As the state of Iowa gears up for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary event, the Iowa Caucuses on January 3rd, 2011, Welton broadcasts from Des Moines.

We spend some time examining the effect of religion on Iowa politics, as magnified by the religion-based campaigning of the Republican presidential aspirants, with United Church of Christ Iowa Conference Minister Rev. Dr. Rich Pleva.

 

RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Rev. Dr. Rich Pleva, Iowa Conference Minister, United Church of Christ

[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome Back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.

It’s been an extraordinarily conservative agenda that has defined the GOP presidential campaign season, and way too much of that has been framed in the language of religion – specifically, a narrowly-circumscribed version of Christianity. How is that playing out on the ground in Iowa, where voters are preparing for the caucuses on January 3rd? Well, we’re going to talk about that.

The Rev. Dr. Rich Pleva is Iowa Conference Minister with the United Church of Christ, and I’m very pleased to welcome him now to the studio and to State of Belief Radio! Rich, welcome.

[REV. DR. RICH PLEVA, GUEST]: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

[WG]: I want to make sure we don’t paint Iowa with too broad a brush, so I’ll say up front that conservative religious meddling in the political process is likely to be happening very far away from the Iowa that is home to the United Church of Christ – or maybe I should ask you, is it as pervasive as that on the national stage. How overt is it in this state?

[RP]: Well, it is quite overt, but the religious context in which I live and exercise my ministry is one that looks, sometimes, with puzzlement and sometimes with frustration about what we see going on around us in many places. My congregations are quite varied, but the majority of my congregations really don’t have much identification with this sort of virulent kind of literal and mean understanding of how the body politic ought to move.

[WG]: Do you have any sense of how many people, what percentage of people in your congregations will be participating in the caucuses?

[RP]: I don’t, really. But the numbers will not be large. Certainly, particularly in some of our rural places, there will be folk from our congregations who will be participating, but it’s not going to be a high percentage.

[WG]: I know Iowa has a very strong interfaith community, and that’s due in part to people like you and to Connie Ryan Terrell of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. I know that UCC was active in supporting marriage equality; it participates in social justice issues. What about electoral politics? Where does progressive religion in Iowa come down on this? And I assume that both parties are represented in your congregations.

[RP]: They are, they certainly are. It’s fair to say that our clergy are clearly more inclined to progressive and more liberal causes, and that the folk in the pews are more mixed in that regard. But I think we’re quite clear that we want to take stances that are public and winsome about issues, but that when it comes to particular candidates, we understand that we draw a line there, and that we don’t campaign either for or against individual candidates as Church. Now, as individuals we may well do so – in fact, I would encourage our people to do that – but as Church, we do not.

[WG]: Well, I commend you on that. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with your position on that, and some turned the pulpits and bemas and lecterns into stumps from which they give their stump political speeches. But let’s stick with issues. How does the upheaval of the caucuses affect the work of a socially-conscious denomination within the state? Does it cause you problems? Does it get in the way, or does it spur the kind of valuable conversations that can come from that?

[RP]: I would like to think that it spurs the conversations, so that we can really discuss what it is about our faith that really gives rise to the convictions that we bring to the various social issues of the day. I would have to acknowledge, though, that it is more so in theory than it is in fact the case. What we find, more often, is that there are settled pre-suppositions about the kinds of attitudes and convictions that a person ought to have on the basis of faith; and we find it hard – though I think not impossible, and I think we’re getting better at it – but it’s hard to push the conversation back: “So, what is it about your faith that leads you to think either that marriage equality is something that ought to be embraced by people of faith, or that it is something that should be objected to?” And in having that prior conversation about the kinds of understandings of our faith that lead to our views on various social issues is challenging; and it is something that my staff and I are working on helping our clergy to be more comfortable in… A learning process; to engage this kind of learning process in their congregations.

[WG]: The national media always describes Iowa as a conservative state. You and I both know that there is no state that’s monolithic.

[RP]: Right.

[WG]: Talk, if you will, about the role of progressive religion in Iowa.

