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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. If horses had Gods ...

    Evangelicals are very influential to my decision ... if they support a candidate I know they're the wrong choice.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  2. Bricc

    It never ceases to amaze me how ignorant and bigoted Christian voters can be. First, our society was not founded on Christian values. Read your history and you will learn that most of our founding fathers were not religious and that they were doing the best to protect us from the corruption that occurred in Europe when religion and government were mixed. Separation of church and state is designed to protect us and to keep the government from selecting the "correct" religion. If one travels the world and learns of other religions they will see that there are many "good" religions that simply seek to explain the unexplained and provide foundational principles for life. I find most evangelicals do the exact opposite of what their religion requires. They force their beliefs on others, they are not tolerant of opposing views or other religions, and they want our government to require participation in their religion. My advice = read to understand history and travel to understand people.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • USMCVET

      I agree. Time for a revolution!

      January 1, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  3. GullibleChristians

    Bush is very religious and conservative, but he crashed the market and run.
    I can't believe these stupid SOTB would vote for another fake religious runner again.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  4. Mark Bailey

    It sickens me to see religious fanatics controlling politics. In the US we often sanctimoniously spout off about Muslims and their fanaticism but a just as hideous fundamentalism dominates our county's thinking. Why is it that people have to behave with such stupidity? Even the most cursory glance clearly reveals the idiocy of such beliefs.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • USMCVET

      It's time to start marginalizing and ridiculing them for their moronic beliefs, just like our "federal government" did in in the 1940's – 1950's when the UFO craze was happening.

      January 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  5. NW

    I don't care what evangelicals think, they don't speak for me. I don't believe in their self-righteous garbage.

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

    I am also very religious and a really conservative family man.
    You all gullible christians should vote for me as well!

    January 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  7. government spy

    II don't think the evangelicals get it.

    Having elected officials determining policy based on religious ideals to affect everyone in the country, regardless of those citizens' beliefs is terribly offensive.

    Christians should try looking at it through others' eyes. If you would not accept following laws and policies influenced and put in place by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or any other religion, then it would not be acceptable for your religion to dictate the government of others. You might as well say that you're following the will of the Easter Bunny.

    I don't want you to be forced from practicing your faith. I want you to be free to worship in the way you desire. I just want your way to worship not to interfere with my life in any way.

    That means, if my wife or daughter decides an abortion is the correct course of action, it is not up to you to decide that for them.

    If my son or daughter wishes to marry a person of their same gender, that is not for you to interfere.

    My family's personal choices do not need to be controlled by your religion. This is still America, and we have a right to not be ordered around, just because you believe in something that I do not. If you believe in the Christian God, then you believe that HE gave me free will. Let me and my family practice it. If my decisions mean your God wishes me to go to Hell, so be it, I will suffer those consequences. It is not up to you, or to anyone else to decide my fate.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • SilverHair

      Well said.

      January 1, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • iminim

      Thank you for your comment. I am a Christian and agree with you. I have no desire to live in a theocracy, even in a "Christian" theocracy. Since Christ actively shunned earthly power, I'm not even sure how people who say they follow Christ's teachings can justify their attempts to control our govenment or impose their personal interpretatation of Christian scriptures on others.

      January 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  8. PoliticaWoman

    Doesn it strike anyone else out there as odd that only Iowa gets all the attention when it comes to voiting? Why is this? I dont know anything about Iowa yet I am interested in the issues too!

    January 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • uhmmm

      CNN put up an article in the politics section yesterday. It's because it is the first state, and they don't even have delegates. It's a media game, it sets the groundwork for the rest I guess. Other then it being a media game though it isn't of any significance whatsoever lol.

      January 1, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  9. iBELIEVE

    No offense, but...
    If you're an evangelical, (or at least claim to be), how could you vote for Romney? o_O?

    January 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • uhmmm

      Because he will make gay marriage illegal as well as abortion. And of course, that is the most important thing that this country has to worry about. :\

      January 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • J

      Yes, Romney was once pro choice, then flip flopped to pro life when running for Prez

      January 1, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • iBELIEVE

      no, I'm talking about "mormonism"...

