As election heats up, evangelicals feel left behind
GRIMES, Iowa — Betty and Dick Odgaard used to own the tiny church next door to their home. They had built it over 13 years into an art gallery, bistro, flower shop and framing service. They even rented out the chapel, with its bright stained glass windows, for social events.
But three years ago, the Odgaards refused to rent the quaint site to two gay men for a wedding, saying it would violate their religious beliefs about marriage. The men filed a civil rights complaint, and the Odgaards settled, paying a penalty because it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. After the controversy, regular customers stopped coming. Friends and family members stopped speaking to them. The Odgaards were vilified as bigots and haters.
But it was not long before the Odgaards found themselves cast as heroes as well. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, then a Republican candidate for president, visited the Odgaards’ business and videotaped a sympathetic interview with them. They joined a troupe of business owners upheld as Christian martyrs in the nation’s culture wars: the cake baker, the florist and the photographers who stood up for their religious beliefs and lost legal battles. They received a standing ovation at a Cruz rally and signed on as “religious liberty ambassadors” in his campaign.
Now, a year later, the Odgaards and other conservative evangelicals interviewed in central Iowa say they feel as though they have been abandoned. Many say that they have no genuine champion in the presidential race and that the country has turned its back on them. Americans are leaving church, same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and the country has moved on to debating transgender rights. While other Americans are anxious about the economy, jobs and terrorism, conservative Christians say they fear for the nation’s very soul. Some worry that the nation has strayed so far that God’s punishment is imminent.
So, in a year where many voters see nothing but bad choices, many evangelicals feel deeply torn. Long a reliable Republican voting bloc, many are appalled to find Donald Trump their only alternative to Hillary Clinton. They say he has taken positions all over the map on same-sex couples and abortion and does not have the character to be president. Others are still bewildered that Trump defeated not only Cruz — a pastor’s son who made “religious liberty” a signature issue — but also half a dozen other conservative Christian contenders they would have gladly supported.
Nevertheless, polls show that the vast majority of evangelicals are now coalescing around Trump, largely out of fear that a President Hillary Clinton will appoint liberal Supreme Court justices.
The change in America seemed to happen so quickly that it felt like whiplash, the Odgaards said. One day they felt comfortably situated in the American majority, as Christians with shared beliefs in God, family and the Bible. They had never even imagined that two people of the same sex could marry.
Overnight, it seemed, they discovered that even in small-town Iowa they were outnumbered, isolated and unpopular. Everyone they knew seemed to have a gay relative or friend. Dick Odgaard’s daughter from his first marriage disavowed her father’s actions on Facebook, and his gay second cousin will not speak to him. Even their own Mennonite congregation put out a statement saying that while their denomination opposes gay marriage, “not every congregation” or Mennonite does. Betty Odgaard, 64, the daughter of a Mennonite minister, was devastated.
“It all flipped, so fast,” said Dick Odgaard, a patrician 70-year-old who favors khakis and boat shoes. “Suddenly, we were in the minority. That was kind of a scary feeling. It makes you wonder where the Christians went.”
The beginning of the end of the Odgaards’ familiar life came on Aug. 3, 2013, when Lee Stafford and Jared Ellars arrived at the Odgaards’ gallery, Gortz Haus. The couple were in a panic because the hotel they had booked for their wedding had gone bankrupt two months before the date, and they had already sent the invitations out. Dick Odgaard spent about 45 minutes showing them the property and figuring out seating, flowers and how many guests needed gluten-free meals. It was only when Dick Odgaard asked if it was a same-sex wedding that his tone changed, they said.
“I’ll remember these words for the rest of my life,” said Ellars, 35, a database administrator. “He looked at us and he said, ‘I can’t take your money, and we don’t do anything for free.'”
The couple, together for 13 years, say they never wanted the Odgaards to go out of business. They say they wanted them to stop discriminating against gay people and never put another gay couple through the rejection they experienced. The case was settled in arbitration, and the Odgaards had to pay $5,000 to Stafford and Ellars, which they donated to an anti-bullying program for gay students.
