoy a good working relationship, but line up at opposite ends of the political spectrum. This is nothing new. Iowa bequeathed to the nation both Herbert Hoover and Henry A. Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president and the Progressive Party’s nominee for president in 1948.

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.

Politically conservative evangelicals in Iowa began to mobilize. Ronald Reagan carried Iowa in 1980 over Jimmy Carter, the incumbent, evangelical Democrat who had launched his presidential candidacy with a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses just four years earlier. The Religious Right in Iowa never looked back. Concerned Women for America, Beverly LaHaye’s organization, became a political force. Rush Limbaugh and other fixtures of the downstream media became staples on WHO, Iowa’s clear-channel radio station. Another radio station KWKY, located—literally—in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, became a beacon of evangelical political rhetoric, most of it leaning toward the hard right. The Gannett Company’s purchase of the Register in 1985 diminished the newspaper’s independent voice.

Evangelicals in Iowa formed megachurches, just as they did in other parts of the country. Homeschooling became all the rage—this despite the fact that Iowa has long boasted one of the finest systems of public education in the nation.

Today, Iowa’s long history of progressivism, ranging from Josiah Grinnell (for whom Grinnell College is named) and Henry Wallace to Harold Hughes and Tom Harkin, has largely been marginalized, or (some might say) brought to its knees. The rise of the Religious Right has tempered the state’s proud tradition of progressivism, evident most dramatically in the 2010 recall of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

True to its Janus-like disposition however, Iowa has rarely given its allegiance to a single party. After supporting Reagan in his two runs for the presidency, Iowa voted for Bill Clinton twice. Al Gore won the state in 2000, but George W. Bush captured it four years later. Iowa voted blue again in 2008, and Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses early that year propelled him toward the Democratic nomination. With less than two weeks to go, pundits consider the state very much in play for the 2012 presidential election.

The progressive tradition no longer dominates political life in Iowa. Although Iowa lost another House seat following the 2010 census, both parties still covet Iowa’s six electoral votes. I, along with many other observers, will be watching to see in which direction Janus turns his head on November 6th.

Randall Balmer is the chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College. Portions of this essay were first published at Religion Dispatches.  

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