By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) – At first blush, it’s just another standard-issue political rally.
Inside Mitt Romney’s Iowa headquarters – a former Blockbuster store on a commercial strip outside downtown – Romney and his wife, Ann, are introduced by former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary.
“It is an honor to be supporting Gov. Romney and Ann,” Mary Pawlenty tells the crowd of a couple hundred, a silver cross dangling from her neck. “They are good people, they share our values – these are people that we are delighted to call friends.”
How Mitt Romney's faith shaped him
A few moments later, Mitt Romney mentions his five sons and hands his microphone to 36-year-old Josh, who calls his dad “my hero.”
“He taught me my great love for this country,” Josh says, “and my great love for my family.”
Sounds like typical political posturing, right? Many Americans wouldn’t give such gestures a second thought.
But experts on religion and politics say the message to one particular subculture – evangelical Iowans – is clear: Mitt Romney may be Mormon, but he shares evangelical Christian values, including a rock-solid commitment to family, and counts high-profile evangelicals like the Pawlentys as friends and supporters.
“It’s less an attempt to create a trust among evangelicals and more to defuse a distrust,” says Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.
Mark DeMoss, an evangelical PR specialist and Romney campaign adviser, puts a more positive spin on the strategy: “A number of evangelicals are really enthusiastic about him and have endorsed Romney, and for the same reason that I like him – he shares my values.”
Romney’s Mormonism and his past social liberalism have fed doubts about him among some evangelicals. But with the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses just days away, the former Massachusetts governor is hardly the only candidate honing his message for evangelical Iowans.
Newt Gingrich has met with hundreds of evangelical pastors in the state, talking policy but also about past marital infidelity, which many Christians consider a sin. Rick Perry has given Sunday morning testimonials from the pulpits of Hawkeye State megachurches.
Newt Gingrich's faith narrative
And Rick Santorum, who is riding a late-breaking surge in Iowa polls, and Michele Bachmann have all but staked their candidacies on winning big among evangelical Iowans, claiming to be more conservative than the rest of the Republican field on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.
How did one faith-based demographic come to wield so much power? The answer is basic math – and passion.
“Relatively few people participate in the Iowa caucuses, so it’s ideal for a group of highly committed activists to have a big influence,” says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.
Unlike conventional primaries, Iowa’s caucuses, scheduled for Tuesday, require voters to attend what are essentially community get-togethers at which participants can speak publicly for candidates. It’s more cumbersome than pulling a lever in a voting both, and a relatively small minority of registered voters attend.
“Evangelical churches and interest groups have been able to generate that kind of activity,” Green says. “They’ve been active in Iowa for a long time, so a tradition has taken hold there.”
Rick Perry's long faith journey culminates in White House run
In 2008, evangelical Christians accounted for 60% of Republican caucus-goers. With just 119,000 Iowans participating in the GOP caucuses that year – high by historical standards – the bloc helped propel Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, to a first-place finish.
In previous election cycles, evangelicals accounted for a more modest share of the Iowa GOP electorate, but their ranks have nonetheless hovered around 40%.
That makes evangelical Iowans unusually influential even by the standards of the national Republican Party, in which evangelical Christians have constituted the base since Ronald Reagan was elected president.
From Carter to Bush
Despite the modern GOP-evangelical alliance, it was a Democrat who first tapped that power base in Iowa.
Jimmy Carter was the first presidential candidate in modern American politics to call himself a born-again Christian, and he spent long stretches in Iowa during his 1976 campaign. Finishing ahead of every candidate (“uncommitted” took first) there lent early momentum to a candidate who’d been virtually unknown nationally.
Before Carter, says Drake’s Dennis Goldford, “evangelicals didn’t participate in politics because it was seen as this “worldy, corrupting, evil thing, and you stayed away from it.”
Modern American evangelicalism emerged in the late 19th century, built around biblical literalism and an emphasis on human sin and redemption. The movement was largely a reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution and questions that modern science raised about biblical authority.
