By JASON HOROWITZ
DES MOINES: One afternoon last week, David Lane watched from the sidelines as a roomful of Iowa evangelical pastors applauded a defense of religious liberty by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. That night, he gazed out from the stage as the pastors surrounded Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana in a prayer circle.
For Mr. Lane, a onetime Bible salesman and self-described former “wild man,” connecting the pastors with two likely presidential candidates was more than a good day’s work. It was part of what he sees as his mission, which is to make evangelical Christians a decisive power in the Republican Party.
“An army,” he said. “That’s the goal.”
And Mr. Lane is positioning himself as a field marshal. A fast-talking and born-again veteran of conservative politics with experience in Washington, Texas and California, Mr. Lane, 60, travels the country trying to persuade evangelical clergy members to become politically active.
His hope is that the politicized pastors will help mobilize congregations that have been disheartened by the repeated failure of socially conservative candidates, and by a party that has softened its opposition to same-sex marriage.
It is an organizing approach far different from those in the days when larger-than-life leaders like the Moral Majority founder, Jerry Falwell, who died in 2007, or Pat Robertson, now 84, could activate evangelical voters simply by anointing a candidate.
But close observers of evangelicals and their political involvement say Mr. Lane is emblematic of a new generation of evangelical leaders who draw local support or exert influence through niche issues or their own networks.
Unlike political operatives such as Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who helped elect George W. Bush before becoming ensnared in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Mr. Lane does not have an extensive organization.
What Mr. Lane, a former public relations man, does have going for him is a decentralized landscape in which a determined believer with an extensive network of ground-level evangelical leaders and a limitless capacity for talking on the phone can exert influence on Republican presidential candidates eager to reach evangelical voters.
“David is the real deal,” said the Rev. Brad Atkins, a prominent pastor in South Carolina. “He really believes that this is his calling.”
And it is here in Iowa, where conservatives traditionally have an inordinate influence in the state’s Republican presidential caucuses, that evangelicals have their best shot of shaping the field. In what he says is his effort to restore “our Christian heritage,” Mr. Lane’s American Renewal Project has already shown its influence in Iowa by helping to unseat three State Supreme Court justices who voted to allow same-sex marriage.
But Mr. Lane’s ambitions are national — he focused on battleground states in 2014 and has built an email list of 100,000 pastors around the country.
His goal now is to get 1,000 pastors to run for public office, and their potential support has drawn a virtual pilgrimage of conservative candidates eager to join the tours Mr. Lane organizes to Israel and to his “Pastors and Pews” events.
“A good friend” Mr. Cruz said.
“A great friend,” Mr. Jindal said.
With some of the energy gone from the evangelical movement, said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an expert on evangelicals, “this is about keeping the pressure on for the next election.”
“Lane has influence with pastors, and they listen to him,” Mr. Green added.
All this activity has caught the attention of liberal opponents, who call Mr. Lane an extremist for his belief that abortion will incur divine vengeance on America and his argument that the Republican Party will be destroyed by its acceptance of same-sex marriage just as the Whig Party was destroyed by its acceptance of slavery in the 19th century.
They have sought to cast him as the de facto travel agent for the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based conservative religious organization, which had to distance itself from a spokesman, Bryan Fischer, who called homosexuals “Nazis” and argued that Muslims should not enjoy First Amendment rights and should be converted to Christianity.
Mr. Lane said that he raises his own money for his trips and events from a handful of wealthy donors, whose names he declined to divulge, and that the American Family Association pays him a retainer and provides him with legal and accounting assistance. In return the group, which has an expansive radio network, Internet constituency and budget, gets its name on all of Mr. Lane’s events and adds to its database the contact information of all the pastors he organizes.
Questions about his associations or accusations that he is an opportunist clearly get under Mr. Lane’s skin. But, he said, they show how he is “on the radar.”
And it is a long way from where he started. Raised in rural Oklahoma by his grandparents after his parents divorced in his infancy and his father left, Mr. Lane hit bottom as a partying student at the University of Mississippi, where for four summers he sold Bibles door to door.
