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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. jamest297

    Come on people.

    In 2008 I think we all saw just how much influence the Iowa evangelicals have when they graced Huckabee with their votes. He's a loser and they are losers if they persist in trying to base their vote on a candidate's middle ages religious view of the world. America will never elect someone president who believes the earth is less than 6000 years old.

    January 1, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Shawn Irwin

      I would not poo poo the power of the religio-nazis . . . you really only need to remember how they helped get George Bush elected to see the threat.

      January 1, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  2. +

    Get over your bigotry, goofball.

    January 1, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Newyorker

      +? Seriously? I suppose you think it looks like a cross, huh? However, in the interest of full disclosure I would suggest that you use a minus sign instead of a '+', since your posts are in fact 'negative'.

      January 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  3. Ben

    Evangelical Christians are right up there with radical Muslims in my book. If they had their way we would live in a theocracy where their morals were forced upon the rest of us.

    January 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • SoWhat

      Republican politician: Vote for me, I hate abortion, I hate gays more military. Here they come like zombies...brains....

      January 1, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  4. Reality

    Only for those "blind" Iowans:

    “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today
    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

    It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

    January 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Mark Taylor

      A quote from Freeman Dyson – one of the great physicist of the 20th and 21st centuries:

      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

      And noted theoretical physicist Brian Greene as a healthy reminder:

      The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers.'

      January 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  5. hal9thou

    The poor evangelicals are so shat upon by society. When will the madness end??? Let them LIVE!

    January 1, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Newyorker

      A list of'minority' groups in America who are regularly shat upon, include, but are not limited to: the homeless, gays, blacks, hispanics, American Muslims, atheists. Evangelicals are most certainly not on this list.

      January 1, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • SoWhat

      Notice how these evangelicals are all white?

      January 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Ben

      Evangelicals are the ones doing the shatting

      January 1, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  6. Newyorker

    I wonder why so many of you still follow politics. Don't you know the end of days will be in December, 2012? Time to disengage and wait for the sky to fall. Happy last year on earth everyone, and good riddance to all the soon to be raptured evangelicals, sorry, I mean 'good luck'!

    January 1, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  7. Shawn Irwin

    Since the churches insist on participating in the political process, they should be taxed. It is unfair to everyone else to have one group that can avoid taxes and still participate in the political process. As we all know, money buys politicians, and anyone who believes that none of it is church money is living in a dream world.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • jmsbois

      Absolutely. Churches make billions, pay no taxes, and try to influence the political process. I've had enough of the American Taliban.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Bob

      Sounds good. You might want to note that the African American churches are used most for political purposes, so I guess you are ok with them giving up their tax free status first?

      January 1, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • hal9thou

      I live in Charlotte, NC, and there is a Mega McChurch on almost every corner. The waste of money is incredible. Why people give their incomes to these charlatans is beyond me. Doesn't have anything to do with Jesus, that is for sure. Tax 'em hard.

      January 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • SCAtheist

      I especially love those tax free waterfront "camps", i.e. tax free vacations on everybody else's dime.

      January 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  8. cosmo

    I feel much better having a Mormon as president. Rather than the lying Muslim we have in there now.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Missy76

      TROLL

      January 1, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Newyorker

      Lying Muslim? So, all politicians are honest, except the one you suspect of being a Muslim. You are one seriously deluded puppy.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Renae

      He's not muslim & by the way that sounds judgemental.Maybe you should do some research on the mormon's first. They haven't lived sinless life.Most opinions like yours is based on him being black & ignorance.Attending church won't get you into heaven.A lot of people use religion in politics & are just as sinful once they are in office anyway & totally forget who God is

      January 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • spottedsharks

      I'm voting for the president who got bin Laden.

      January 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  9. Newyorker

    I freaking hate evangelicals. They are the reason American politics is so messed up. I wish they would all just die.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • MIkeH

      ha ha ha, nice. You may want to get an education before spouting about hate on the internet.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Newyorker

      @MikeH: Good one. As if evangelicals would actually understand the point of education.

      January 1, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  10. Missy76

    So Darwin started this followed up by the Scopes Monkey Trial? Evangelicals right wing literalist have taken over American religion with their misinformation in regard to interpretation of the Bible. I think Televangelist are where the problem started and continues to come form. They need to TAX the churches so they can pay their fair share. This would stop them from stealing from the average American.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • SCAtheist

      They don't pay any attention to what's in the Bible.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  11. xnay

    Surprised the left wing bigots could step away from their video games long enough to comment

    January 1, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • SCAtheist

      Come back when you have some content.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Missy76

      and your paid by the Republican Party and Koch brothers to spew stupidity?

      January 1, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  12. gerald

    Obama Welcomes in the New Year by Quietly Signing Bill Allowing Indefinite Detention Of Americans...

    January 1, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  13. MaryAnn

    What one person or group of people believe is not the same as the next person. This is a big country with people from all walks of life. Leave religion out of politics. Otherwise, one group is forcing their beliefs on others. That's not America.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • SCAtheist

      Sorry, it's totally America.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Missy76

      Unfortunately these not jobs are controlling many elections and they need to be taxed.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  14. George

    Another reason the political system is this country is broken. A Republican in California or New York or Illinois or Pennsylvania will have their nominee chosen by a handful of people in a rural state whose priorities are skewed. And even if a rational, moderate candidate with national appeal wins the nomination., he'll have to choose a running mate who appeals to this base. Hot button social issues are losers on the national stage.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Bob

      The Democratic party is no different, they just pander do a different core.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  15. EddyL

    Religious fanatics are all the same: fanatics.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • MIkeH

      umm, just for clarity, ALL fanatics are fanatics...Duh

      January 1, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Shawn Irwin

      Oh, but the REAL god is the flying spagetti monster! I saw him once at a food fight, I swear! I immediately decided that I would dedicate my life to him! I now pray to him twice a day and would give my life for him! He is the only true god in the whole wide world, amoungst all the many false gods!

      January 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  16. Deep North

    IF this isn't bending the rules of your faith to suit an agenda, then what it? "Other Iowa evangelicals echoed that view, calling Romney a Christian"

    January 1, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • SCAtheist

      Really, and they figured that out during a Bible study? Hypocrites.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  17. Observer1

    Isn't the arguement that "My Imaginary friend is better/smarter/stronger than yours" which separates the various religions? Oh, and didn't the American founding fathers say something about separating church and state ??

    January 1, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  18. RayJacksonMS

    Iowa, making Mississippi look less ignorant and bigoted one vote at a time.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • +

      Look in a mirror lately, Raymond?

      January 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  19. Mark Taylor

    It definitely isn't Web CNN's proof reading. From home page "What to Iowa's Evangelicals yeild so much political clout" ...Say what?

    January 1, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Eduardo Boro

      I noticed the same thing when I first accessed the home page. I was going to comment on it but you beat me to it.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  20. SCAtheist

    Last I checked God was pro-abortion:

    Numbers 31:17 (Moses) “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every women that hath known man by lying with him.” In other words: women that might be pregnant, which clearly is abortion for the fetus.

    January 1, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • +

      Happy New Year.

      Now get a brain.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • RichChris

      You got it all wrong...read the whole context:
      15 And Moses said to them, "Have you spared all the women?
      16 "Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD. (Numbers 31:15-16)
      This wasn't abortion but genocide.

      January 1, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • +

      You get a brain, too, Richie.

      January 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • UncleM

      "This wasn't abortion but genocide"

      So that's alright then?

      January 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • +

      All I'm seeing here is pseudo-intellectualism masked as bigotry, Unc....

      January 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
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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.