The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which struck down the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools, turned the evangelical movement into a national laughingstock and provoked an evangelical retreat from politics.
Carter, a Baptist Sunday School teacher, brought them back together.
But many evangelicals wound up feeling betrayed by Carter’s liberalism, and Reagan’s courtship of first-generation Christian right leaders, as well as his conservative rhetoric on issues like abortion, sent hordes of evangelicals to the GOP.
In 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson finished second in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, putting Iowa evangelical power on the national map. Says Goldford: “They came out of nowhere.”
In the 1990s, with the rise of Robertson’s Christian Coalition, many evangelicals landed positions of power within the Iowa Republican Party. Catholics and other religious believers also became more active in the state GOP, raising the profile of issues like abortion and marriage, but they could not compete in number with the evangelicals.
Since then, Republican presidential hopefuls have tailored their messages to evangelical Iowans. When George W. Bush was asked which political philosopher had most influenced him in a debate before the 2000 Iowa caucus, he responded “Jesus.”
A diluted role?
In this election cycle, all the Republican presidential candidates have spoken deeply about their personal Christian faith while in Iowa, except for Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormons.
After spending considerable time in Iowa in 2008, much of it courting evangelicals, Romney placed second, far behind Huckabee. This time around, Romney has spent much less time here, skipping some major evangelical cattle calls and unleashing the ire of some powerful Christian activists.
Huntsman, for his part, has ignored Iowa to focus his efforts on New Hampshire, which votes a week after Iowa.
A CNN/TIME/ORC poll last week found that Romney had the support of 16% of likely evangelical caucus-goers in Iowa, compared to 22% for Santorum, 18% for Ron Paul and 14% for Gingrich, who had much higher evangelical support in earlier Iowa polls.
“Romney’s campaign has a very deliberate plan to snub social conservatives,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a key conservative group in the state.
“If Romney becomes the nominee,” Scheffler says, “95% of his volunteers will need to come from the conservative base. If he’s dissed them through the caucus process, it’s going to be challenging for him to get these people to campaign for him to become president.”
Scheffler is a testament to evangelical influence in the caucuses; his group has hosted caucus trainings in churches across the state in the run-up to January 3.
Most evangelical leaders insist their skepticism of Romney is born of his past social liberalism. But some in-the-pews evangelicals, interviewed at a pair of Iowa evangelical churches on a recent Sunday, admitted to an anti-Mormon bias.
Many believe that Mormons – who, unlike traditional Christians, believe in holy books beyond the Bible and practice customs like posthumous proxy baptism – belong to a cult.
“A growing number of people are afraid to vote for him because they are not sure how his Mormonism will affect his presidency,” says Jonathan Meyer, a pastor at Grace Church in Des Moines. “And because he doesn’t talk about that.”
Other Iowan evangelicals say Romney’s Mormonism isn’t a deal-breaker. “We talked about it in my Bible study,” says Patrick Finnegan, 27, who attended a recent Romney rally wearing a blue “Romney supporter” T-Shirt. “And we said as long as he believes in Jesus Christ, and as long as he’s not an atheist, we support him. I just want someone who shares my belief in a higher power.”
Other Iowa evangelicals echoed that view, calling Romney a Christian.
One complicating factor in the evangelical equation is that the main alternative to Romney as a viable national candidate appears to be Gingrich. The former House speaker has strenuously courted evangelical leaders and aided last year’s successful campaign to unseat three pro-gay marriage Iowa judges but has admitted to personal moral failings, including an affair with his current wife while married to his second wife.
Many Iowa evangelicals say Gingrich has redeemed himself. “I appreciate Newt acknowledging that he needs forgiveness,” says Meyer, who speaks with a Bible tucked under his arm in the Christmas-tree bedecked lobby of Grace Church. “He didn’t have to address that.”
Others are less enthusiastic.