“I’d stay drunk all night and sell Bibles all day,” he said. With about a semester to go in 1977, he dropped out, instead pursuing a life of “drugs, wine, women and song.” (“Le Freak” by Chic and “cocaine,” he clarified.)
He eventually sought redemption from the Bible and a series of motivational speaking mentors. Judge Ziglar, author of “Timid Salesmen Have Skinny Kids” and brother of the famed motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, took an interest in him.
Then, after having a conversion moment in a downtown Atlanta alley following a motivational seminar, he moved to Houston and came under the wing of Judge Paul Pressler, a key figure in the resurgence of the Baptist conservative movement and the Moral Majority.
Bob Perry, the wealthy Texas home builder and Republican donor, who later funded the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against John Kerry in 2004, gave Mr. Lane $3,000 of seed money to get started in Washington, where Mr. Lane began working for Carl Channell in support of President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense system.
“Spitz taught me the fund-raising business,” said Mr. Lane, using a nickname for Mr. Channell. “He was a homosexual.”
He eventually worked for Mr. Falwell, and throughout his career gained a reputation as a “pastor’s friend,” said his own former pastor, the Rev. Gary Miller, who tearfully recalled Mr. Lane’s handing him a pair of new shoes during a period of tight finances in his own life.
And it is as a pastoral impresario that Mr. Lane has found his influence and attracted an audience of auditioning politicians. He organized an event with Gov. Rick Perry and hundreds of evangelical pastors in Texas in 2005. Dozens of events and candidates and seven years later, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky attended an event in South Carolina.
“They say you’re anti-Israel,” Mr. Lane said he told Mr. Paul when they met, and asked if he had ever been to Israel. When Mr. Paul said he had not, Mr. Lane, whose daughter now works for Mr. Paul, asked if the senator would be interested in going on a tour with evangelical leaders from Iowa and South Carolina.
Two years ago, Mr. Paul, his wife, Kelley, and their sons joined about 50 pastors and evangelical leaders on the trip. Afterward, Mr. Lane said, he received a note from Mr. Paul in which he wrote that he had awaked from a dream singing “How Great Thou Art” and that two of his sons had committed their lives to Christ.
After Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey made a good impression at a Republican event later that year, Mr. Lane offered him the chance to join primary state pastors on a “Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul II” tour to California, London and Rome.
“They turned it down,” said Mr. Lane, who smiled when asked if he thought that was a mistake.
Instead, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, jumped at the opportunity, subbing former Nazi concentration camps and Oskar Schindler’s former factory in Poland for the stop in Rome.
Last month, Mr. Lane took 60 members of the Republican National Committee to Jerusalem at a cost, he said, of about $500,000. A trip to Israel with Mr. Jindal is planned for July.
Missing from his travel manifests and events are the Republican Party’s establishment candidates. While Mr. Lane is technically neutral at this point, he clearly is no fan of the more moderate wing of his party. He said he tried to rescue the 2008 and 2012 tickets by advocating Mr. Huckabee for vice president.
While he admires Jeb Bush’s record as governor of Florida, especially his opposition to taking Terri Schiavo off life support, he scoffed at Mr. Bush’s choice for evangelical liaison, noting that he was “26 years old” and that his father was “behind Romney.” And as far as Mr. Bush’s hiring an openly gay communications director, he said: “I don’t understand what he’s up to. Personnel is policy.”
Mr. Lane is himself something of a one-man operation. He said that he shares the same hard-charging engine as his father, a car dealer who made the Chevrolet Hall of Fame, and since setting up shop in Southern California in 1998, Mr. Lane has acted mostly behind the scenes. Last week’s conference, and the two presidential hopefuls, was a calculated step into the spotlight.
“If the Lord were to call 1,000 pastors in America — 1,000 — and they ended up with an average of 300 volunteers per campaign in 2016, that would be 300,000 grass-root, precinct-level, evangelical conservatives coming from the bottom up,” he said to the ballroom full of pastors. “It would change America.”