Evangelicals Assert Their Role in GOP Primary

Rick Perry being served water by Michele Backmann at the Family Leader forum in Des Moines Iowa.
Rick Perry being served water by Michele Backmann at the Family Leader forum in Des Moines Iowa.

The Iowa caucuses have always been about getting to know presidential candidates. There’s an old saying that voters here can’t support a candidate until they’ve shaken his or her hand three times. But for Republican Ruth Cochran of Lenox, getting to know the candidates means something different.

“I always say that all the candidates, you should look at their backgrounds,” Cochran said. “And it’s a biblical thing: By their fruits ye shall know them. So it’s important to know what they’ve been involved with. You know, so we can make wise decisions.”

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

Wise decisions, that is, based on faith. Getting to know Republican candidates and what they believe in drew roughly 3,000 people from all parts of Iowa last weekend to the First Federated Church in Des Moines for the Thanksgiving Family Forum sponsored by the Family Leader, a Christian group whose endorsement is a necessity for some voters.

Also a necessity, as Chuck Hurley, the vice president of Family Leader, told the crowd Saturday, is a proclamation of faith from candidates.

“As Noah Webster reminded his generation and as we hope to remind this generation,” he said, “it is alleged that religion and morality are not necessary qualifications for political office. But the scriptures teach a different doctrine. They direct that rulers should be able men, such that fear God.”

The fear among some in the crowd was that their beliefs might not be fully represented by the current field of Republican candidates.

“I hope we have a role that our voices are heard,” said Dennis Rider of Cedar Falls. “That’s the most important thing.”

There’s a concern among some evangelicals that Mitt Romney, who leads Obama in several national polls, won’t pick up that mantle. Romney declined an invitation to attend the forum — another example of his tenuous relationship with evangelicals.

“He’s not the candidate that evangelicals really want,” said Sarah Posner, who edits Religion Dispatches, an online magazine that covers religion, politics and culture.

She said some evangelicals will vote for Romney in the general election, because whatever concerns they have about him are minor next to their desire to keep President Obama from a second term.

But much like John McCain in the 2008 election, she said, Romney may need the help of others to convince evangelicals to vote for him.

“He’s probably thinking about, ‘If I get the nomination, who am I going to pick as a running mate so that these voters will be happy and come out and vote for me?’” she said.

But how much does the evangelical vote matter to Republican candidates? The major issue of the 2012 election so far has been the economy; social issues have taken a back seat.

But Posner said that that may have more to do with campaign strategy than a lack of interest. Take gay marriage, for instance.

“I think they are really trying to pull back from it because they see where the public opinion polls are going on that issue,” she said. “And they don’t really want to have to face it in the general election.”

The Tea Party has had a much greater role in GOP primaries than it did even two years ago. But Posner dismissed the suggestion that a strong Tea Party might mean a weak Christian conservative bloc.

“An overwhelming majority of Tea Party activists are evangelicals; they’re conservatives,” she said. “Upwards of 50 percent have also engaged in religious-right activism in their political activism lives.”

Posner said the religious right makes up about a third of the Republican Party. And because many evangelicals believe it is their God-given duty to spread their faith, Posner said, any perception that religion is becoming less important in America, or the GOP primary, will only make them work harder.

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