“There’s not enough attention being paid to Newt’s fall from grace,” says Beverly McLinden, 55, an Iowa evangelical who works in association management and attended the Des Moines Romney rally. “Romney’s family exemplifies family values, and you can’t discount that just because he’s a Mormon.”
Evangelical angst over Gingrich and Romney has helped fuel Santorum’s surge, with the former Pennsylvania senator receiving 16% support in the most recent CNN poll, putting him in third place, behind Romney and Paul.
No candidate had even 25% of evangelical support in the most recent poll, raising the possibility that Iowa’s evangelical vote will be pretty diluted this week.
“This vote is terribly critical,” says Ralph Reed, who leads the national Faith and Freedom Coalition. “But the irony is that with this many candidates all appealing to this constituency at the same time, the vote is likely to get spread out.”
‘Democrats are trying to strip God out’
If Iowa’s evangelicals disagree on whom to support, interviews with dozens of them reveal a striking consistency in the role their faith plays in shaping that decision.
Even as the economy and jobs consistently rank as top issues in the presidential race, many evangelical Iowans say they’re weighing the personal faith of the candidates and that they still care about social issues and honoring the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
“Most of the folks I’ve dealt with in the evangelical community always care about the economy and spending and taxes,” says Santorum, who has spent most of his time as a presidential candidate campaigning in Iowa. “But the priority issues that have always been up front are the moral, cultural issues.”
“They want to make sure that it’s someone who is comfortable in their skin to fight those battles,” says Santorum, a devout Catholic who has nonetheless landed on TIME’s list of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals.
Gail Johnson, a dentist’s assistant who was heading into Grace Church – a megachurch whose sanctuary is hung with giant Christmas wreaths and a back-lit cross – agrees.
“I have no clue who I’m voting for, other than that it will be a Republican,” she says. “Smaller government and no abortion are the two big issues for me.”
Grace Church is the kind of congregation where worshippers take notes during the sermon, which on this Sunday focused on the importance of believing in Jesus’ virgin birth.
Sue Cornelius-Leibrand, an accountant who also attends Grace, says she would prefer “a president who believes in the same things that I do.”
“I know they won’t agree with everything,” says Cornelius-Leibrand, who wears diamond earrings and carries a stylish black bag and a leather-bound bible with a pink strap. “But the main things, like life beginning at conception and marriage between a man and a wife.”
Many evangelicals cite what they see as religion’s shrinking role in the public square as another concern. “This nation was founded on Christian ethics and that’s what made the country great,” says Sue Raibikis, a pharmaceutical sales rep and an evangelical Christian who attended the Romney rally. “Democrats are trying to strip God out of the country.”
Republican candidates are addressing those concerns in different ways. Gingrich talks about stopping a secular war on religion. Perry gives Christian testimony, telling worshippers at Des Moines’ Point of Grace Church on a recent Sunday: “There’s a hole in one’s heart that can only be filled by one thing.”
Santorum and Bachmann are emphasizing their voting records on hot buttons like abortion, saying other candidates just talk about these issues.
The jockeying introduced a major shot of religion to the presidential race from the very start, a contribution that some political experts argue threatens to curtail Iowa’s influence in the nominating process.
“The strength of evangelicals in the Iowa Republican Party could turn into a weakness if they are seen as so strong that Republicans around the nation begin to discount the results of the caucuses,” says Drake University’s Goldford.
“You’re beginning to see some of that – McCain chose not to campaign here last time,” he says. “And Romney hasn’t been here much this time.”
The state’s track record for picking Republican winners is mixed. Huckabee, for instance, won big in Iowa but lost his party’s nomination. But George W. Bush and Bob Dole won Iowa and went on to the GOP nomination.
The Republican primary calendar, if nothing else, will strengthen the influence of Iowa and its evangelicals, argues Green, of the University of Akron.
