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December 31st, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Why do Iowa’s evangelicals wield so much political clout?

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Iowa • Michele Bachmann • Mike Huckabee • Mitt Romney • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Rick Santorum

soundoff (837 Responses)
  1. puresmokey

    Some of those quotes by these people are just plain scary. Scary in their ignorance, that is. "Your religion is your personality." And could we please put to rest this cliche that America was founded on Christian values? Need we remind these people that, even if that were true, those "values" didn't protect blacks, women and Indians. These Christian values were never so high that it stopped us from enslaving people in cotton fields, denying votes or stealing land. Yeah, that's what Jesus would have done.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Independent Mind

      Totally agree. And how about this one? During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, I watched as perfectly sane people near and dear to me turned warmonger. These were good kind people, mild mannered and tolerant, and some claimed to be Christians. All of a sudden it was kill, kill, kill! Onward Christian soldiers! It would seem there are truely no such things as Christian values. Such values are espoused only when convenient and in a self-serving way.

      January 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • puresmokey

      Yeah, some people surprised me too. I'm Canadian and have relatives and friends in the U.S. One in particular was outraged that my country opted out of joining the war in Iraq. When I defended my country's decision not to join the "coalition of the willing" he vowed never to speak to me again. Haven't heard from him since. Otherwise, he was a nice guy.

      January 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Independent Mind

      I am sorry to hear that. Just know that you were on the right side of history and he was not. And you didn't need a 1000 year old book to tell you that. Perhaps time will heal the divide between you and your friend. Regards.

      January 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • georgex

      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 what 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.

      January 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  2. S. Vivianne

    How is the Bible a faery book? I understand it to be a collection of Middle Eastern myths, not a Fey collection of the Tuatha de Danaan.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Rationalintn

    When people say they vote for Republicans because they are against abortion, I have to laugh. Over the last 40 years when have Republicans in congress introduced legislation to outlaw abortion???

    I am against abortion too, which is why I would never get one. But I don't believe I have the right to tell someone else they can't get one, especially when our laws say they can.

    I also wouldn't marry someone who shares my gender, because I'm not gay. But I don't have the right to tell someone else they can't. And please spare me the argument that it will lead to humans marrying animals or children. Animals and children are not consenting adults.

    All I hear from evangelicals is "everyone must believe as I believe and do as I do". They never see themselves as a threat to what this nation was founded on – religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In regards to religion, these people share the same values as the Taliban and the leaders of Iran. Their influence on our elections is disturbing.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • pat carr

      Well said. And these same people also claim that they are being "persecuted" here which is incredible absurd

      January 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Justus in TN

      I am so, so relieved to see someone write a post saying almost exactly word for word what I want to say. Thank you very much. I'm a tad bit more assured there are rationalists in this country who actually understand how our government is designed.

      January 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  4. Carol

    It isn't religion that is bad, it is the interpretation of religion, and in these times, how it steers the laws, and the politicians to work against people of different religions and beliefs. When religion causes hurt for people as it does the GLBT, and their families, and friends, how good is that interpretation of their Christian Evangelical beliefs? When Evangelical beliefs go against the vote of this country for RoevsWade, and this causes murder of doctors, and nurses how good then is this conservative belief? When a womans body is no longer her own, as in Taliban countries, and here in the U.S., if some of these Republican contenders have their way, how good is their religion's way of interpretation? Because of these sad things going on in our America, Religion indeed should be seperate from our government for all to prosper and live lives with peace.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Phil

      Amen! Thank you Carol for your cogent, civil & objective coments.

      January 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  5. Matthew Weaver

    Ignore the extremist anti-mormon bigots passing as evangelicals. Heck, what are they going to do, vote for Obama over Romney?!

    January 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Independent Mind

      You raise a great point. I think most people go to the ballet box and cast their vote much the same way they go to a football game and root for their home team. They wear political hats, place stickers on their bumpers, and make jokes about the other party. It's an US-versus-THEM mentality, and a blow to the ego when you find yourself on the losing side of an issue. Perhaps people use their religion as another means to promote their polical party rather than the other way around.

      January 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  6. Pat

    Evangelicals are why this country went into a recession, via George Bush.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  7. Craig from Pa.

    Keep religion out of politics...period....

