Scripture teaches that Jesus was silent before his accusers.
Congressman Steve King? Not so much.
The nine-term Iowa Republican on Tuesday said the criticism he has faced for statements embracing white nationalism gave him greater insight into the suffering endured by Jesus. In making that point, he seemed to liken himself to the Christian savior.
He offered the comparison at a town hall in Cherokee, Iowa, where the congressman, who maintains he has “nothing to apologize for,” responded to a comment from a pastor named Pinky Person. The 90-year-old pastor — who later told The Washington Post of King, “I love him” — shared her view with the Republican lawmaker that “Christianity is really being persecuted, and it’s starting right here in the United States.”
“I would just like to make a statement that with all the problems that we have, if we would just allow God to work, and keep on praying and keep on believing and keep on working together, we could overcome so many of these problems,” she said.
For King, the observation led him to ponder his own problems. He was stripped of committee assignments in January after asking, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” For years, he has employed racist language and amplified the voices of far-right figures, tweeting his support for ethnic nationalism and recirculating a message from a self-described “Nazi sympathizer.”
His party — which he has helped steer to the right on issues such as immigration and abortion — used to tolerate it. This year, the dam broke, but King says he’s still afloat.
“It’s been, for all that I’ve been through, it seems even strange for me to say it, but I’m at a certain peace, and it’s because of a lot of prayers for me,” he said. Earlier this year, the Iowa Republican said the prayers of his constituents might cause House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, to reconsider his decision to isolate him.
But the verdict didn’t change, as King told the town hall. In describing his experience on Capitol Hill, the congressman conjured a courtroom scene, evoking the trial that, in the telling of the New Testament, preceded the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. King called his fellow lawmakers “accusers.”
“And when I had to step down to the floor of the House of Representatives and look up at those 400-and-some accusers — you know, we’ve just passed through Easter and Christ’s Passion — and I have a better insight into what He went through for us, partly because of that experience,” he said. (King’s spokesman didn’t immediately return a query inviting the congressman to elaborate on his analysis.)
Seeing that his travails had biblical parallels, King said, made him grateful for the sizable share of Christians in his district, which lies in the northwest quadrant of the state.
Thirty-six percent of adults in Iowa attend religious services at least once a week, according to Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study. The largest share of Christians in Iowa are baby boomers. Most have a high school degree or less, and 93 percent identified as white. King’s district is 92 percent white, according to census data.
“We have a strong Christian ethic here and a high percentage of people that are true believers,” he said.
Then he offered an extended defense of his view that Christianity defines American culture.
He recalled how he had once caused some “friction” by putting forward a resolution that “honored Christ at Christmas” as a response to a pair of resolutions that “honored a whole bunch of religions that I had never heard of.”
When he appeared on a radio program to discuss the controversy, he said, the host told him, “This is not a Christian nation, congressman. You know that. There’s nothing in the Declaration, nothing in the Constitution that says we’re a Christian nation.”
King disagreed. “There’s plenty in our history, plenty in our culture and plenty in the experiences and the lives of our Founding Fathers that says otherwise,” he told his interlocutor.
He vowed, “This is a Christian nation, and I’ll prove it to you.”
As proof, King laid out a hypothetical situation in which “you run over the neighbor’s dog and you kill it.” The natural response, “if you’re any kind of a man,” is to knock on your neighbor’s door and explain what happened.
“That’s called confession,” King said.
After that, you say, “I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry; I’m sorry I killed your dog.”
“That’s called repentance,” King explained.
And your neighbor, “if he’s any kind of a man,” forgives you.
“That’s called redemption,” King noted.
Proof complete. The congressman concluded: “If it were any other way, we wouldn’t be the America we are, and probably wouldn’t be an America at all.”
Reached by phone Tuesday evening, Person — whose first name, “Pinky,” is a nickname based on her maiden name, “Pinske” — said she thought King’s response to her comment was “wonderful.”
“He’s very articulate in all his responses,” she said.
The 90-year-old pastor said the festival commemorating the resurrection of Jesus had led the congressman to consider his own suffering.
“When he came home for Easter and he realized what has been done to him in the House of Representatives — what has unjustly been done to him — he had an inkling of what it was like to have everyone against you, like everyone turned against Jesus,” she said.
Person has been a devoted supporter of her congressman ever since she moved to the district from Upstate New York in December 2000. What won her over, she said, was that King had an aide whose responsibility it was to engage with clergy in the area. “I immediately thought this is a good guy,” she said.
Originally from Minnesota, she attended the Rhema Bible Training College in Broken Arrow, Okla. After a few decades on the East Coast, she decided to move back to the Midwest to make attending family weddings and funerals more convenient.
More than 18 years later, she is still pastoring at her Full Gospel church in Cherokee, called Faith In Christ Fellowship. She also writes a 1,250-word column each week for a local paper, she said.
Person stopped driving last August, making it more difficult for her to travel to King’s town halls. The congressman, who faces a stiff primary challenge from Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra as he seeks a 10th term in 2020, announced in January that he would hold an event this year in each of the 39 counties in his district.
So Person was thrilled to learn that King was paying a visit to Cherokee this week. She wrote to him in advance to let him know that he could “count on the good, strong Christian folks of northwest Iowa.”
In her view, his comments have been taken out of context. She sees the move to condemn him as part of a broader assault on the values dear to people in his district. She said she was motivated to speak at the town hall because of her fear that the government is tearing down crosses and trying to bar “use of the name Jesus or Christ at Christmastime.”
A study by Pew in 2018 found that governments around the world were adopting more restrictions on religion. Globally, religiously motivated violence has erupted recently in Sri Lanka, where Christians were targeted in Easter Sunday bombings, and in New Zealand, where Muslims were targeted in mosque shootings in March. In the case of the United States, the nonpartisan research center called attention to “derogatory rhetoric” directed at the Muslim community by President Trump.
The Iowa pastor sees Trump, along with King, as an ally of Christians. She was among the more than 60 percent of voters in the district who backed him in 2016. She plans to do so again in 2020.
But she won’t do much campaigning or fundraising on the president’s behalf.
“I’m busy,” she said.
Besides, she’s more focused on what’s closer to home — King and his fight for political resurrection.
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