New Hampshire, with fewer evangelicals, follows Iowa in primary voting. But the next in line is South Carolina, where 60% of voters in the last Republican presidential primary identified as evangelicals.
If Mormons are not Christians, please tell me who are? Lutherans? Catholics? Orthodox? Seventh Day Adventists? Christian Scientists? Unitarians? Gnostics? Arians? Monophysites? Or are they only evangelical Baptist nut cases like yourself?
I could care less if anyone thinks Mormons are really Christians or not. What matters is that, are Christians like Mormons, in that they worship something completely fictional and made up?
It's glaringly obvious that Mormonism was invented by a con-artist.
Really? Christ visited America? Really? Like we're not already egotistical enough, we have to invent a religion that says that the Middle-Eastern-born Son of God is all of a sudden a white guy, we have to have him be American too? Really? Eden was somewhere in Missouri? Eden. Missouri. Have you been to Missouri? It's never been Eden, trust me.
When you put your faith ahead of the country, you should disqualify yourself.
I'd go with the ones who adhere to the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed. We went over this ground for a few centuries. Let's stick with what we settled on. If the Mormons want to bypass all that via a 19th century prophet, let them choose another term for themselves.
Who determines who is a Christian? -the Catholic Church which was founded by Jesus Christ, not Joseph Smith. God revealed through Jesus' words and life and through the life and witness of the Apostles and Church Fathers who God is, Three Persons in One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Word made Flesh. !000s of Christians died martyrs' deaths to uphold this belief in the first 3 centuries. All Christians hold to the above beliefs about God- most Protestants, all orthodox,etc. It is the highest revelation about God and is central to the Christian faith.
Mormons deny this basic revelation about God and His nature and the nature of Jesus Christ. They are a sect according to the Catholic Church. We believe Jesus Christ and the Apostles over an American named Joseph Smith who lived in the 19th century. Jesus gave His life for us on the cross, unlike Joseph Smith.
Mormons are similar to Muslims in many of their beliefs and in the way their faiths arose.
Our founding fathers were Diests, and Humanists. They believed in the existance of a higher power (no specific one) . Many of them were Unitarians, and endorced the inherient worth and dignity of ALL people. The first admendment talks about freedom of religion (it also protects freedom from religion and religious persacution)
Patrick, I don't mind that you believe that, but it isn't exactly true, and the sad thing is that so many people are currently using that claim to try to silence religious voices. People on the left have already taken many rights. (It is getting worse: The ACLU sued to prevent Mormons from reading from pioneer journals on the Mormon Trail because they contained religious content, parents were detained because their children had pencils that said "Jesus" on them and so on.
"Suppose a nation in some distant Region should take the Bible for their only law Book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God ... What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be."
–Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. III, p. 9.
From Founding Fathers Quotes
"The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God."
–Adams wrote this on June 28, 1813, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson.
@Joe – "People on the left have already taken many rights. (It is getting worse: The ACLU sued to prevent Mormons from reading from pioneer journals on the Mormon Trail because they contained religious content, parents were detained because their children had pencils that said "Jesus" on them and so on." – Soooo, forcing everyone on a public train to listen to your brand of religion is a right? Would it be so hard to read to yourself or read at home? Yes! Of course it would because your whole uffing existence is to attempt to force any and all to drink your uffing cool aid!! And you don't see that as infringing on anyone else s rights do you? No, because the end justify s the means and you have already made up your mind that you are right about Jesus and there can be no other truth, and it's never about learning more about different people and cultures and religions, it's about making sure anyone who is different knows you are a Christian which is the only sensible way to live and anyone who is not like you is either converted, attacked, pitied or dismissed as a fool who awaits eternal damnation. I guess it's hard to see your arrogance and ignorance when you stick your fingers in your ears and close your eyes while screaming "nah nah nah nah nah nah I cant hear you" like a child when anyone tries to have a reasonable conversation about other possible origins of the universe.
