Going to Church for the Iowa Caucus

February 03, 2016

I spent the last 1.5 days of the Iowa presidential campaign in the Hawkeye State. Arriving midday Sunday and staying through the voting and partying Monday night, I enjoyed seeing firsthand some of the politicking. By being on the ground, I better understand the campaign. Below are three key lessons I learned from the trip.

My previous visit to the Iowa Caucus in 2008 helped me explain the process in an EthicsDaily.com video last week. Traveling this year helped me write a more nuanced EthicsDaily.com article on the vote and the role of conservative evangelicals. That article, Iowa Evangelicals Answered Call to "Elect a President Who Will Lead in Godly Ways, includes items I learned from attending rallies, observing a caucus precinct, and listening to radio ads while driving around the state. The article includes a photo I took of Republican winner Ted Cruz speaking in a church.

In addition to Cruz, I also saw Jeb! Bush (and met him), Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders (and met him). That's 6 of the 14 candidates, and I would've made it to half but Ben Carson cancelled at the last minute since his plane couldn't get through the fog (perhaps an apt metaphor for his campaign). I also saw some other political figures at the rallies, including Glenn Beck with Cruz, Ron Paul with his son, and Sarah Palin with Trump. You can view photos from my trip here.

As I reflect on being in Iowa, three key observations come to mind about the role of religion in the campaign. While I had inklings of these ideas, they are clearer now than before the trip.

1. I better understand the Republican caucus process, especially the way meeting in a church could impact the civic decisions. In 2008, I attended a Democratic caucus in a college town. The Democratic ones - as I explained in the EthicsDaily.com video - are generally more dramatic and entertaining. But since I'd already seen that (and since it was going to be less interesting this year with so few candidates), I checked out a Republican one. I stopped in the town of Newton to observe a caucus in Community Heights Church (which actually hosted five different GOP caucus precincts). About 10 percent of Republican caucus precincts (and four percent of Democratic ones) occurred in churches.

The one I attended, which was in the church's sanctuary, started with everyone standing and bowing their heads for prayer. I didn't see that coming. Sure, many governmental meetings start with a prayer (though as a Baptist who cherishes the historic principle of separation of church and state, I disagree with doing that). But I still didn't realize a vote would start with a public prayer, especially one so sectarian as the pray-er asked God to keep America "a Christian nation" and mentioned "Jesus Christ."

Additionally, when it came time for speeches for the candidates (each candidate can be represented with a three-minute speech), the people stood in front of a large cross and an American flag. All of this could impact the vote since research suggests than merely voting in a church - even without public prayer - can influence a voter's decisions. (I also write in my newest book about the importance of physical space when mixing religion and politics.) The GOP caucus in the Newton church was definitely much different than the Democratic one I attended eight years ago.

2. I better understand the role of faith-based ads in the Iowa campaign. I spent several hours driving around Iowa to catch the various candidates: up to Cedar Rapids, over to Davenport, down to Iowa City, back to Cedar Rapids, over to Newton, and on to Des Moines. Along the way I heard numerous campaign ads. It's amazing how many there were, which is why many Iowans are excited the candidate left to torture New Hampshirites.

Although I knew presidential hopefuls highlighted their faith in speeches and ads in Iowa, it was interesting to hear so many of the faith-filled ads. Many ads sprinkled in a reference to assure listeners the candidate was "a man of faith." Others - like one for Cruz, one for author Ben Carson, and one for former Arkansas Governor and Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee - were entirely about faith with virtually no non-religious political issues covered. I wrote about some of the ads in my EthicsDaily.com article. Although often not known about outside Iowa, these ads can win votes and perfectly follow the confessional political style I wrote about in my award-winning book on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns.

3. I better understand the extreme mixing of religion and politics. On Sunday night, I went to Adventure Christian Community in Davenport for a Cruz rally. I chose the site to see Cruz in action at a church. Yet, the experience surpassed even my worst fears. I found it disgusting to watch the transformation on the sacred space into a partisan political prep rally. I've written about the dangers of such mixing of religion in politics in all three of my books. But I've never experienced it on this level. I wrote a short Instagram essay reflecting on the night.

Went to a church Sunday night & Ted Cruz was the preacher (after a warm-up speech by Glenn Beck). The church had #Cruz signs everywhere & was packed with people standing out in hallways trying to hear. We weren't in the gym or fellowship hall, but the worship space. Communion plates were stacked in the back, out of the way. The screens normally used to project praise song lyrics & sermon notes instead glowed with Cruz videos & logos. // Beck cursed as he praised the glory of American might. When he said #Hillary shouldn't be in the White House but in jail, someone in the political congregation yelled, "Preach, brother, preach." // Cruz took the stage. Like a fiery revival preacher, he stirred up the crowd with his sound-bite stump speech. He called America the "shining city on a hill." People clapped & cheered. I wondered if there was a Bible in the house to double-check that claim. With a cross just off to the side of him, he preached against immigrants & for bombing people. // I somehow managed to leave without pulling out a whip & turning over tables. #iacaucus
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