[RP]: It’s a very good question. Interfaith Alliance is particularly influential amongst folk who are more progressive in their views about faith, whether Christian or Jew or Muslim or whatever. The reality is that the press seems to pay more attention to the folk who are on the more conservative side, and I think it gives the impression, therefore, that those kinds of convictions are in fact more dominant than what they perhaps really are. My experience is that folk are reasonable. Yes, there are ideologues on both sides, folk who don’t want to listen and so on; but the majority of the folk from the congregation I work with are really quite open. As I am, about, preaching, almost, in a different church every Sunday and I’m not shy about mentioning some of the kinds of convictions I have about the issues that are important in our state, and I will sometimes find folk who want to come and talk with me a bit about it, but I don’t find, hardly, just never does someone come to me and say, “You ought not be saying this in our church.” That just doesn’t happen; people are civil and want to have constructive conversations.

[WG]: With the barrage of conservative politicking taking place, really, not just in the streets and in political precincts but in some other churches and traditions, I imagine that you share the frustration that I feel with religion encroaching on politics the way it is. I smile until I think about the implications of it. I smile at reading how many of the candidates in this year’s Republican primary, or in the caucus run, feel like God’s called them to do this, and God has mandated them to be president. I guess we could spend the rest of the show talking about what kind of theology that comes from – but without doing that, what I’m getting at, how do you think we can best emphasize the importance of protecting religion from being co-opted by politics? Yes, you expect that a deeply religious person is going to bring religious values and religious believes to the table; but how do we protect religion’s integrity so that you don’t judge the authenticity of a person’s religion by the ballot box?

[RP]: Well, you’ve asked the 64 thousand dollar question, I suppose…

[WG]: Does that mean I get 64 thousand dollars?

[RP]: Ha, ha, not from me! Yeah, in our context, in the United Church of Christ, one of the things that we have embraced as central to our reason for existing as a judicatory is a process of leadership development. Our clergy often do not actively embrace the role of leader and of teacher, and instead… We’re afraid of conflict, and we’re afraid of difficulty; and part of what we are attempting to encourage our clergy to do is to understand their role as one of facilitating conversation – difficult conversations at time – that help us to better understand the variety of convictions that exist within the congregation and then within the community at large. And my hope is that, by extension, that has the consequence of helping us to understand that any kind of conviction that says: “There is only one Godly way to think about this, and I’ve got it,” is immediately suspect; and that we need to bring more humility to what we’re doing. Humility doesn’t mean that we’re quiet. Humility means that we speak the thing that we believe with a certain amount of conviction, but then we close our mouth, and we listen to the other, and we’ll perhaps learn things from them and that if we can model this in our congregations, perhaps than we can model it in the coffee shop, we can model it in the caucus, and we can model it in the school, and so on. But we are attempting to do it first in the congregation, and then hope that folk can take it out beyond that context.

[WG]: Oh, what a great answer and what a great vision. Rich, when you come to this time of the year, every four years I guess, coming to the caucuses, knowing we’re going to be in a stretch, in 2012, of politics, politics, politics… Is that a discouraging time for you, or is it an invigorating time for you?

[RP]: Well, of course, four years ago it was exciting for me because my convictions are no secret to the folk with whom I work, and so it was a delight to be involved in the Democratic side of things, because that’s where my personal convictions lie. This time, you know, that’s not debated, and so I’m hearing my friends who are… Whose convictions are decidedly more conservative than mine, and I find myself at times frustrated, at times annoyed; and I try to remind myself, “Well, you know, this is the system that we have, and it has lots of failings and faults, but it has lots of advantaged too; and some of this frustration comes with the advantages of our system.”

[WG]: Well, I’ve felt very special in Iowa this time, because I seem to be one of the few people coming to Iowa from Washington, DC that doesn’t think God has called them to be president; so it’s been good to be here. Look, I really appreciate you being with us. Rev. Dr. Rich Pleva is Iowa conference minister with the United Church of Christ. There is no way to get a feel for what’s happening on the ground here in a quick visit nearly as thorough as what our guest has been able to offer, and Rev. Pleva, you have done well in giving us a sense of what’s happening on the ground here. Thank you for being with us today on State of Belief Radio.

[RP]: Thank you for inviting me.

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