Small towns in Iowa ought to be safe territory for social conservatives like Mike Huckabee.
The state’s leading role in picking presidential nominees has traditionally served as a springboard for Republican candidates with strong views on same-sex marriage, abortion and other assorted sins of liberal America.
But outside Cedar Falls High School on Monday night the former Arkansas governor was forced to run the gauntlet of a demonstration that perhaps shows just how far the political centre of gravity on these issues may have shifted across the US.
More than 100 protesters – mostly students and parents from the school itself – were gathered outside to voice their opposition to what they viewed as the homophobic message of the event’s sponsor, the Family Leadership Summit .
“The tide is changing,” said one of the protest organizers, Eric Giddens. “Gay marriage is legal in Iowa now and we want to keep it that way, so we feel like we can’t let our guard down in case these kind of folks come in.”
For 16-year-old student Aditi Rao, who led an unsuccessful legal challenge to outlaw so-called “gay conversion therapy” in the state, the arrival of Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats and governor Huckabee at her school is a particular shock.
“They talk about the sanctity of marriage but there is also the sanctity of education. They are corrupting that,” she says. “It would have been fine if they were talking at a church, or a local community centre, but the second you come to a public school, that’s an affront.”
Giddens said: “The school system says because of state and federal anti-discrimination laws they are obligated to rent the space. Which is ironic for a group with such inflammatory and discriminatory rhetoric.”
While a warning note pinned to the door told protesters not to bring in any signs or disruption, a strategically placed poster left in the foyer said: “This is a safe and inclusive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their allies.”
Inside the school hall some members of the similarly sized Family Leader audience were shocked at what they said was an unheard-of interruption for this part of Iowa. One blamed the fact that Cedar Falls is also a college town and the university is only a few blocks away.
Huckabee welcomed the protesters’ freedom of speech but was less than surprised at their message.
“I am glad that the protesters could come,” he began. “I don’t fear that people can protest my views. I am unapologetically a person who believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of the living God.”
We are rapidly getting to the place in the United States of America where we are criminalising Christian faith
Huckabee argued Christians were the ones being discriminated against because the growing national consensus in favor of gay marriage did not take sufficient account of their views.
“We are rapidly getting to the place in the United States of America where we are criminalizing Christian faith,” he said, pointing to recent lawsuits against florists and bakers who refused to carry out work for same-sex weddings.
“There is a difference between when people stand out and protest, which they have a right under the first amendment to do … and when the government goose-steps into our lives and tells us what we can and we cannot believe.”
The fact that the US supreme court may also soon rule that state bans against same sex marriage are unconstitutional is a particular fear of religious conservatives.
“The notion that the supreme court is the supreme branch [of government] is nowhere in the constitution,” said Huckabee. “The supreme court is not the supreme being.”
On one thing the former governor was in agreement with the Iowa protestors: American attitudes to same-sex marriage and gay rights are changing fast.
“I didn’t come tonight to give you a speech; I came to sound the alarm,” Huckabee concluded.