Iowa evangelicals play kingmakers in crucial Republican presidential caucus

Sat, Dec 10, 2011, 00:00

RARELY HAS such a small minority played so important a role in the fate of a nation.

Six hundred thousand registered Republicans will be eligible to vote in the January 3rd caucuses where, for the first time, US conservatives will say who they want to represent them in next year’s presidential election.

But turnout in the caucuses is at best 20 per cent. Of the 120,000 Republicans expected to vote, 60 per cent – some 72,000 – are evangelical Christians, who put a higher priority on banning abortion and same-sex marriage than all other issues.

These few tens of thousands of Iowan voters have put the fear of God into Republican candidates. “Religious conservatives in Iowa are the tail that wags the dog,” says Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines.

Opinion polls indicate that jobs and the economy, not social issues, are voters’ top priority. But Iowa’s born-again Christians are more motivated than the Republicans they dismiss as “Christians in name only”.

Every week, Jenifer Bowen, director of Iowa Right to Life, prays with two colleagues outside an abortion clinic in Urbandale. “Jobs and the economy are important,” she says. “But here in the midwest, it’s the social issues that drive people out in sub-zero weather to participate in the caucuses. The economy is not the fire in the belly.”

The two Mormon candidates, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, know they don’t stand a chance with evangelical voters and have mostly given Iowa a miss. Other candidates delivered weepy testimonials about the importance of God in their lives at a forum in a Des Moines church on November 19, and make endless pronouncements about the sanctity of life and God’s design for marriage.

In a direct play to Iowa’s evangelicals, Texas governor Rick Perry this week broadcast an advertisement in which he promised to “end Obama’s war on religion”. At the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum on December 7th, the candidates competed for the title of Israel’s best friend, with a “double whammy” in mind: the significant evangelical vote in Iowa and South Carolina, which will hold its primary on January 21st, and the Jewish vote in the Florida primary on January 31st.

“Israel is very important to us,” explains Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, an evangelical lobby group.

“For us it goes back to the scriptures. God was very clear in Genesis: “Those who bless you, I will bless. And those who curse you, I will curse.”

Vander Plaats has three times stood for state office. “He didn’t win, so he decided to become kingmaker,” says Prof Goldford.

Another evangelical group, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, also wields considerable influence.

It was Vander Plaats who organised the November 19th forum for 3,000 people at the First Federated Church. He works from an unassuming office, wedged between a dry cleaners and a Mexican restaurant, on the outskirts of Des Moines. He personally vets Republican candidates. “We sit down like this, one on one, and we do it with all the candidates,” he says.

Iowan evangelicals have repeatedly demonstrated their power. In 2008, they crowned Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, winner of the Republican caucus.

“We have a number of ultra-conservative, church-oriented Republicans,” says Dave Braga, editor of The Madisonianweekly newspaper. “Most of the time you don’t notice them, but if there’s something they feel strongly about, they show up big. A few years ago, we voted on whether Madison County could have a casino. Everybody thought it would pass. That thing got beat pretty bad.”

In another demonstration of force, evangelicals defeated three state supreme court judges who in April 2009 voided Iowa’s Defence of Marriage Act, which banned gay marriage. “In August 2010 we started a campaign to oust those three judges,” Vander Plaats recalls. “Everyone said ‘It can’t be done. It’s never happened’. Well, in the November 2010 election we defeated all three by 53 per cent. Iowans understand common sense.”

Now Vander Plaats is going after Mitt Romney. “Eighty per cent of Republicans are committed to finding an alternative to Romney (until recently the frontrunner), because they cannot trust him. He has been passionately on both sides of all issues,” Vander Plaats says.

Four candidates meet his conditions for endorsement: Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.

Though he hasn’t pronounced himself officially, Vander Plaats is likely to choose Gingrich. “His baggage has got baggage,” the Christian leader admits: three marriages and evidence of conflict of interest and influence peddling running from Gingrich’s stint as speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990s to the present.

Yet Vander Plaats sees Gingrich as a “high IQ” at a time of national and world crisis. “There is more willingness to overlook baggage from the past and go with the one who’s prepared to lead,” he says.

Fearing new revelations, the evangelicals have Gingrich on probation. “The baggage that I know, even though it concerns me, if I know he has moved beyond it I can deal with it,” Vander Plaats says.

Evangelicals are divided between purists and compromisers. Jenifer Bowen of Right to Life says divisions between advocates of a total ban on abortion and those who accept incremental restrictions are more bitter than those between pro- and anti-abortion groups. Evangelical leaders tried, but failed, to agree on a joint endorsement for a Republican nominee.

Pastor James Snow of the Heritage Assembly prefers Rick Perry to Newt Gingrich. “I do believe in redemption, and I believe people can change,” he says of Gingrich’s past. “But I’d like to see some evidence.”

Snow fears the IRS (US tax authorities) will persecute his flock of 300 if he speaks out on politics. He nonetheless says President Obama’s repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military “has put soldiers in more danger than ever before”. He believes Obama is a Muslim, and that the Koran is a “message of hate”.

Iowa’s Christian fundamentalists say it is appropriate for them to dictate government policies and legislation, but they also feel persecuted. “I cannot go into a grocery store without the danger of conflict, because people know what stand we take,” says Snow. “It’s verbal, like, ‘Hey you, Pastor. I’d rather go to hell than go to your church’.”

“I can walk into a room and say I am from Iowa Right to Life and immediately there is seething in their eyes,” Bowen says of her opponents. “We are not communicating with each other.”

Tension between evangelicals and their secular compatriots touches the very definition of America. Snow says secularism is evil: “It’s a philosophy that exalts humanity above divinity, that puts humans above the rules of God.”

The separation of church and state “was to protect the church from the state. It was never meant to protect the state from church influence,” says Vander Plaats.

Both men, like the Republican candidates, dwell on the religious beliefs of the founding fathers. Nonsense, says Prof Goldford, who is about to publish a book entitled The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics and the First Amendment.

“Even if the founding fathers were all Christian,” says Goldford, “they were also all white and all male. Does that make us a white nation? Does that make us a male nation?”