DES MOINES, Iowa – Steve Deace, the radio talk host whose words are as likely to rile listeners as to resonate with them, tosses a baseball into the air. The ball hits his hand with a soft plop, plop, plop as the seconds before his show tick away. He shifts from one foot to the other and chats about his listeners.
“There are some people who would want to put a bullet in me,” Deace said. “There are some people who would take a bullet for me.”
The clock hits the five-minute mark, and Deace rolls his chair into the recording room. The studio lights shine brightly. The opening chords of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” fill the air waves, and the Deace show begins…,
…and here is how it sounds:
As that show did, Deace, an evangelical Christian, weaves his religious beliefs into current events, and his views go national over Truth Radio Network.
The show debuted in August, but Deace’s voice has been filling drive-home time for a long while. Even before he began his previous show at Des Moines’ WHO Newsradio in 2006, Deace’s comments inspired heated criticism while drawing the kind of following conservative politicians can’t ignore.
Earlier this year, the Des Moines Register put him on its list of the “Iowa Caucuses 50 Most Wanted.” The paper says the list names conservative leaders “presidential prospects will call on.”
Following the 2010 primaries, Deace got a lot credit for helping Bob Vander Plaats carry Polk County over Terry Branstad in the Republican gubernatorial campaign.
“I believe candidates win elections, not talk show hosts,” Deace said in an e-mail. But media coverage can make winning easier for candidates, he added. “There isn’t a show like mine on the air in Eastern and Western Iowa, so Vander Plaats lost out there.”
During the 2008 caucuses, Deace spoke out against Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and candidate for the Republican nomination. In 2008, Romney lost all but one of the counties in which Deace’s program aired, the Des Moines Register reported. Outside of Deace’s airwave radius, Romney won all but two counties.
Deace said he is aware of his influence and keeps it in mind before making broadcasts.
“If you have a platform like this and you’re not influential, you’re not doing your job,” he said.
Deace’s statements following the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 led the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to label his comments “hate speech.”
The shooter, a U.S. soldier and a Muslim, killed 13 people and wounded nearly 30 . Deace focused on the shooter’s Islamic faith, announcing on his WHO radio show that the United States was at war with Islamic theology and denouncing the Army’s concern that the shooting would affect diversity in the military.
“My concern,” Deace told his listeners, “is that we know who the enemy is, and we kill them before they kill us.”
When asked if he still holds this belief, Deace sent a link to a story published in the Iowa Independent. In the Nov. 24, 2009 story, Deace stood by his statements and disregarded the committee’s criticisms.
Talk radio commentators frequently use outrage to provoke response from listeners, Assistant Professor Sarah Sobieraj and Professor Jeffrey Berry of Tufts University wrote in a study on political discourse. Their study, published in October in Political Communication, said outrage employs anger, mockery, over generalizations, fear and moral indignation.
Deace’s Fort Hood statement is “outrage” commentary, Sobieraj said in an email to IowaWatch. Such commentary is more provocative than “incivility,” which is commentary showing lack of respect for the opposition.
Corwin Smidt, a professor of political science at Calvin College director of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, said he’s not familiar with Deace’s program, but knows about other commentators who mix religion and politics.
Smidt said strident religious speech, while a valid form of self-expression, could “undermine the ability of politicians who hold different positions to come together and talk about why they disagree… A more gentle discourse, a more civil discourse, would probably move us farther along.”
In a conversation following the filming and broadcasting of his Oct. 18 show, Deace said he didn’t see any danger in anger broadcast over the airwaves.
But his brand of commentary has become increasingly controversial, especially since the January shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz).
“There’s been a lot of hand-wringing that partisan radio and television were part of the poisoning of public discourse,” said Jennifer Buckley, a lecturer in the rhetoric department at the University of Iowa.
Controversial topics viewed from a Christian perspective continue to be a hallmark of Deace’s program.
During the Oct. 18 program, Deace read an article about a lesbian couple in California providing their 11-year-old, transgender son with hormone-blocking treatments to delay puberty.