    January 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Rationalintn

      Amen Craig, I could not agree more.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  8. Shawn Irwin

    You would think, given that statistics have proven that the more educated one is, the less likely one is to be religious, that the sheep would give it a second thought before they opened their arrogant mouths, but then again, they obviously have never read Machiavelli:

    "Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite." – Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince)

    They actually buy into it that these politicians are truly devoted to religion . . . . "family values", that is a real hoot! Wake up sheep brain.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  9. william

    I think we should allow all 50 states to enter a lottery, with years for primaries doled out on a random basis for the next 50 years. Why on Earth do we allow Iowa, New Hampshire, and the others first crack every year? As if their population were more able to vet the candidates than any others. Why not Tennessee, or New mexico, or Washington.... any of the others?

    January 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Carol

      Good idea. Iowa is no better than any other state.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • SPLAT!~

      As an Iowan I say no one should go first. One national primary on the same day!~

      January 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  10. Peter Mack

    "which many Christians consider a sin"!!? I've never met a Christian that doesn't believe marital infidelity is a sin. Seriously CNN? Your Religion Editor would make this statement? Perhaps he should spend a little more time understanding Christianity.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Because you have, of course, met EVERY Christian, right? How do you know what 'many' or 'most' Christians believe? How many have you met? Fifty? Two hundred? Did you ask every one of them whether they thought infidelity was a sin?

      Glad you're not coming to my parties.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Da King

      You never met a Christian.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I've certainly never met one as stupid as you, Da.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  11. bigfoot

    American Christians are EASILY the most hypocritical people on the planet.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  12. LH

    It is slowly getting better. People are starting to think for themselves rather than follow along like little robots. Check out the history of religion back 10,000 years then tell me you still believe all the modern religions the same. OH–I forgot history only started on the first day of the bible. What a farce!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 1, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  13. tony

    The one key identifying characteristic of an evangelical, is their universal passion for trying to stick their noses into what goes on under underneath my wife's skirt.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • bigfoot

      Do you mean to say there is something going on down there while it is static(at rest)?

      January 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Carol

      There is so much going on under their own skirts, and pants they think everyone else is like themselves.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • mjcc1987

      Actually, I think the universal quality that unties evangelicals are hate, fear, and massive inferiority complex. This leads to an intense desire to control and judge others. Not themselves mind you, because god always instantly forgives them, but the rest of "us".

      Alas, all monotheistic religions are very similar. The evangelical right I suspect are actually jealous of the rigid doctrinal muslim states that have fused hate and fear with state and beliefs. What they see in the Taliban, is what they deeply desire here for America. Ol' frothy mix waxes eloquently on his fears and hate.

      January 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  14. alan

    The religious extremists have money to give if you spew out some religious hatred against gays or other religions and the money flows in. It works the same for bankers and other assorted criminals. Corrupt minds think alike.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  15. georgex

    And why does Iowa have so much attention for selecting a president when it has the population near what Lafayette, Louisiana does? But I guess when you live out in the country with neighbors not too close driving to church is a way to be in contact with others.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • LH

      I know, I live in Iowa and wish it would go away. Its all about $$$$$$$$$$$$$$–we like money in Iowa too.

      January 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  16. pchelp, Juneau, AK

    Since it's obvious that the Iowa caucuses don't represent a majority of Americans-or even a majority of Republicans, why does the media make such a fuss about them. They're just another bunch of wingnuts. (As far as that does, why does Iowa still use a system that's so obviously broken?)

    January 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • SPLAT!~

      You elected Xtian nutjob Sara Palin as Gov. and your critical of Iowa?

      January 1, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • mjcc1987

      SPLAT!~

      Please be accurate. It's half-time Gov

      January 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  17. crappyname

    If Evangelicals are going to use their influence in politics then they should have their tax-exempt status revoked and be classified as a political lobby group, period.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  18. sfmitch

    Eve provided plenty to eat for Adam. Too bad about the hair in it.

    January 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • gravis

      Didn't they have razors back then?

      January 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  19. LouAZ

    What a nice politically correct article foe New Years Day.
    Doesn't anyone recognize chistian sharia law when they see it ?
    Onward christian soldiers !

    January 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  20. gravis

    I bought a couple bibles at an auction and I can tell you my parrots simply LOVE that thin paper at the bottom of their cage. And it's so easy to replace!

    January 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Secular Bear

      Gravis – thanks for the laugh

      January 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
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About this blog

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.