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. El Kababa

    My prediction is that the good Republicans of Iowa will gather in their caucuses and will then scream obscenities at each other well into the night, each assuming that his candidate is the Anointed One and that opposing Iowans are Satanists.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  2. Rainer Braendlein


    Is family all about life?

    January 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  3. kdawg

    Morality DOES NOT EQUATE TO Religion. Religion has been the root cause of more immoral deeds than any other single cause.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  4. UglyTruth

    Do you have a close personal relationship with your
    make believe imaginary magical friend?

    Socially accepted insanity.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • kdawg

      Yes, we have tea together while we arrange the toys around the table.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  5. Mr Howdy 2 u


    January 1, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • SpringBranch

      Essentially you believe in "innate goodness". How does one become innately ggod in an evolutionist theory?

      January 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Peppermint Patty

      It's about what is good for the group, and survival of the group. Anthroplology 10000-1

      January 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  6. Paul in Louisville

    If they're going to get invovled in politics, then the churches should be taxed. Our forefathers were wary of the church for a reason – they didn't want a theocracy and the majority of Americans today certainly don't.. Unfortunately, most Americans don't vote and these folks vote in droves. Get off your rears and vote, America! I don't know about you, but I don't want my government telling me what I can do with my life. Believe me, that is what these people ultimately want to do. Its scarier than any foreign invasion or terrorist attack.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Jim

      Agree. Churches use their tax free money to try to cram their religion down everyone else's throats.

      Why should I pay for the privilege of them interferring with my right to be free of their religion.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • liz48

      I am a believer and follower of Jesus and believe in taxing "churches." It is a blessing to contribute to society and paying taxes is a spiritually a giving of money which will reap a harvest of influence...

      January 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Arkinsawyer

      "These folks vote in droves....." What turnip truck did you fall off of? Half our Church votes Democrat. Which half of our Church do you intend to tax? What about Black folks and THEIR Churches? I think they may un-officially allied to the Democratic Party. Do you propose to tax them too?

      January 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  7. kdawg

    It's a true irony how FEW Americans actually read their own history, and freely misquote it as if that makes it true. The Founding Fathers left Europe because they felt Religion was too powerful and too involved in politics. Their heads would be spinning if they could see that mess the country is because of Religion now. They probably would get on another boat and sail away to start again. What a Joke. Europe now laughs at the US and it's ridiculous religious nonsense. If you like praying, then go ahead, just don't force me to do so, you will not like the results.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  8. Rainer Braendlein

    As far as I know Pawlenty is a Baptist. Strictly speaking also the Baptists are a cult, because they have a false doctrine about baptism.

    The baptists claim we would get saved by faith and after that we should proclaim our faith at baptism. Furthermore baptism would be an act of obedience.
    The true doctrine: Baptism is much more than a public confession of the personal faith. In fact at baptism our faith gets confirmed by God himself. Baptism is the locus in space and time, where we get officially connected with Christ's death and resurrection. All barriers of space and time disappear at baptism. It is a divine miracle. Because of that it is called a sacrament for times immemorial.

    What is the practical benefit of sacramental baptism?

    After sacramental baptism one can be sure that he is empowered to live as true believer. After baptism faith means obedience and obedience means faith.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • JohnR

      Do you really think that a creator god could care less what the Baptists think about Baptism, let alone JUDGE them on the issue?

      January 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • kdawg

      This is pure nonsense and giberish.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      Happy (faithful) new year!

      It actually doesn't matter, what I think about baptism, but what is the evidence of ecclesiastical history.

      Do your own study and you will figure out that for times immemorial the Christian Church kept the sacramental baptism. Ever and ever the sacramental baptism was regarded as gateway to a Christian life (not heaven).

      The Germans live under the delusion sacramental baptism would be gateway to heaven. That is also a nonsense.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • JohnR

      Actual all Christian baptisms are probably bogus even by "true Christian" standards. There is reason to believe that Jesus's mystical experience when baptized by John the Baptist was nothing unique, as those baptism apparently involved immersion to the point of inducing a near death experience. Once that was abandoned (likely in part because some people had more than just a NEAR death experience), all that was left was an absurd empty ritual, just like the rest of it.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  9. Bob A. Boohi

    Evangelicals are even par with the Taliban, mullahs, myatollas, communists, dictators, radical muslims, radical christians, the pope, radical jews and faciasts. Just sayin!

    January 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Bob A. Boohi


      January 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • kdawg

      Amen to that brother.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • liz48

      You would love Europe...christianity is dying out and Islam is taking over...and you may not have the freedom to spew your hate or venom towards it....remember you get executed for defaming their god!

      January 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  10. Jim

    Personally I do not care what religion our president follows, or whether he follows any religion, as long as he doesn't try to leglislate his beliefs into my life. I'm looking at you George Bush.

