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Economy why Iowa evangelicals divided on 2012

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IOWA CITY — Evangelical Christians remain uncertain about the 2012 Iowa caucuses, compared with early December 2007, when values voters united behind Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

Pastors statewide told IowaPolitics.com on Wednesday that the economy is the foremost political issue for members of their evangelical congregations, and differed on the extent social issues play in vetting candidates.

"Typical hot-button issues from the past, like abortion and some of those kinds of things, even though we have strong opinions about those, those aren't the biggest ones," said Tom Steele, lead pastor of the Iowa City Church of Christ. "I'd say the problem with our economy and the huge debt are probably the biggest right now."

Financial responsibility has become a topic for his sermons, he said, and members of his church — a mix of Republicans, Democrats, independents and tea partyers — are looking for national leaders that show fiscal restraint.



But the Rev. Mike Demastus, of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, argued that politicians are mistaken when they disconnect the economy from moral issues, such as faith and support for traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

"The fact that we are the first-in-the-nation caucus proves that the social issues are a very major, prominent part of this process," he said. "I hate when the politicians ... say, 'The economy and jobs, that's our No. 1 focus.'"

Economic and moral issues are connected, said Demastus, who has endorsed Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in the Republican presidential nomination contest.

Hundreds of members of the evangelical Christian voting bloc congregated Tuesday night at River of Life Ministries, a Cedar Rapids church, for two hours of prayer for the nation.

They sang praises for Israel, asked forgiveness for abortions and called for a leader who could restore a nation in economic crisis — but made no mention of Republican presidential candidates.

"Last night was really genuinely what our heart is," said River of Life Ministries Lead pastor Steve Irwin on Wednesday. "We're just asking God to intervene in the political process in a way that secures our country, not just from a moral standpoint, but also on the very issues that are plaguing all of our peoples — finances, jobs and feeling secure."

Irwin said he thinks the media tend to portray all evangelicals as Republicans, though members of both political parties attend his church.

"There is no question that within some of the social justice issues, that the Democrats are fighting for the very things that we believe God would be fighting for — for the poor, for those who are in need, the elderly," said Irwin.

In 2008, 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified as evangelical Christians, according to Reuters news service.

They voted for Huckabee, a Baptist minister, that year, helping to propel him to his first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. He was endorsed by home-schoolers, influential pastors and conservative radio talk show hosts.

Choosing from among the six 2011 GOP candidates is "like splitting hairs," Demastus said.

The GOP hopefuls traveled to Iowa this fall for forums sponsored by Christian conservative nonprofits to speak about moral and cultural issues.

Bachmann and former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum have spent Sundays worshipping beneath Iowa steeples.

Santorum received the endorsement of Sioux City evangelical leader Cary Gordon, pastor of Cornerstone Church.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul have used television ads to emphasize their religious convictions.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich donated more than $200,000 to a statewide campaign to oust the justices who helped legalize same-sex marriage.

Still, Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the conservative nonprofit The Family Leader, and Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Christian advocacy group, are sitting on the sidelines.

Vander Plaats and members of The Family Leader's board are considering an endorsement for Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry or Santorum.

Scheffler said neither he nor his group will not endorse any candidate prior to the caucuses.

Hannah Hess covers government and politics for IowaPolitics.com, which is owned by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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