      I say everyone should vote however you want.... but when you start going out of your way to *identify* yourself as a person of Faith and go off talking about how your Faith is the #1 factor for your vote, then you vote for someone who is part of (as some say) a cult strain of Christianity.... a lot of their beliefs are blasphemous to "evangelical beliefs" (no offense to mormons)
      but all that makes absolutely no sense, matter of fact, it's in direct contradiction of what you, an evangelical, believe and say.

      January 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  10. Brian Richards

    By telling the audience he loves country and family he leaves out God. That is on purpose.

    All Republican evangelicals hate God, they love the anti-christ. This is obvious because of the Republican party — particularly Romney — worships wealth over all other things and therefore exclude themselves from the grace of the Lord. Here is what Jesus had to say about the issue in his Sermon on the Mount:

    "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." — Matthew 6:24.

    Doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room, does it? Essentially, the writer was in a den of the damned.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  11. uhmmm

    This country was founded on slave labor, war, and more war. Not "Christian Values". However if Christian values=war then go ahead and vote Mitt Romney! If you're biggest concern is gay marriage and abortion, you shouldn't be voting. We have a country going to hell, we are probably going to go bankrupt this year, we are definitely going to end up in another war possibly with Iran, which will spark a world war 3 scenario. So if you would rather have gays banned from marriage, and abortion made illegal, then fixing our economy and stopping our massive bloodshed overseas, then do you really believe in god? We need to bring our troops home and get on a balanced budget immediately. Ron Paul 2012!

    January 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  12. Eddie

    Jesus would not be part of this. Only idiot man is capable of this.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  13. Mike

    People talking about god and his plan like they know something......hilarious. Faith is a joke...it goes right along with hope. Means nothing. Some of the worst people have faith......what does it mean? Nothing. Just a bunch of weirdos looking to have a president in their bedroom.....all social issues.....small gov't my but repubs. You want them to tell you what to do just like your pastor does.....get a brain and think for yourselves. Born again....my goodness...where to start....

    January 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Eddie

      The value of the teachings of Jesus lies somewhere in between them and you.

      January 1, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  14. Kate

    If these so called Christains vote for Romney the Mormon they have no clout. When you look at what Mormons believe compared to Cristains, they would be better with Newt Gingrich!

    January 1, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  15. GR Gd Fly

    The primary image on CNN's homepage for this story is a picture of a woman holding a planner. What? Rightwing evangelical extremists are well planned?

    January 1, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  16. Marge

    Of course the religious bloc is powerful. What do you have in Iowa a bunch of mostly white, RELIGIOUS, VOTERS. If we had a state with mostly all one group they would be powerful also. Iowa is not representative of the whole US. And who ever wins there is not going to be the pick of the country. Instead of wasting time and money in Iowa the candidates should be running their campaigns in the rest of the country. The people who live in New York will not vote for the same candidates who Iowa votes for. This FIRST thing gives Iowa attention they might never ever have. New York I think has almost three times Iowas delegates.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Kate

      Iowa means nothing!

      January 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  17. OW

    I just want to point out that the main article, which is the main headline on CNN.com, says, "What do Iowa Evangelicals have so much political clout?" I think the real question is, "why would anyone rely on a news source with such wretched subject/verb agreement?" This is definitely not the first time, CNN...

    January 1, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Kate

      And if you go to Fox, its the Right Radicals.....so who has the truth? NOBODY!

      January 1, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  18. GullibleChristians

    It's so sad that America is still a Nation of stupid Cults.
    America is bankrupt, thanks to these gullible voters.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  19. Patricksday

    The unfortunate thing about "Evangelical Christians" they have a blind ear when it comes to the Poor, and only get fired up about Abortion, yet FAIL to care for the child once born. They have no problem with building corporate Prisons to warehouse these "saved lives" and no problem with the Death Penalty. Thou Shall Not Kill, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Its Corporate Religion at its Ugliest. Leading the ignorant around on a leash with a Bible and a Flag. So Silly.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  20. BL

    It's a beautiful irony, that the extremist, fundamentalists that help control the GOP, will end up with Romney, a devotee of one of the most bizarre, pseudo Christian cults on the planet.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • tensor

      BL, you have my vote. 😉

      January 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
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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.