    Frankly, Huntsman is the only one of the teaclowns I'd even consider.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  11. tensor

    Why do ANY evangelicals control the U.S. political system? This is not what this country was founded on nor is it how this country operated until 1980. Nothing in our country will work correctly again until we examine the past 30 years of damage these people have done, how this came to be, their continuing deleterious influence on politics/business/media/education/fundamental freedoms – especially for females, and how to fix this.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  12. Jake

    How different are we than those nutjob religous "leaders" in other parts of the world? How are we different when we do exactly what they do, impose their religious beliefs on others, inject religion into politics and government? Not any different than the Taliban, both want their brand of religion to drive their government and it's policies. No religion should ever have a place in government, NONE. Religion is something personal that is between those that believe in it and their God, not in those that would govern our country. And if there is a God, do you think he really cares about such BS trivial nonsense of politics and our form of government? He has much more important tasks like creating universes, solar systems, and so much more beyond our capacity to comprehend. Lets stop with the BS that somehow God is paying attention to our politics and the clown candidates that claim to have dialogue with God. It's just BS or insanity. Pick one.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • RI Jim

      Agree, Jake. I want my political leaders to keep religion OUT of the decision making process. Which is why I will NEVER vote for the likes of Bachman, Santorum, Perry or anyone else that panders to the uber religious right wing. (I discount Gingrich, who, IMO, is merely a hypocrite that claims he is a Catholic, but sure doesn't act like one.)

      January 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  13. jim

    I think I would rather die than live among these corn-fed goobers!

    January 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  14. NJBob

    Evangelicals are proud of their own ignorance. I wouldn't consider voting for any candidate they endorse.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Peppermint Patty

      It's all a tempest in a teapot. The Iowa caucuses ultimately do not reflect or predict the way the vote goes in the the nation. If it did, Mike Huckabee would be president. Obviously the right wing wackos have no idea what they want, as their "favorite" has changed so many times. Their god seems to be fairly capricious, as one week it's one, and the next, someone else. On Friday, the economic releases showed that more Americans are now in the LOWER Middle Class, than in the "middle" Middle Class. Their god seems to have had enough with them, as his "favorite" nation seems to be devolving into a Third World country economically, as it has already proven to be educationally.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  15. fastball

    One day soon...I'd love to see a candidate for President walk up to the podium and say "I'm not a religious guy. I don't have a problem with anyone who is...but I'd rather work on problems I can solve than worry about what God's going to think. You guys want to talk about God, then talk about God in your homes and your churches – but keep him out of the nation's decision-making process".
    There's really not much difference between a fundamentalist Christian government and a fundamentalist Islamic or Jewish government. They are all intolerant of other faiths, and can blame their actions on someone else.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • NJBob


      January 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Jim


      January 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  16. Trixibelle

    Basic math, passion and .... a desire to make sure others behave according to their beliefs.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • JG

      Wow what a bunch of whackjobs.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  17. Rainer Braendlein

    "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."

    I wonder how Christians can support a politican, who is member of a dangerous cult (isn't it true that the Mormons believe that God had se-xual intercourse with Mary, in order to conceive Jesus?).

    I conceive myself to be a Christian and could quite imagine to be on got terms with any Mormon neighbour, whereby I would never deny the truth about Jesus Christ. However, I regard it as problematic, when prominent Christian politicians support politicians, which are member of a cult. By that they indirectly support the cult. It is clear that any politican, who is member of a cult, will promote it as soon as he has assumed power.

    We should not be that naive to believe that any political person just works according to his or her values, which he or she confesses. A Baptist will promote the Baptists and a Mormon will promote the Mormons. The assumption of total neutrality is naive.

    Beside it is possible that both Pawlenty and Romney are hypocrites and just pretend their faith, in order to get votes of naive believers or cult members.

    On thing is sure: Pawlenty and his wife cannot be faithful Christians, because otherwise they would not support a sectarist.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • IceT

      2 problems Rainer .. All religions are cults & being Christain gives no more a rock solid commitment to family than anyone else.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Peppermint Patty

      We all have had enough of Pope Ranier declaring who is and who is not a "true" christian, because as we all know, there is only ONE of those....you guessed it...Rainer....and god gave HIM the job of deciding who is on the list and who if off the list, and so far, he has never said anyone was ON the list except a couple dead people.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @Peppermint Patty

      Thanks for attention.

      Please consider that I judge nobody.

      I am more or less concerned about the true doctrine. I did some study on the doctrine of the Early Church

      and have figured out that it has been forgotten to a large extent today.

      I am sure it is necessary to preserve the true doctrine, in order to live a victorious life.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • jules

      IceT is right Rainier. All religions are cults. I'm sure you refuse to believe that but your inability to see that doesn't mean it isn't true.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • liz48

      I don't take the polls seriously at all...they are manipulated in who they select to poll and how their questions are framed....I doubt any Christian will vote for a mormon....I would vote for Obama any day than Romney...mormonism is pretty dangerous with its rituals, magical underwear etc.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  18. Absolute Realist

    We all know that http://www.GodIsImaginary and he resides in the http://www.EvilBible.com

    January 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  19. Realist

    - http://www.Godisimaginary and he resides in the http://www.EvilBible.com -

    January 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • LookAndSEE

      Do u want a world with out God?
      Be careful what u wish for!
      Hell will break out on this world and u will see what the absence of God is like!
      Remember, it's 2012

      January 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  20. IceT

    What a rediculous combination .. CNN calling themselves a "news" agency while having a religious belief blog AND discussing politics .. wow, someone needs to step back & have a reality check.

    January 1, 2012 at 9:52 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.