Saving Grace

How Evangelicals Could Doom Donald Trump in Iowa

The Donald has the support of some high-profile pastors. But the evangelicals in the pews may be ready to sing from a different hymnal.

01.31.16 9:19 PM ET

WINDSOR HEIGHTS, Iowa—The pastor didn’t want to be named. It was Sunday morning in Iowa, the day before the caucuses, and he knew anything he said about politics might result in unwanted “calls.” Even though I promised anonymity, he was worried. He spoke in a whisper. 

We were discussing Donald Trump. Despite his affairs, divorces, ignorance about biblical basics, and admission that he’d never asked God for forgiveness, Trump has attracted some high-profile evangelical supporters, both in Iowa and around the country. Recently, he was endorsed by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the evangelical president of Liberty University. 

“I think he’s just pragmatic,” the pastor said of Falwell, “but I don’t think he’s being honest. Hardly any well-known evangelicals agree with him.” 

And as for those who do agree: “Even if someone says they’re evangelical, they may be very, very immature Biblically. There are some evangelicals that are not thinking straight. They are not thinking straight, or some are, really—they don’t even read their Bible and they’re easily led away. Like Jesus said, we’re like sheep.” 

In the last two caucuses here, evangelical voters have determined the winner. In 2008, they supported Huckabee, a former pastor from Arkansas. In 2012, they favored Rick Santorum, a Catholic who campaigned heavily for their affection. (Both men went on to third place losses in New Hampshire and neither, of course, secured the Republican nomination.) 

The power of evangelical voters in Iowa make it tough to predict who will win until the actual voting takes place. One candidate may be leading the polls, but if evangelicals turn out for a different candidate, it's all over. Santorum didn’t begin to surge in 2012 until the week before the caucuses (he’s running again this time, but nobody—evangelical or otherwise—seems to care). 

Trump has led the polls here for months, though he was briefly dethroned by Ben Carson, an active Christian, and then by Ted Cruz, who could easily become a televangelist if he tires of this politics racket. 

But Trump lags among the religious right. In the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa poll, released Saturday, Trump is in the lead overall with 28 percent to Cruz’s 23. But among evangelicals, Cruz is the winner with 33 percent. Only 19 percent support The Donald. 

In other words, there could be a soft underbelly to Trump’s seemingly iron-clad support here. Coupled with the possibility that Trump’s organization on the ground is weak, there’s a chance for an upset. 

It was time for Sunday service at Walnut Creek Church, a large structure of beige-colored paneling and brick on 64th street, and I was handed a flyer. On one side it featured directions for how to caucus. On the other, a 3-point answer to the question, “Why should I CAUCUS?”

1. It’s a matter of Christian stewardship.

2. This is the election that really matters.

3. This is the time for revival. 

The flyers were distributed by The Family Leader, a social conservative advocacy group based in Pleasant Hill and run by Bob Vander Plaats, who worked for Huckabee in 2008, as his Iowa state chair, and endorsed Santorum in 2012. This cycle, Vander Plaats is for Ted Cruz.

“Iowans are in the unique position to voice first what kind of president we should elect. How would God have you use that gift and responsibility?” the flyer read. “In the Bible, when Israel had gone astray and God brought revival, He used both the ‘church’ and the ‘state.’ Josiah is the prime example of a kind whose call to repentance brought his nation back to the heart of God.”

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“Presidents have historically pulled America closer to God… or turned us from Him,” the flyer continued. “It’s time for the voice of the church to help elect a president who will lead in godly ways. Now is when we choose our Josiah. It is time!” 

All eleven Republican candidates are Christian but, the pastor said, just two could accurately be described as evangelical: Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee. Of Cruz, he said, “I think he’s brilliant.” 

Cruz’s faith has been central to his campaign. He announced his candidacy at Liberty University in Virginia despite having no connection to the place (he went to Princeton and Harvard) and here in September, he launched an initiative called “99 Iowa Pastors,” a plan to get the support of a pastor in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. In self-mythologizing, Cruz has claimed that while at summer camp at a Christian ranch as a child, he “surrendered” to Jesus. 

Huckabee, meanwhile, was in attendance at Walnut Creek. 

Fewer than 100 people, all but two of whom were white, filed into the high-ceilinged room for what a pastor said was a traditional service. A more contemporary service would be held later on, in a gymnasium. 

A few musicians got onstage to sing Christian Rock. Everyone around me knew the words to “This Is My Father’s World.” 

After the 9 a.m. service at Walnut Creek, I made my way down the hall to the gymnasium, where a much larger crowd had formed. Hardly any people in attendance were open to talking politics, but one man wore a CRUZ 2016 t-shirt.

And just a few rows away sat Huckabee and his wife, Janet, underneath a basketball hoop. He fiddled with his fingers and looked up at the large projection screen on the stage, which featured the lyrics to the song the band played, “O how sweet to trust in Jesus, just to trust His cleansing blood, just in simple faith to plunge me ‘neath the healing, cleansing flood.” 

Huckabee told me he was feeling “excellent” about his chances in the caucus, but if the behavior of his campaign and affiliated-entities is any indication, he’s frustrated that evangelicals are going for Cruz.

On TV here, an ad by Pursuing America’s Greatness, a Super PAC supporting Huckabee, seems to play every few minutes. It’s an attack on Cruz for not tithing, or giving 10 percent of his income to the church, in the evangelical tradition. “He doesn’t tithe?” one actress says to another. “A millionaire that brags about his faith all the time. Just what we need, another phony.”

Huckabee has not gone after Trump, who he appeared side by side with at a rally on Thursday in Des Moines, in a similar fashion. 

The pastor said the criticism was ridiculous. “Tithing means nothing,” he said. “He’s trying to somehow peel people away from Cruz and it’s, like, silly… It’s supposed to be done privately, too! You’re not supposed to let your right hand know what your left hand does.”