Deace described one of the sources in the article as “a director of education and training for Gender Spectrum, a California-based non-profit group funded by Hell….That’s not in the story, I just added that.”
“We’ve got a seat right here for you brother,” Deace added. “An aisle seat in the eternal smoking section.”
Jen Green, the program’s contributor, said nature and chromosomes, not individuals should decide gender. Those decisions are made by someone “above my pay grade,” she added.
“That is what we used to think when we were from a place called obvious,” Deace responded. “Now, we live in this magical thinking land, this absolutely pagan culture where we just make things up as we go.”
This comment walks the line between incivility and outrage.
The word “absolutely” qualifies as misrepresentative exaggeration, a form of outrage. Sobieraj said.
PROGRAM AS “COMMENTARY”
Deace said his show is commentary.
“I am not an objective source of information, because my first priority is evangelizing my worldview,” Deace said in an e-mail, adding that he was upfront and honest about his positions.
Evangelicals tend to look for ways to relate their religious beliefs to everyday life, Smidt said. This could explain their strong presence in the media.
In 2005, almost all of the nation’s 2,000 religious radio stations were evangelical, according to an article by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Although Deace’s religious commentary can be controversial, he said he is meticulous about fact checking the underlying events, because people frequently try to discredit the program.
“No one will say I make things up and lie,” Deace said. “As a Christian, I am called to have integrity.”
Deace said his Christian faith is not based on creed or dogma, but on the “objective truth” of Christ’s resurrection.
“When we are governed by emotions, then we are in trouble,” Deace said. “That is why we need an objective truth to fall back on.”
A SCHOLARLY PERSPECTIVE
Religious comments, from the 2009 Fort Hood criticisms to his daily focus on abortion and marriage issues, mark Deace’s program and webpage.
But his brand goes back decades, said Bruce Nesmith, a political science professor at Coe College and author of The New Republican Coalition: The Reagan campaigns and white evangelicals.
“Even in a year like this, when the economy has been so bad for so long, Herman Cain had to ramp up his rhetoric on abortion,” Nesmith said. “[Then there was Texas Gov. Rick] Perry with the HPV issue. That has kind of blown over, but it had a very evangelical tone. The problem was not communicable diseases. The problem was sex.”
The politicized evangelical movement made a flashy entrance on the national stage in the 1980s.
The rise of cable television enabled some evangelical figures, televangelists, to broadcast their messages to large audiences, Nesmith said. Evangelical messages entered homes around the country through familiar media figures, like Baptist Pastor Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 and lost after placing second in the Iowa caucus.
Two decades later, the Baptist pastor and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also did well in Iowa. During his candidacy for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, Huckabee won Iowa’s Republican caucus with roughly 9 percent more votes than runner-up Mitt Romney.
Deace appears to pick up on this Huckabee connection, Buckley noted. The top banner on his website features a quote from Huckabee endorsing Deace as a “soul mate” for those with “courage and convictions.”
Buckley said Deace and Huckabee share some of the same appeal.
“There is a lot of charm [in Deace’s broadcasts],” she said. “He clearly has charisma.”
The popular radio host may also benefit from Iowa’s politically-aware evangelical population.
Smidt said Iowa’s religious makeup, the tendency to lean Republican, and the openness of the caucus system makes Iowan evangelicals a force in state politics. About a quarter of Iowa’s population is evangelical, just a whisper below the national average, and nearly two-thirds say the church should express its views on “day-to-day social and political questions,” according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Deace said he has no immediate plans to endorse a candidate. But he didn’t rule out an endorsement before the Jan. 3 caucus.
“I have already told my audience I am willing to vote for Paul, Bachmann and Santorum and would consider voting for Gingrich or Perry, but want to see more from them,” Deace said in an e-mail.
Deace says he gives voice to a key segment of the population.
As he walked out of the studio into the grey twilight of a Des Moines evening, he said the program represents an important group in a diverse American society.
“I think the people who believe in the things that I do have a pivotal role in the process,” Deace said. “I think it would behoove [others] to understand what we think.”
Listen to The Deace Show Podcast here