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Photo Illustration by Nat Belz

Hometown values

Iowa's high court may not be as out of touch as some think

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

It's an illusion fervently held by too many conservatives. If, they say, we could just get the decision-making processes of America relocated from the elitist enclaves to the masses "out there," culture would finally move in the right direction.

"Out there," as in Iowa?

Yes, I understand that it was not the voters at large, but seven judges on the Iowa Supreme Court, who decided unanimously on April 3 to make their state the third in the nation to permit marriage between two homosexual men or two homosexual women.

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It doesn't make much difference. It's getting harder and harder these days to make a convincing argument that there's much distance between the values of the elites and those of the masses.

I rejoiced with many conservatives and evangelical Christians everywhere when voters in California last fall managed to stem the flood and uphold traditional heterosexual marriage. We all tended to downplay, though, the disconcerting fact that we won that vote with a slender 52 percent to 48 percent margin, and that even that margin was half a dozen points narrower than a vote by the same public a few years earlier. No one-except the backers of gay marriage-even wants to think about the next vote.

It's altogether too convenient to think in nostalgic terms about the good old days back on the Iowa farm. In every election cycle, I still find myself thinking that even if the whole rest of the nation goes liberal, at least all those folks where I grew up 60 years ago will come to their senses. Yet every election cycle, those "common-sense people" just get more and more permissive and more and more enamored of statist thinking. Nor is it just Democratic senators like Tom Harkin who've taken the heartland in such a wrong-headed direction; even a Republican senator like Charles Grassley, who I know is an evangelical Christian, has helped get the farmers of America so far in hock to the federal government that it's hard to imagine doing the business of agriculture any other way.

Does it surprise you that the county in the whole United States with the highest number of abortions per thousand population was for many years Iowa's Johnson County-the home of the University of Iowa? Good old hometown values, hard at work.

How startled can I be when I go back even further, to my eighth-grade graduation ceremony at the Buchanan County courthouse, and recall the three main points of the speaker's brief address? His speech that day consisted of three jokes-and all three of them made light of anyone who took prayer seriously. He was a professor at the Univer-sity of Northern Iowa, and he made an impression that has lasted now for 54 years.

I love my home state. I'm defensive, and I wince when it's portrayed, as it often is by condescending elitists, as hickish or backwards. I remind them not only that John Deere is still the best tractor out there (does that just add to their prejudice?), but also that Iowa has always led the nation in literacy.

But literacy in what? I no longer kid myself that just because they're at the middle of the middle of America, Iowans have their values straight. The three state universities, and most private colleges as well, are as liberal as they come-and they've effectively shaped the state's thinking. The Des Moines Register has for years preferred not just the political left to the political right, but the left of anything to the right of anything else. Five TV transmitting towers, all more than 1,000 feet tall and visible from the house where I grew up, have for two generations relentlessly showered viewers with both moral and political garbage.

But this isn't mainly about Iowa; it's about a whole nation headed the same direction. By some flukish arrangement, the Iowa primaries early in 2008 proved an accurate precursor to the election of Barack Obama. Nobody now has any basis for misinterpreting the ruling last week by the Iowa Supreme Court. It's not that seven judges, totally out of touch with the people who put them on the bench, made a wacko decision. This native Iowan has to conclude instead-and with great sadness-that those judges may have a lot better handle on our culture than I dare to think.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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