What really annoys me about most ignorant uninformed voters is that they'd vote for someone who they respect, but don't believe in their policies and governance as President of the U.S. I don't think a man running for President is someone the average U.S. citizen should relate to. I don't want joe the plumber as my president, i want the most intelligent, wisest, expert leader in office who can get the job done.
This is not a college game match-up, it the Presidency of the U.S.
Start taking our political process and government process seriously (voters) and maybe our government and political process will take it's citizens seriously too.
I agree with some of those below, there should be a separation between Church and State. But some of you seem to be trying to eliminate Church from State. The First Amendment, allowing free expression of religion, is first for a reason. We should not vote based on religion, nor should we vote based on anti-religious prejudices.
Here is a quote:
"God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever..."
–Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, p. 237.
It is not peope anti-religious. It is people do want religious pushing down their throats.
If you believe non-believer are sinners, fine. I don't have problem with that. But when you tried to tell the sinners how to live YOUR way, that is religious prosecution. Is that the reason why your people came to america to esape such behaviour done by other brand of christians. Now you are doing exactly the same as those who done to your ancestors.
RON PAUL IS THE ONLY MAN TO SAVE THIS COUNTRY NOW
RON PAUL FOR PRESIDENT
Dear Iowan Evangelicals- please read before you vote:
Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).
Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,
current problem reality bull sh it solution hit report abuse at every opportunity
Thomas Jefferson was very concerned to keep a strong wall of separation between church and state. We knew the history of that combination in Western Europe and how the rights of the people constrained during several centuries. It has severed the U.S. well with people of different religions and secular thoughts up until now. Incidentally, on the international front we have ignored his warning in establishing and protecting a nation that violates it.
Mr. Garbage Offer (georgex) tear down that wall !
The separation of church and state will remain intact despite your little hissy fits, Ronnie. You don't get to decide that others must live by the laws of the Bible or any other religious text. This is a nation of laws, not religion. If you don't like it that way, you should go elsewhere, because the country was founded as a secular nation, not your little religious playground.
Tom, thanks for your response to Ronnie. The ignorance of people in knowledge about the founders of the country is amazing. They have most probably not read any of the writtings of Jefferson or Franklin. The entertaining nature of TV news doesn't let them focus on much at all. They really need to tune in to PBS or c-span to get in depth coverage of historical topics or, heaven forbid, read a biography.
There are several good, no excellent Republican possibilities to run this country with a return to the foundations outlined by Glenn Becks favorite historian. We don't need no stinkin 'facts we have David Barton. Give us a Rick Santorum and just see what happens to that mouldy old wall. Give us a Rick Perry and the wall is lost to him forever ! Give us a Michelle Bachmann and where there was a wall there will be a ditch ! Nothin' but net !
And it was one of good Christians that tricked the media and Congress and the people into going to war with Iraq under a threat of a mushroom cloud. We don't need anyone else to be president of the U.S. who has an average mind and claims to take directions from a God. That Republicans' mistake has been extremely costly to the nation in many ways to say nothing about the destruction and deaths of the Iraqi people. Texas gave us G.W.; please, don't give the White House to another.
Don't hand the American people that line ... Rick Santorum found those WMD's !
I would respect evangelicals more if their idea of freedom did not involve imposing their beliefs on me.
"Democrats are trying to strip God out the country". Who are you kidding? I am a voter and will tell you very loud and clear, I will not tolerate to mix church with state! It is ignorant, irresponsible, dangerous, and DEADLY. People die by the hundreds everyday becuase of it!
There is a reason why many of us Americans have spent years in the Middle East protecting innocent women and children in combat from people just like you. I repeat; As long as I am physically and mentally capable of casting my vote no religion will be allowed to interfere with politics. I almost lost my own life in combat because of it.
