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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. SCAtheist

    This country has so much prejudice it's pathetic. These morons will never vote for an intelligent rational candidate.

    January 1, 2012 at 5:45 am |
    • Jesus

      What a sad outcome if any of these candidates (those who bow down to the mindless evangelicals) win the Presidency.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  2. hey guess what

    looks like cnn is filtering responses?

    January 1, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • Mirosal

      it has to do with certain letter combinations. Like ti't in Consti'tution .. va'g as in salva'ge .. just learn to break up words like cu'm or co'ck or bullsh!t .. then you'll ba able to post

      January 1, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • hey guess what

      the "separation" of church/state isn't in the const itution it's an idealistic interpretation, neither is absolute right to vote or the absolute right to privacy for that matter

      January 1, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • hey guess what

      yep looks like my post worked with the ' between const'itution haha good call

      January 1, 2012 at 5:47 am |
    • Mirosal

      the right to vote IS guaranteed (unless you're a felon or other extreme circu'mstance).. the 19th Amendment gave women that right in 1920 .. the 27th Amendment lowered the age from 21 to 18. Some states will allow a 17 yr old to vote in a primary or caucus if he/she will be 18 by the general election. Oh, and just how many times is 'god' mentioned in the Consti'tution? Even the oath of the President does NOT include the words "so help me god" .. Legend says that it was started by Washington in 1789.

      January 1, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  3. mike mullin

    Tony Perkins is a frequent guest on cnn this is a disgrace. The respected Southern Poverty Law Centre which gathers intelligence on all the fruitcake right wing militias,neo nazis religious nuts abortion bombers etc has designated The Familt Research Council a Right wing Hate group. if cnn and other outlets have him on they should disclaim and announce he is head of a designated hate group. Religious fundamentalism as seen in US or islamic fundamentalism is equally as dangerous.

    January 1, 2012 at 5:37 am |
  4. Michael

    Religion is great for stupid people. Only in religion can complete illiterate idiots get a following to believe their every word and do their bidding. Look at the illiterate Joseph Smith and his completely retarded teachings about native americans being Jews at one point, or magic undergarments to protect you, invisible gold tablets that only he could read, even though he couldn't read... LMFAO

    January 1, 2012 at 5:35 am |
    • jameser

      Joseph smiths teachings are ridiculous and absurd, but, he was far from illiterate. Like ALL public religious figures, "the boy prophet" was a gifted orator, a master manipulator, and had an unquenchable thirst for power.

      January 1, 2012 at 5:47 am |
    • Jesus

      You may want to read "Nobody Knows My History" by UCLA Prof Fawn Brodie....the bio of Joeseph Smith. How any person with a room temperature I.Q. could ever be a Mormon is a mystery to me. The so-called belivers (like Romney) are in it for social and business contacts.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  5. JT

    Yes the evangelicals in Iowa have to much power. They are so far to the right, they nominate a seemingly unelectable candidate and inadvertently push the left's agenda in the long run.

    January 1, 2012 at 5:22 am |
  6. American Christian

    I am a lifelong Christian. I will leave it to others to determine how devout. These Iowans are not evangelicals. They are just right wing Christians. Evangelicals wish to spread the positive Word of Jesus. These people do everything to demean the Word.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:55 am |
    • mike mullin

      Tony perkins head of family research council makes numerous appearances on cnn which is a travesty. The family research council has been designated a hate group by the respected Southern Poverty Law centre which gathers intelligence on all fruitcake right wing militias,neo nazi groups etc. The fact that cnn or any other media outlet gives perkins a platform is disgraceful Religious fundamentalism whether the so called christian right or islamic fundamentalism is equally dangerous. Whenever cnn has Perkins on there should be a disclaimer that he heads a designated hate group otherwise cnn is hypocritical.

      January 1, 2012 at 5:29 am |
    • Mirosal

      Wasn't Tony Perkins in "Psycho"? (cue violin screech and running shower) .. 🙂 I guess his name DOES fit, doesn't it?

      January 1, 2012 at 5:44 am |
  7. sorry Dan

    tl;dr

    January 1, 2012 at 4:51 am |
    • Petros

      ts;dr
      (s: stupid)

      January 1, 2012 at 5:40 am |
    • Taiping

      Yeah, it is a stupid article, isn't it? Who cares about a bunch of idiots and what percentage of idiots freak out over some other idiots? I don't need a bunch of statistics to see these people are insane and have no morals worth the name.
      If they had political clout, they'd have their own candidate and they don't because they all suck.

      January 1, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  8. opinion001

    wow, 1:45am(pacific time) i come to check to see new years celebration. Positive news, and this is what you guys have as a header. Really? never looking to show good things, only "pop" news. CNN SUCKS. STAYING AWAY.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:48 am |
  9. augustghost

    CNN STOP pushing Iowa in our faces every day...nobody cares what farmer joe in Iowa thinks....or how he is going to vote

    January 1, 2012 at 4:48 am |
  10. bluemax77

    For a country with supposedly separation of church and state, I‘ve never seen so much religious interference in politics in my life…

    January 1, 2012 at 4:47 am |
    • hey guess what

      ?