Their wedding was held in a barn, officiated by a minister with the Disciples of Christ church that Stafford attends. To this day, Stafford, who is 43 and a business systems analyst, is troubled that the debate over religious liberty appears to be “so one-sided,” he said.
“Their religious beliefs say they don’t approve of gay marriage, but my religious beliefs say that we can,” he said. “Why does their religion trump mine?”
About a year ago, the Odgaards sold Gortz Haus to Harvest Bible Chapel, a church startup that had been meeting in rented quarters. Its senior pastor, Ryan Jorgenson, 36, leads Sunday services in sneakers and jeans. He was trained and sent to Des Moines three years ago by a fast-growing network of conservative evangelical churches based in Elgin, Illinois, that believe the Bible is God’s inerrant word.
Jorgenson jumped at buying the Odgaards’ picturesque property on the busiest street in Grimes, a suburb of Des Moines. He converted the lower floor, where the flower shop once stood, into a children’s ministry, and installed soundproofing to insulate the children’s ruckus downstairs from the electric guitars and drums of the church’s worship band upstairs.
He liked the symbolism of converting a landmark site that had represented a defeat for conservative Christians into an outpost for preaching “God’s word, without apology,” he said. The church now draws up to 300 on a weekend, and is already outgrowing the space. On a recent weekday, the secretary sat working on a stool in a hall closet. The staff was planning a conference to teach Christians how to evangelize to atheists, agnostics and Mormons.
It is necessary to train believers to hold their own, the pastor said, because “mainstream biblical Christianity is less and less mainstream.” On Sundays, he notices that half of his neighbors do not even go to church.
He expects that more and more Christians will, like the Odgaards, suffer “persecution” for their beliefs. He regularly visits the Capitol in Des Moines to pray with and lobby legislators with the Family Leader, a conservative Iowa group.
Jorgenson was among many Iowa pastors who publicly supported Cruz, though not from the pulpit, and he is not sure if he will vote for Trump in November, even though Cruz has now said he will vote for Trump. He would not even consider voting for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, and said he did not know anyone in his church who would. But asked how much hope he had that Trump would protect the religious liberty of conservative Christians, Jorgenson held his two fingers a quarter-inch apart.
“My hope is not ultimately in the government,” he said. “I am not of this world. Jesus is going to come back. He’s going to bring the perfect government. Until then, we live in a world of sin.”
Melissa and Tom Berkheimer started attending Jorgenson’s church after hearing him interviewed on Christian radio. They had become frustrated that their minister “watered down” his sermons and never said a word about same-sex marriage even after the Iowa Supreme Court legalized it in 2009.
She is an accountant, he a chemist, and they met in an online Christian chat room. They had something in common, aside from their faith: Tom Berkheimer is half-Japanese, and Melissa Berkheimer had lived in Japan and her children from her first marriage are half-Japanese.
Over dinner at a steakhouse recently, the Berkheimers said they had nothing against gay people — a refrain the Odgaards also repeatedly sounded.
“My brother was a homosexual,” Melissa Berkheimer said. Her brother became a born-again Christian before he died of complications from AIDS many years ago, and she named her son after him, she said.
She said she became seriously alarmed about the nation in the past year as Congress failed to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood after an anti-abortion group released videos taken surreptitiously of the organization. The Berkheimers are in the “Never Trump” camp.
“I’m worried for America if we don’t turn away from abortion,” said Melissa Berkheimer, who is 48. “I think our country is going to be punished, with a nuclear weapon. I don’t think you can mock God forever.”
She quickly added that she was worried she would sound crazy saying such things.
“The Truth” 99.3 FM, a Christian station that features daily clips of Jorgenson’s sermons, broadcasts from a drab office building in a shopping center in Des Moines. In a studio on the sixth floor, the host of a daily afternoon talk show, J. Michael McKoy, known as Mac, sat at a broad table recently facing his three co-hosts. Leaning into the microphone, he asked his listeners, “Do you boycott businesses that go against your walk with Jesus?”
