Megachurches Don't Play Big in Iowa Politics
Megachurches don't play the same role in Iowa politics as they do in other states, so GOP candidates pound the pavement to harness the all-important conservative Christian vote around the state.
With no clear Republican presidential favorite among Iowa’s conservative Christians, candidates are running out of time and opportunities to win that key GOP voting bloc before the Jan. 3 caucus.
In a different state, a "megachurch", meaning a Protestant church with at least 2,000 weekend worshipers, might have been a key stop for candidates.
With 7,484-plus worshipers each weekend, Lutheran Church of Hope is by far Iowa’s largest “megachurch,” but the Evanglical Lutheran Church of America congregation keeps clear separation between church and politics. Hope does not invite candidates to speak or tell congregants how to vote. Worshipers leaving Sunday morning services told a Patch reporter that it was inappropriate to try to interview them about politics in church.
“In Iowa, the megachurch phenomenon is not the same as in other parts of the country,” said Gary Marx, executive director of the national Faith and Freedom Coalition, which expects to deliver 40 million voter guides to about 27 million conservative Christian voters before the 2012 general election.
In many southern states, the lines between politics and religion are grayer and candidates can find thousands of sympathetic Christian voters and volunteers just by speaking at a couple megachurches, describing their faith journey, and pledging their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Wooing religious voters and volunteers is more time-consuming in Iowa. For one thing, there are only four megachurches -- defined as 2,000 or more weekend worshipers -- by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. And many of Iowa’s largest churches don’t get involved in politics like they do in the South.
“That hasn't been a big part of the evangelical Christian movement in Iowa,” Marx said. “Iowa is about small-town America.”
Still Time But Shrinking Window to Close the Deal with Religious Voters
Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are among the candidates still hoping -- and there is still time -- to capture the support that fueled former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s surprise rally from a distant second in the Ames Straw Poll to win the 2008 Iowa caucus over the better funded Mitt Romney.
They just have to travel further to reach those voters in Iowa. For example, Bachmann recently spoke at churches in Marion and Osceola. Santorum has appeared at an Iowa Christian Alliance fundraiser at Walnut Creek Community Church in Windsor Heights, and Gingrich and Cain have spoken at Pella Christian High School.
"I never thought I'd say this with just a couple months before the caucuses, but it's anybody's guess who could win or even who is going to be one, two or three. I think it's totally up in the air,” Steve Sheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, formerly the Iowa Christian Alliance, said one week after the group’s Oct. 22 banquet drew six Republican candidates to speak to its members.
The Des Moines Sunday Register’s Iowa Poll showed Herman Cain and Mitt Romney leading with support of 23 and 22 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers. Romney’s numbers are static since last spring and Cain is riding a surge that may or may not last. Ron Paul, with 12 percent of support, has been gaining since last spring and the remaining Republicans lag at least 10 percentage points behind the two front-runners.
The next major event is the Family Leader Nov. 19 forum at First Federated Church in Des Moines. The same six GOP candidates have confirmed they’ll appear. Romney has not committed to attend.
"They need to close the deal with those 2,500-plus caucus-goers in attendance and all those media in attendance, and convince people that they're the one," said Bob VanderPlaats, founder of FAMiLY LEADER, which encompasses the activities of three existing Iowa organizations with conservative Christian views on marriage and family.
Patch Goes to Church
In Iowa City, Dave Foster, pastor of family ministry at Parkview Church, a congregation of 1,500 people, called politics a dangerous issue for churches.
"Politics is a very dividing issue for people, and we don't want to identify Christ with any one candidate or individual or political party," Foster said.
Tom Thompson of West Des Moines has been attending Lutheran Church of Hope for about 10 years. He said a candidate’s faith is “important” and may make him more inclined to listen to that person’s ideas, “but I try to find direction within myself.”
He likes Lutheran Church of Hope because the minister “doesn’t play politics at all.”
During the judicial retention vote last year, he said Pastor Mike Housholder mentioned controversy surrounding the vote, shared Bible teachings about homosexuality, but said congregants should seek their position on the issue from within themselves. Thompson emphasized that Householder did not tell congregants how they should vote.
Point of Grace Church in Waukee, which is a few miles down the road from Hope, take a more active political role.
Lead pastor, Rev. Jeff Mullen, has endorsed Bachmann, and has invited her and other Iowa officials to speak about their faith at church services. He was a key voice in a 2010 surge that lead to Iowa voters ousting three Iowa Supreme Court justices in retaliation for a court ruling that legalized gay marriage and he is running for the Iowa Legislature this year.
As worshipers left service on Sunday, many said they don’t mind that their church invites political candidates to speak at church services, organizes events where congregants can meet candidates and distributes voter guides before the election.
Scott Dirks, of Grimes, said his faith is very important in his voting decisions and he values his pastor preaching on how the Bible can help members’ political decisions, but he doesn’t think a preacher should tell him who to vote for.
Megachurch Means Something Different in Iowa
Eric Woolson ran Mike Huckabee’s winning 2008 caucus campaign in Iowa and now is the communications director for Michele Bachmann, who has made churches one of her campaign venues across the country.
“What is a big church for us here, would be still be a very small church for Little Rock or Dallas or Houston.” he said. “Iowa has some large nondenominational churches, but they’re nowhere near what my definition of a megachurch is.”
In addition to Hope, the three other Iowa megachurches listed by by the religion research group -- Assemblies of God congregations in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and Reformed church in Pella -- hover atabout 2,000 worshippers on weekends.
Compare that to First Baptist Church of Dallas Texas, which says on its website that it has 10,000 members.
Three weeks ago, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberties watchdog group founded in 1948, asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate First Baptist in Dallas because its pastor Robert Jeffress posted videos of him endorsing Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president on the church’s website.
Penalties Could Deter Some Churches Engaging in Politics
VanderPlaats said leaders of large churches tend to resist getting involve in politics. For good reason. It can jeopardize their tax-free status as a charitable organization. The national Faith and Freedom Coalition put a list of political dos and do nots for churches on its website.
Connie Ryan-Terrell, executive director of Iowa’s Interfaith Alliance, which promotes religious freedom through separation of church and state, said she believes some churches cross the line into electioneering. She could not name a specific instance, but said that in the judicial retention election of 2010, “ministers and congregations really crossed a line going into electioneering and they were not held accountable.”
Stephen Schmidt of Iowa City Patch and Beth Dalbey of West Des Moines Patch contributed to this report.