It may have drawn two presidential aspirants, three elected officials, a few dozen political reporters and even Donald Trump, but the Family Leader conference in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday was not a political rally. Instead, it provided a complete cultural road map for attendees, who included many pastors. The purpose wasn’t to encourage those in the audience to vote a certain way; instead, as event organizer Bob Vander Plaats said, it was to “equip our base with a worldview so we can say why we do believe what we believe to be true.”
The atmosphere through the nine hours of speakers was hushed. About 1,500 audience members sat in the half full Stephens Auditorium, a grim modernist theater on the campus of Iowa State University. It was a venue more often used for traveling shows; posters in the theater advertised coming shows like an evening with Bill Cosby and a musical version of the Addams Family, and attendees sat quietly as if it were a play, only stirring during planned intermissions.
The audience was almost uniformly white and certainly seemed less interested in politics than the average crowd at an Iowa political event. While there were tables for political groups like Rick Santorum’s political action committee, Patriot Voice, and the National Organization for Marriage, the biggest crowds during intermission in the small area for sponsors seemed to center around a table where a book called The Founders’ Bible was being sold. It consisted of various articles and documents from American history interposed with the text of the Old and New Testaments. John Peterson, the book’s publisher, described it as a Bible that dealt with how Founders felt about many current issues like abortion, taxation and how to take care of the poor. Peterson, a friendly man with a thick mane of white hair who was wearing a button-down American flag–patterned shirt, felt this Bible was important because it didn’t shy away from these “difficult issues” for fear of being perceived as “politically incorrect.”
Among the speakers, Democrats were rarely the target because they were Democrats, in fact, only three speakers, Terry Branstad, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump came across as explicitly partisan. Instead, liberals were attacked for their “secular humanist” ideology as opposed to their philosophy of governing. Speakers invariably referenced the Bible with actor Stephen Baldwin even vouching for the Good Book saying, “I’m crazy enough to believe every word of the Bible is true.” But politicians and political activists leaned on Scripture too. Congressman Steve King (R-IA) gave a history of Western thought, which he started by saying “I’ll dial you back to when Moses came down from the mountain” and Brian Brown, head of the National Organization of Marriage, referenced “the martyrs of Christian Church” who he viewed as his organization’s predecessors.
Perhaps the most strident cultural jeremiad was from David Noebel, a leading evangelical thinker who long led a group called Summit Ministries. (Among more secular audiences, Noebel may be best known for his 1965 work, Communism, Hypnotism and The Beatles). He described a world in which three ideologies were competing for control, “militant Islam, Western European socialism and secularism, and American Judeo-Christian capitalism.” Most of his speech was an attack on the second ideology and those who he saw as spreading it like UNESCO and Bill Gates.
Noebel wasn’t the only speaker who saw secularism as a great threat to the United States. Pastor Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), saw this ideology as part of an effort to promote socialism in the United States, just like what happened in his native Cuba. According to Pastor Cruz: “Socialism requires that your government becomes your god. They have to destroy all loyalties except loyalty to god.” As a result, Cruz stated that those promoting gay marriage were more concerned with “destroying traditional Christianity than exalting homosexuality.”
Cruz’s concern about secularism was echoed, albeit in far less strident terms, by Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator, who is now the CEO of a Christian movie studio in Dallas, urged attendees to actively engage in the culture war by making art. “For 1,900 years, the greatest creators of art were people in and around the church, great music, great sculptors, great painters all in and around the church” said Santorum. “But in the past 100 years the worst [lowest quality] art has been coming out of the church. You, as Christians, if you want to see films, you have to see inferior films to see something that reaffirms your values.” In his eyes, “if we’re going to be successful we need to have a revitalized culture; we need to engage in it.” However, Santorum thought Christians should turn away from institutions that secularize American culture, telling attendees, “If you’re a contributor to these colleges and universities that pervert the minds of our children, stop giving them money.”
By the time that Ted Cruz finally spoke at 5 p.m., his attacks on Barack Obama and “Washington” almost felt like a relief. After all, Obamacare, as deeply unpopular as it was among the audience of social conservatives, is still somehow less daunting than the moral collapse of American society. The mood was also lightened by Cruz’s ability to liberally sprinkle corny jokes throughout his speech, even turning the very mention of Joe Biden’s name into a punchline. But his call for a “grassroots army” to return the country to its “founding principles” would have energized the crowd regardless who had preceded him on stage.
Donald Trump finally made it to the stage at around 6:30 p.m., but the Stephens Auditorium had long since started to empty out. While some attendees like Dennis Price of Blue Grass, Iowa, were skeptical of Trump as “an opportunist,” there were likely far more mundane reasons for the thin crowd. Many of those at the conference had long drives home, often on two-lane highways, and very busy Sunday mornings in church. After all, secular humanism was coming, and they had to be ready to fight.