They recognize and fault religious extremism in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the middle-east as being irrational and as blindly leading those people to support actions and positions causing severe problems ... yet they don't question their own blind extremism and the obvious aggressive exploitation of their own beliefs. Any extremism has to be irrational and result in negatives, if for no other reason then it refuses to allow other thinking than its own. While all religions are intended to recognize, honor and worship God, they still are the result of man's thinking, man's development of doctrine and man's critical judgement – the "word of God" is by man's interpretation and that is proven beyond doubt just by all of the different (quality) interpretations. To fault Osama bin Laden and to blindly follow Christian clergy advocating total submissiveness and loyalty to any political favoritism, is not only completely illogical but also self-defeating, as Bush-Cheney and the Republican / Tea Party has consistently proven. To be conned and manipulated by the appeals to "Christian values" and then to be given only minimal positives towards those values while aggressively pursuing the interests of only "the few" (1%) and actively creating many negatives, even totally non-Christian actions, is ludicrous and is being blinded by limited values and ignoring the total picture. This fallacy in thinking has been clearly and completely proven but people have to rationally break their being controlled by their religious beliefs, not to surrender their values but to reject being used and abused by them.
I'd also add: what is christian value? Is it for the common good of humanity, or is it just to limit other's freedom and liberty?
It is disappointing to see so many Americans maligning others, not for their politics, but for their religion. Anti-Mormonism is especially prevalent, and I can’t help but feel that those who dishonestly mock the faith of another (left and right) are more concerned about their special interest than they are for the Country. Mormons are among the most Christian, charitable, open-minded, and educated Americans.
America was founded by religious people but there is space for all, including the non-believers.
Thanks for the help, little Help ; ) (seriously, I appreciate the tip, but I wasn't trying to use any of those words. I decided to try again, since one of my comments made it.)
Thanks for the help, little Help ; ) (seriously, I appreciate the tip, but I wasn't trying to use any of those words.
Joe: let's just make sure you understand. The founding fathers explicitly prohibited the mix of religion and politics. They might be religious. But they were wise enough to know the danger of letting religion mixed with politics.
Evangelical Religion is the Cancer of the Earth
Yea, fix the world, set up the concentration camps!.. wait.. Stalin already tried that... and failed. I know, lets just build bigger concentration camps.. wait.. that'll get expensive.
I know, lets just burn them in ovens.. it's cheap and efficient.
Last century was such a success! Darwin and Marx's century, and its leaders had names like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao. You can believe any way you want to as long as you do not blow up buidlings or chop off people's heads. There is no morality or meaning in the Northeast anymore. Strip God out and you get survival of the fittest in a loveless society usually at some point with horrific consequences.
down with those atheists with their fancy science and logic
LMAO! Good one...
Yeah, bring back Joe Mengele – maybe we can clone a superace. Or like Nuon Chea, who still does not think he has done any wrong, bring back Year Zero and Cheong Ek. Let's bring those good days back.
I lived in Iowa for many years. The evangelicals may be getting a lot of attention but they are still the minority. Most Iowans are reasonable people, leaning more toward the middle.
The Pilgrims escaped England so they could practice their religion without interference from the Church of England, the state-approved way to believe. They were the radical "Democrats" of their era, the social liberals. Today, the evangelical right is nothing more than the state-approved "Church of America". How DARE they even imply that their "values" are better than everyone else's. Sounds like Pharisees to me. Our messiah, a JEWISH carpenter from Bethlehem, taught about God's redeeming love, not intolerance toward others that don't think like you. That sounds like a radical faith to me, about as left-wing radical as one can get. Oh, by the way, the Civil Rights movement was born in churches!!
Low end here. Treble you are right on and where are all the people screaming against religeous intolorence? Stuck on my invisible friend in the sky is more true than yours. Religeon requires a willful suspension of critical thought so why exactly are they not just considered just another group of no nothings going on feelings alone? Remember when "Conservatives" used to make fun of non-thinkers. We all have to live here so why not drop the Belief systems that cause so much misery to the general population and keep them at home where they belong.. Your home not mine.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.