Iowa's evangelicals take spotlight in presidential race


Fenton, Iowa (United States) (AFP)

That Ted Cruz, Republican candidate for US president, should have taken the trouble to travel to tiny Fenton, with its 263 inhabitants and two churches, speaks volumes about the evangelical vote -- particularly in Iowa, where the presidential primary process begins Monday.

In winter, the northwest corner of the state is an endless blanket of white, pierced by the occasional grain silo among vast frozen fields of corn and soy beans.

The inhabitants are a hardy lot, and 70 Republicans have defied the cold weather to crowd into the town's only restaurant on a Friday to see the candidate.

"A spirit of revival is sweeping the country," the Texas senator tells them.

Four years earlier, a champion of the religious right, Rick Santorum, had won one in three votes in the county.

Ted Cruz hopes to do better as he fights Donald Trump and 10 other candidates for his party's nomination, thanks largely to the support of evangelical voters.

One American in four is an evangelical, according to the Pew Research Center. It is the dominant form of American Protestantism, which makes it the largest religious group in the country, ahead of Catholics (21 percent) and traditional Protestants.

What sets evangelicals apart is that they believe every word in the Bible is literally true, not an allegory but actual fact. The various churches in the movement lack any hierarchical structure; there are no bishops, nor is there a pope.

For Republican presidential hopefuls, the support of evangelicals -- or at least partial support -- is indispensable in order to win the primaries and gain the party's nomination. In Iowa, evangelicals comprised 57 percent of voters in 2012. In the South, they can amount to two-thirds of the total.

- Not a monolithic group -

Amy and Brad Russell, a couple in their 50s who are the adoptive parents of 12 children, belong to this voting bloc. They had traveled the preceding Sunday to see Cruz in the town of Dike, farther to the east. She has already decided to support the former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, but he is leaning toward the Texas senator.

"We're evangelicals, we can't vote against our heart," explained a smiling Amy Russell as she waited patiently for the candidate's arrival.

"We care so much about heart issues like life and marriage, and treating everybody equal, and those issues are more important than money issues, so they do sway votes.

"That's what the Midwest is: a lot just family, God, family and country, and God's number one."

God may be number one, but these voters are not exclusively focused on religious questions.

When Ted Cruz speaks to crowds here, he first talks about the Constitution, about "radical Islamic terrorism," about the right to bear arms, about taxes and Barack Obama.

Only at the very end does he ask them to pray, "to say, Father God, please continue this awakening, continue this spirit of revival, awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from this abyss."

For evangelicals, the primaries are not merely a contest to see who is most religious. They also want to take the measure of the candidates to see which is capable of surviving the brutal electoral marathon ahead.

So while Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, is widely admired, his candidacy has suffered from a sense that he lacks the toughness to stand up to Hillary Clinton, and is not as substantial as Ted Cruz.

Instead, several evangelical leaders have given their blessing to the senator. One of them is Tim Lubinus, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa (BCI).

"Some of the other candidates that may have a similar governing philosophy just don't have the potential to continue on, in New Hampshire and South Carolina," he told AFP, adding that Cruz's popularity, organizational abilities and fundraising acumen all made him a stronger candidate.

Marco Rubio, the Catholic senator from Florida, who is third in the polls, seems to have strengthened his position during the campaign thanks in large part to his mastery of foreign policy. He, too, does not open his stump speeches with talk of God, preferring the theme of American greatness.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, a leading group of the religious right, confirms that American evangelicals are not monolithic. But ever-present behind all their questions about the economy or national security, he says, is what Perkins calls a "value construct," a sort of moral software.

"It's kind of like a Windows operating system, it might not be at the forefront, but it's in the background," he told AFP. "It's the sanctity of human life, it's the morality, it's those values."

In 2008 and 2012, evangelicals first helped the former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee and then the former senator Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic, to carry Iowa.

But neither man went on to win the Republican nomination, each losing to more moderate candidates: John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney four years later.

This year, however, has shattered every past political model. The race has been dominated by Cruz, representing the religious right, and Donald Trump. And the New York billionaire is not exactly known for his moderation.