One thing that’s unusual from an East Coast perspective is the overt religiosity of Republican politics in Iowa. Caucus time here frequently finds the candidates vying for the role of most ardent defender of religious values -- and Christian values voters trying to glean clues about which aspirant God prefers.
No one has been more aggressive -- and divinely presumptuous -- in his appeal to religious voters than Texas Governor Rick Perry.
In a new TV ad, Perry declares that “some liberals say faith is a sign of weakness. They are wrong. I think we all need God’s help.” That ad concludes: “I’m Rick Perry. I’m not ashamed to talk about my faith. And I approve this message.”
During one speech last week, Perry implied, without quite saying as much, that he felt called by God to run for president. “I have basically been called to serve my country,” he said on Wednesday in Urbandale. “That’s what this election is about. It is not about me. It is about this country.” He added: “Your country is calling you. At a matter of fact, your children are counting on you to answer the call. And the Lord said to the Prophet Isaiah, he said, ‘Who shall I send? Who will go for us? And Isaiah held his hand up and said, ‘Here I am. Send me.’ Your country is calling you today. Your country is calling you to do your duty. And I would suggest and ask that you join me in this mission, that you hold up your hand and say, ‘Here I am.’”
Campaigning in West Des Moines on Monday, US Representative Michele Bachmann said she had “over 200 pastor endorsement,” which she called “probably the strongest level of support in the evangelical community here in Iowa.”
“I have been going in churches all across Iowa speaking with people, and I think we are going to see a lot of congregations turning out,” she said.
As he promotes his “faith, family, and freedom” message, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum pushes back hard against the notion that religious values should not determine public policy.
“I hear this all the time from the left: ‘Santorum, quit imposing your values on us,’” he said Friday in Marshalltown, claiming that this argument comes from secular liberals intent on imposing their own values on the country. “That’s okay, because it is not based on any Biblical principles,” he added sarcastically. “Ladies and gentleman, this is the cross-roads of American civilization in this election.”
And as for voters? Well, a goodly number of those I talked to said they were looking for a candidate who had strong religious values – and that they planned to pray for guidance about whom to support.
Did they really think the Lord cares about who wins the Iowa caucuses, I asked? If so, why doesn’t he give a clear, unmistakable sign?
The religious voters I interviewed were both good-natured about fielding questions from an obvious skeptic and insistent that the Deity did indeed have a favorite -- even if they had not yet been able to discern it. At a Perry event in Boone, Iowa, George Ann Cleaveland, a mail sorter, told me she planned to pray on the matter of whom to vote for.
When I encountered her two days later at a Bachmann event in West Des Moines, Cleaveland she said she had done just that. And had God revealed his will to her?
She wasn’t quite sure. “Bachmann keeps coming to mind, so I will probably stand up in the caucus” for her, she said. (God is apparently not one to follow the polls, at least not in the early contests.)
At a Santorum event in Polk City on Monday, Vicki DeValois, a pre-school teacher, said she felt sure God cared who won the caucuses.
“I think God definitely has a plan,” she said. “He has a plan for everybody and anything.”
Dave, her husband, said he didn’t think God cares about things like the outcome of NFL games, but that he did believe God had guidance to give on the caucus choice.
“It may sound strange, but we pray and seek guidance on an issue like that,” he said.
But if God really had a preference, why wouldn’t he make it unmistakably clear?
“Maybe it is as simply as God saying, ‘I’m not going to make it that simple,’ ‘’ he suggested.
Honestly, it does sound strange to me -- as strange as it probably sounds to Christian values voters to hear someone doubt that anyone is taking a divine interest in whom they support in the Iowa caucuses.
Here’s the electoral issue for Perry, Santorum, and Bachmann once the campaign moves beyond the caucuses. Religious voters want more religion in politics, but many other voters are uncomfortable with excessive religiosity. That’s one reason why the candidates who emerge as the religious voters’ favorites in Iowa usually fall flat in New Hampshire and seldom if ever emerge as the nominee.
Oddly, the candidate who has probably struck the right balance is Mitt Romney, who professes an appreciation for faith without belaboring the point or holding forth about his faith. That, of course, is because Mormonism is viewed skeptically by evangelical voters; so sensitivity to a possible anti-Mormon backlash may have had the unintended effect of leaving Romney better positioned than his righter-wing rivals to appeal to moderates in the general election.
Meanwhile, here’s an admirably consistent application of religious logic from Amy Davis of Polk City -- one other members of the flock might want to factor into their own ruminations. Since all that happens occurs according to God’s plan, Davis said, he must have wanted Barack Obama to be president.
“A lot of Christians certainly did not vote for him, but you know what? He was the Lord’s choice,” she said. “God always knows what is going to happen.”