      January 1, 2012 at 5:36 am |
  11. Mike Jo

    The Iowa Caucus is a joke......I would care less about the evangelical vote, really who cares about religion in a time of national financial crisis. Care about the matters, care about the issues, pick your guy or gal and live with it. Iowa voters are nothing on the national scene, what do they carry 6 votes nationally? I really don't understand the strategy to win Iowa, if Pat Roberston does well there so be it, ...I'd say good job Pat. Pat spent $3 million bucks to finish second in a state he probably should have won, the rest of the nation puts Pat Roberson in 8th place behind everyone else...that was a joke, the rest of the nation wants someone who will but his partisan beliefs behind them and speak from the heart. Obama will be back in office in 2o12, the republicans are a joke. Obama will have a 40 percent rate, and win back the seat....none of these jokers will win the eleciton in nov.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • Mike Jo

      I understand Pat Roberson is NOT running, but look at this class of clowns in the GOP running...Pat may still have a fighting chance if he enters...is he still alive. I'd just start in New Hamshire, Northeast presence and closer to South Carolina; I never understood why the political climate that effects 400 million people starts in a state that has 1 million mammals including cattle and goats.

      January 1, 2012 at 4:52 am |
  12. What IF

    "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."

    Ah, the good old days...

    How many Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggarts, Ted Haggards, Eddie Longs, and cuckoos like Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, candidates who claim that "God" *told* them to run for president and other such nonsense will it take to get back to those laughingstock times? I'm there. How about you?

    January 1, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • Mark Taylor

      Freeman Dyson – one of the 20th Century's greatest physicists. wiki him:

      Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect. Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  13. Zoundsman

    "Share the same values." Oh like what? Does that mean millions of others are mass murderers, rapists, etc.?
    Sounds like a mindless catch-all phrase. Attention: There are countless decent people from other religions or
    none at all that are less greedy, self-righteous, hypocritical, etc. than those that spout that silly slogan. Good luck
    in the afterlife, meanwhile, on this planet, quit being an exclusive girl scout troop.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  14. xpxpxp

    They yield so much "clout" because politicians have realized how easy it is to pander to them and their religion and get votes. So yes, your religion is the reason, but it's because you are easily manipulated. And the Democrats aren't trying to "strip God out", 39 guys back in 1787 did that.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  15. Teach Evolution in Church

    I just had a funny thought. Romney has said again and again that Corporations are People. So if we apply same retarded religious ideology to those corporations, we should have following regulations:

    – One corporation merging with another corporation will be like Gay Marriage, therefore banned
    – A company closing one of it's manufacturing facility or office would be like Abortion, therefore banned
    – A company buying another company from a different field (e.g. electrical company like GE buying a cable company like NBC) will be like having intercourse with an animal of a different species, therefore banned.
    – If a product of a company, say a pharmaceutical company kills someone, that company will be shut down for ever.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • lol

      lol

      January 1, 2012 at 4:52 am |
    • John

      It does sort of make them look, well even more, like hypocrites doesn't it. Then again when has extremism under the guise of religion ever cared about being logically consistent? It's why no one with sense bothers to argue with them anymore – you can't reason with someone who is absolutely convinced they're right because they think a "higher power" told them so.

      January 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  16. templescroll

    eeewwwhhh, thumb-ring on an Evangelical, yuck! Like a pinky-ring on a stud...kinda flirtatious but mostly sleazy.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:28 am |
  17. Justin H

    The founding fathers must be rolling in their graves with the extent to which religion has become a campaign issue. Regardless of whether you believe the US was founded as a Christian or secular nation, it's clear that the founding fathers wanted religion and government to be kept separate.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:25 am |
    • Mirosal

      They did ... please read Article Six (NOT Amendment 6) of the US Consti'tution and tell me what it says.

      January 1, 2012 at 4:51 am |
    • Justin H

      You mean the part about no religious test ever being required for a position of trust under the United States? I am very much aware of that.

      January 1, 2012 at 5:26 am |
    • Mirosal

      You and I are well aware of it, but apparently

      January 1, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • Mirosal

      You and I might be very well aware of that fact, but not the idiots who want to run our country. Don't you think it would be a good idea if these 'primates' actually knew the laws of the land that the Executive Branch is supposed to enforce?

      January 1, 2012 at 5:33 am |
  18. Grammar Nazi

    My name is Tim Pawlenty and I'm running for Vice President of the United States of America!

    January 1, 2012 at 4:15 am |
  19. Vynn, Milton WA

    Let's put it this way...I used to live in Iowa (Davenport). Evangelicals are one of the reasons I left. I'm an atheist. And I agree...use of that clout for political reasons should get their non-profit status investigated and pulled if in violation.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:14 am |
  20. Mirosal

    Sorry, but if ANY 'evangelical' uses his/her clout as a said 'minister' to lobby or influence ANY politico, I think the IRS should audit not only them, but their church as well, and see how long they keep their salaries, new cars. houses, mistresses' apartments, air-conditioned dog houses, and the like under 'tax-exempt' status. They ar ejust purveyors of mythology and don't deserve such status in the first place.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • Ban Islam

      Mirosal, I totally agree with you

      January 1, 2012 at 4:31 am |
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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.