The 2012 Republican Presidential race for conservative Christian hearts and minds and votes got off to an unbelievable start yesterday--really, I mean, beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of--when the ultra-Conservative, Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition hosted its 11th Annual Spring Kick off.

I hadn’t even pulled my Scofield Reference Bible down off the shelf when the evening’s MC, Gopal Krishna, was already lambasting the “weird and kinky lifestyles” that have become prevalent in our sinful nation.

The five presidential sort-of-hopefuls who showed up did not disappoint their audience at Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa. Nor did warm-up speaker congressman Steve King who assured us “If we get the culture right the economy will be right eventually.” Nor did the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Ralph Reed, who implied that it may be necessary to overthrow the American government (about which more anon).

Ladies and gentleman, the 2012 Faith and Values games have begun! Here are the major themes and storylines of the evening as I see them:

Meshing the Tea Party Agenda and the Evangelical Agenda: Well, that happened fast. In the run-up to the midterm elections most Republican candidates were (suspiciously) silent on the issues of abortion and gay marriage. Instead, the focus was on lowering taxes, reducing the size of government, taming the national debt, etc.

What was curious yesterday was how evangelical worldview and Tea Party bluster seamlessly coalesced. Nearly every one of the speakers managed to integrate anti-abortion themes with small government appeals.(Look at the platform of the Faith and Freedom Coalition to see the new hybrid in action).

But permit me a thought experiment: wouldn’t it take an awfully big, well-funded, and creepily invasive government to enforce penalties for crimes committed against unborn life, especially when life is understood to begin at the moment of conception?

Newt Gingrich Invokes Camus, Buddy Brings the Gumbo: A variety of rhetorical modes were on display. Former speaker of the House and holder of a doctorate, Newt Gingrich, sounded, well, professorial.

Former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, by contrast, could just as well have emerged from a gator-wrestling party in the bayou for all the drawling he did (e.g., “I am uh Church goin’ Methodist boy from a cotton-field in LouEEEsianAHHH.”)

As for Tim Pawlenty, he was handsome, but seething. If he wants to challenge no-show Mitt Romney who is not only handsome, but smooth and likable, he better blunt some of his edges. Rick Santorum was awfully sedate as he rehashed, oddly, an endless litany of Barbara Boxer inflected tales concerning abortion battles of yore.

Talk-radio host and businessman Herman Cain had the best rhetorical tools of the bunch, but failed to articulate any clear policy prescriptions that would move us from “the entitlement society to the empowerment society.”

Remember the Part in Gospels Were Jesus Started Kung Fu Fighting?: Each of tonight’s speakers stressed that the nation is involved in a life-and-death battle for its very survival. In fact “fight” was one of the most commonly heard words tonight. Herman Cain warned: “The American dream is under attack, the good news is we’re fighting back. We are fighting back with our faith.” Roemer sighed that “The system is institutionally corrupt and people of faith have to come against the corruption.”

“We need to be a country that turns toward God,” declaimed Pawlenty,” not a country that turns away from God.” Gingrich spoke of the need for “a change so deep and so profound that nothing we have seen in our lifetime is comparable to the level of depth we have to go to get this country back on the right track.” Santorum urged his listeners to fight for their freedom.

A novice to Christianity might have walked away from this angry event thinking that this Jesus fellow was some sort of nunchuck wielding martial artist ever on the prowl for unions, liberals, gay people, and whatever unfortunate illegal immigrants might cross his path.

Reading the Constitution the Way Evangelicals Read the Bible: At least Mike Huckabee (who also did not show up tonight) had the honesty to admit back in 2008 that he viewed the Constitution as subservient to the Bible.

No such hierarchy was evident this evening. Speaker after speaker invoked the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as if they all unequivocally proffered explicit, full-throated, red-lettered, denunciations of entitlements, Planned Parenthood, and “ObamaCare.”

As a scholar of the Bible I find it fascinating, and alarming, that so many politicians (even Catholic ones such as Gingrich and Santorum) are reading the Constitution precisely the same way evangelicals read their Scriptures.

That is to say these conservative Christians believe that: 1) the Constitution is infallible and inerrant, 2) they can discern its “original intent,” 3) this original intent always synchronizes with their political worldview, and, 4) all other attempts to understand that original intent put forth since, let’s say, 1791 are misguided and perhaps satanic if they diverge from aforesaid political worldview.

Going into 2012, a great service that professors of law could render the lay public is to explain to them the absurdity of this interpretive strategy. I call upon conservative legal scholars, whose work I have always appreciated and learned from, to use their lecterns to stop the “originalist” or “strict constructionist” madness. The Constitution is not the Bible.

And the Winner Is? Hard to say, though Buddy Roemer (who seemed to speak twice as long as anyone else and somehow already looked exasperated by all of this campaigning) managed to not only articulate his views on the corrupting influence of money in politics, but establish his policy for campaign contributions (capping them at one hundred dollars and expecting no money from PACs).

Is Ralph Reed Beyond the Law?: I am all for expressive liberty but at what point does rhetoric veer into incitement to commit a crime? With the Declaration of Independence as his proof text (?) Reed reminded his audience of the possibility of “replacing the government by force.”

The Iowa branch of Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition website features a video urging and instructing pastors to preach politics from the pulpit and disobey the IRS’s 501 c3 clause. (See my interview on this subject here).

If an American Muslim cleric advocated taking over the government by force and disobeying the tax codes I think it is fairly certain and entirely understandable that a visit from a certain governmental agency would not be far behind.

We maintain this double standard at our own peril.