Des Moines — Jenifer Bowen, the executive director of Iowa Right to Life, spent a recent evening at the Hoyt Sherman Place theater here listening to four Republican presidential candidates deliver faith-infused pitches to about 1,000 evangelicals representing one of this election’s most critical and conflicted voting blocs.
In 2008, evangelical support washed over former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, but this year Bowen expressed bewilderment at the theological and electoral calculations that were leading conservative-values voters to bestow their blessing on one candidate after another.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Bowen said, as she set down a basket filled with fetus dolls.
For evangelical voters, this is not a season of clarity.
They are trying to decide if moral fiber is more important than religious affiliation, if the right relationship with Jesus Christ trumps the right portfolio to defeat President Obama, and if Mormonism is to be regarded with more suspicion than the Catholicism that many evangelicals have come to tolerate.
What is clear from the Iowa evangelicals gathered here is that they remain open to inspiration.
“Evangelicals could support any of the candidates who are running,” Huckabee, who hosted the event, said backstage. But he offered reasons why evangelicals might not support some of the candidates who are running.
Speaking of the thrice-married Newt Gingrich, Huckabee said, “There are consequences to our actions. God may forgive us, but it doesn’t mean that people are going to forget.” As women onstage offered a trilling rendition of “In God We Still Trust,” Huckabee added: “He’s paying for it every time he has to answer a question about it.”
Asked whether it mattered that Mitt Romney was a Mormon, Huckabee said, “I don’t think that his faith being different means that he’s less qualified to be president.” He added, though, that he had no clear idea of Romney’s relationship with Jesus Christ — an issue of paramount importance to evangelicals. Huckabee said that what bothered him most was Romney’s lack of “consistency within his faith” and pointed to Romney’s support of abortion rights in the 1994 U.S. Senate race against Ted Kennedy.
As Huckabee spoke, evangelicals poured through the theater’s mahogany halls to watch previews of movies such as “Generation Zero” (a quick succession of ominous images included crashing planes, collapsing buildings and a shark leaping out of the water) and an antiabortion movie called “The Gift of Life.” Michele Bachmann, Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum gave short speeches heavy on religious rhetoric. Huckabee then took the stage, prompting a nostalgic burst of applause.
“There were four candidates who cleared their schedules and made this a priority event,” Huckabee told the audience. “It speaks volumes that they are here.”
And it speaks volumes that Romney, endorsed this weekend by the Des Moines Register, has opted to skip such events. A visit with Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an influential Christian activist organization here, makes that clear.
The Family Leader’s offices sit in a small shopping center amid an El Azteca Mexican restaurant, Bailey’s dry cleaners (“We clean UGGs”) and Casey’s food and gas. But its unassuming headquarters belies the power of its highly coveted endorsement. On the morning of Huckabee’s event, Vander Plaats sat in a gray suit in his small office, decorated with pictures of his family and an elephant.
“What Iowans want to know is, ‘Be honest with us, who are you?’ ” said Vander Plaats, referring to Romney’s reluctance to show up at religious-themed forums, including his in November.
“If you are an elder in the Mormon Church and have been part of the Mormon faith for all your life, why not just speak openly about it, about what it is?” he said. By failing to do so, Romney created the impression that “like, yeah, you’re hiding something.”
“When you go to bed at night and bend your knees, who are you bending your knees to?” Vander Plaats asked. “To us, it’s to our lord and savior Jesus Christ, and that’s how we gain access to the throne of God. It’s only through Him. Because we don’t know enough about the Mormon theology. That is where some of that pause comes from.”
Mormons, he said, had “not only added a whole ’nother book,” a reference to the Book of Mormon, the scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “but they have changed to adapt a culture. It has changed.”
In essence, Vander Plaats is suggesting Mormons are inconsistent, a characterization that fits with the most pervasive attack on Romney — that he will say anything and is not to be trusted. It is also a characterization that officials at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints think smacks of bias. Despite significant theological differences with more traditional forms of Christianity, the church considers itself a Christian faith and, according to Michael Otterson, the church’s head of worldwide public affairs, “a restoration of that early Christianity from the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles.”
Vander Plaats also articulated the evangelical argument against another Iowa frontrunner.
“What gives us pause with Ron Paul,” Vander Plaats said, was that “sometimes his libertarian views, we believe, trump his moral compass.” Also, Israel plays a major role in the evangelicals’ view of the Second Coming, and they viewed parts of Paul’s foreign policy “as threatening to Israel.”
The president of the Family Leader had much warmer words for Gingrich.
“If we are just going to beat up Newt for his past, then we should probably stop preaching about David,” he said, “because David slept with Bathsheba and had her husband killed. Even in some ways, Newt looks good compared to David.”
Vander Plaats said he believed Gingrich had truly repented for his sinful ways. What’s more, he said, evangelicals no longer see Catholics as papist interlopers because they have a clearer idea of where the Catholic Church stands on the issues they care about.
“Here’s the deal,” Vander Plaats said: “The Catholic Church, I don’t see as changing. I see them as being pretty true to who they are and what they believe in.”
Evangelical suspicions about politicians representing other religious persuasions are not new. But in the case of Catholic politicians, that bias appears to be a thing of the past.
Santorum, a Catholic and the race’s dark-horse darling among evangelicals, said the acceptance of Catholicism among evangelical voters had a lot to do with both faiths coming under assault from an increasingly secular society. It was, he said, a very different time from “when the principles of the country were predominantly in agreement with the evangelical community.” They needed allies in the “foxhole.”
Asked if he thought there was room for Mormons in that foxhole, Santorum said, “It’s happening now,” pointing to the leading role Mormons took working with evangelicals in opposing gay marriage in California.
“There are a lot of Mormons who I served with on the House and Senate who are solid on these issues and who I think would probably be a better bridge on those issues” than Romney, Santorum said.
And evangelical opposition to Gingrich rarely factors in his recent conversion to Catholicism. The Rev. Albert Calaway of Indianola, whose great-grandfather, grandfather, son and grandson are ministers, recently caused some commotion in Iowa’s pastoral circles by comparing Gingrich to a “very fine, empty suit with a broken zipper.”
Calaway, reached by phone, said he still thought there was a “difference” between evangelical and Catholic politicians, but that he wasn’t going to let it factor into his vote.
Calaway went on to give Romney “kudos” as a good, upstanding man. But he explained why that wasn’t enough: “If a man just lives a good moral life and has good values, that’s one of the marks, but that’s not the only one.” He said that Romney lacked a clear relationship with Christ, and so his assertion that he was a Christian amounted to “the highest form of taking God’s name in vain.”
Back at the Hoyt Sherman Place theater, the lights came on and Gingrich stood by an exit shaking hands and posing for pictures with members of the audience while Santorum, dressed in a buttonfront shirt and gray sweater vest, eagerly worked the room. The crowd filed out through the lobby. Some attendees said they liked Bachmann’s passion, others Gingrich’s gravitas, others Santorum’s stubbornness.
Bowen, her basket at her side, said that in the end the evangelical community sought maybe one simple thing.
“We want somebody who is sincere,” she said.