Should Christians boycott Target for announcing that transgender people could use the restrooms of their choice, he asked, or Ikea for a winsome ad featuring gay families? Callers’ reactions were mixed. A woman said Target “only cares about political correctness.” A man pointed out, “Even gay parents need furniture.”
McKoy steered the conversation to the Odgaards. He had quietly played a part in their saga: When Betty Odgaard was in the depths of despair over a boycott of Gortz Haus, she often called McKoy, and he prayed with her. He introduced the Odgaards to Jorgenson, the young pastor looking for a permanent place for his church.
On air, the radio hosts suggested that the Odgaards’ story showed that Americans were developing a double standard on the notion of tolerance. “I just wish that this tolerance went across the board for Christian businesses,” said one co-host, Frank Thomas Holzhauser, who on air calls himself Frank (the Verse) Thomas — a nod to his facility with Scripture.
When the show ended, the hosts debated the election. Only Holzhauser said he was certain he would vote for Trump, but he admitted it had caused him to lose some friends who “can’t stomach Trump.”
The others said they had not decided how they would vote. None had supported Trump in the Iowa caucuses. McKoy and Chris Rohloff had supported Marco Rubio, Holzhauser had favored Ben Carson, and Bob Monserrate had backed Cruz. Rohloff said he had thought that Trump was finished last year, the moment he said at a candidates’ forum in Iowa that he had never asked God for forgiveness.
“Everyone in the room just went, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Even if you’ve never done it, you should at least know the right answer,” Rohloff said. “That’s a fundamental thing for Christians.”
But by late September, McKoy said in a telephone interview that he and his co-hosts had decided to vote Trump: “"It’s the lesser of two evils. And I don’t know by how much.”
Some evangelicals in Iowa said Christians who praised Trump were giving Christianity a bad name. They blamed evangelicals in the South or “NASCAR Christians” who go to church only when car races are not on.
Some Republicans are working to boost evangelicals’ enthusiasm.
Before Trump’s arrival at Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual Roast and Ride in an arena at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines last month, Steve Scheffler was working a crowd of bikers and farmers sitting on hay bales near the stage. Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, used a line borrowed from the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly: “If you’re looking for a perfect candidate, you will not find Jesus Christ’s name on the ballot.”
He sounded exasperated with Christians who disparaged Trump.
“I hope the good Lord shows more grace to me as a sinner than these people show to Donald Trump,” he said.
On a recent Sunday, the Odgaards walked into the church and sat in the rear, where Betty Odgaard, an artist whose paintings once filled the space, used to design frames for customers. The seats — stackable banquet chairs that the Odgaards had bought for their wedding business — were nearly full of mostly young worshippers. They rested their coffee cups on the hardwood floor that the Odgaards had stripped of carpet and sanded when they bought the place, spending a week on their knees. One Sunday in church, the memories were so raw that Betty Odgaard said she began to cry and left for home.
“It’s like losing a child,” Dick Odgaard said.
Jorgenson asked the congregation to stand, and the worship band struck up a catchy song called “I’m Going Free (Jailbreak),” played with a hoedown lilt. The lyrics were projected onto a screen placed under faded windows that Betty Odgaard had painted long ago to resemble stained glass. While the worshipers clapped and pumped fists in the air, the Odgaards gamely sang along: “Jesus is my liberty. I’m going free.”
Church members were invited to stay afterward for a quarterly meeting. Dylan Knudsen, a co-pastor, made a major announcement.
Harvest Bible Chapel had just been approved for a loan to buy the Odgaards’ tidy red brick house next door. The Odgaards were about to move to another town. But they planned to keep attending Harvest Bible Chapel, Knudsen said. There was brief applause.
“Please thank them,” Knudsen said, “for their sacrificial role.”