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Searching for a President

By October 1, 2007June 6th, 2014No Comments

I think half of my church is here,” remarked Pastor Pat Nemmers of Saylorville Baptist Church, Des Moines, Iowa, as he walked among eight different tents sponsored by candidates at the Iowa Straw Poll on August 11. Volunteers and paid staff members, many of them from Iowa Regular Baptist churches, worked for competing presidential campaigns. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the fund-raising event, which brought up interesting issues about the interplay of politics and religion.

Prior to the event, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed that only 19 percent of likely Iowa GOP caucus goers were enthusiastic about their options. Final numbers at the event seemed to support the initial poll, with an estimated 26,000 tickets sold to participants who wandered around the food and entertainment tents. But only 14,302 went home with the purple thumbprint that proved they waited in the hot hallways of Hilton Coliseum long enough to actually vote.

Regardless of party affiliation, the lower voting numbers seemed to be a metaphor for possible voter apathy among the social conservatives who populate Regular Baptist churches. Enjoying the free food and entertainment is one thing—actually participating in the process, entirely another.

“What keeps me motivated is that I’m supporting the cause of Christ, not just a particular candidate,” said Patrick Anderson, the Iowa campaign chair for Rep. Duncan Hunter of California. Along with his wife, Julia, and their nine children, Patrick is a member of Campus Baptist Church in Ames, where he plays the piano and helps with worship ministries.

Before taking a position with the Hunter campaign, Anderson was Iowa Coalitions director for Sen. John McCain, and prior to that, worked on the John Cox campaign. Believing that the values and ideas are more important than the political personalities, Anderson said, “We don’t get too discouraged when one drops out. We find another with similar values.”

Family values and politics

Those values are the ones often called “family values” in the media. Anderson further explained that “we’re lumped into a group called Socos: social conservative values voters. We’re the ones willing to do the work, make the phone calls, hang the signs. And we bring our families to political events and lend the atmosphere the organizers want to show. The business-oriented faction likes their fund-raisers that serve alcohol, but the voting public still identifies with our values.”

Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor and then governor of Arkansas before becoming a candidate, tapped into these same values by sponsoring events for homeschool families, many of whom helped at the straw poll.

“My whole family volunteers,” said Dave Johnson, who attends Saylorville Baptist Church with his wife and two daughters. “It’s been a good learning experience for the kids to learn how politics work, outside of the media circus they see on TV.”

Bethany Johnson, 16, agrees with her father and described how she had made over a thousand phone calls for the Huckabee campaign. “Even though I can’t vote, I gave up a lot of my summer to help,” Bethany said, “and it was worth it.”

Having worked in politics for twenty years, Patrick Anderson has several suggestions for believers who are interested in presidential campaigns. “The thing to do,” he advises, “is to identify the candidate closest to your values. Then go to events, network with friends, and be willing to make a few phone calls.”

Anderson is cautiously optimistic when parents want to make politics a family event. He advises them to “go slow,” suggesting that “the biggest issue is burnout. Let your kids see it as fun, but don’t kill them with too many events.”

Campaigning at church

It was not surprising to find Baptists working and volunteering for candidates such as Hunter and Huckabee, who are both confessing believers and members of Baptist churches. But it was more of a surprise to find Gov. Mitt Romney’s staff populated with Regular Baptists such as Christine Trahms, who holds a degree in international relations from Wartburg College and a seminary degree from Faith Baptist Theological Seminary (FBTS) in Ankeny. Trahms does not see any difficulty working for a candidate with faith roots in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and she does not hesitate to recommend his values.

“I don’t push politics in my church, but as people come to me, I tell them we’re not electing a pastor-in-chief,” Trahms said. “If we were choosing a seminary dean, we’d ask about his theology and statement of faith. But if people would study Mitt Romney’s positions, they would see he has the right position on our core issues.”

Noting that several of the candidates at the straw poll have similar positions on social issues, Trahms chose to work with Romney because “he is very electable and covers a broad spectrum of viewpoints.” She also observed that others were volunteering for “second or third tier candidates without national appeal.”

Christine was recruited by a seminary student at FBTS, Joe Earle, who is the outreach advisor for the Iowa Mitt Romney campaign, having previously held a similar position with the 2004 Bush campaign. “I work to get people of faith to support Mitt Romney for president,” explained Earle, who has also worked with Iowa Christian Alliance to develop issue awareness among voters.

Like Trahms, Earle says Romney is the most electable of the straw poll candidates, adding, “Other candidates are less viable. You have to have public support to actually win. And he has leadership. Everything the man has touched has turned to gold.”

Earle also described some of the spiritual pressures experienced by full-time campaign staffers. “We worked grueling hours on the Bush campaign. Even with good intentions it was hard to get to church,” said Earle. “And in every element of politics there are people here working for the wrong reasons. Some of the things that go on are ridiculous.”

As a candidate, Rep. Duncan Hunter makes it a practice to attend church every Sunday when on the campaign trail—but he does not consider these to be political visits. “Visiting church can be a great way to meet the citizens of a community,” Hunter says. “Sometimes I’m formally introduced by the pastor, and sometimes I just attend the service. For me, it is a time of weekly renewal from the pace of the political campaign. You don’t need a political agenda to attend church. You go for the spiritual benefits.”

Those who are involved in politics and religion should cultivate the ability to separate a political agenda from the spiritual benefits of the church, Hunter said.

Christine Trahms cautioned against rejecting political involvement entirely, saying, “It’s been a frustration of mine because Christians often don’t know about the candidates. But I can see that changing—we’re getting more Christians interested in politics.” Joe Earle had been tapping into this potential when he worked for the Iowa Christian Alliance, preparing nonpartisan voter guides that describe each candidate’s position on a variety of issues of interest to church members. Now his new position involves taking the idea of an informed voter one step further—asking voters to mobilize for a particular candidate, rather than for a given set of issues.

During the straw poll campaign Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Duncan Hunter also made attempts to organize voters around their conservative social values, and both candidates held events specifically for Iowa Regular Baptist pastors. As pastors attend such events, questions often are asked about the limits of political involvement.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican presidential candidate who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the same year Ronald Reagan became president, recalled churches being less careful about such things: “I can remember the pastor of my home church in California stepping to the pulpit and saying, ‘Vote for the Reagan of your choice.’ We wouldn’t do that now!”

David C. Gibbs of the Christian Law Association has written a related article on page 16, “Churches, Politics, and the IRS.”

Money, the root of politics

Not much has changed since Joseph L. Kane told Joseph Kennedy, “It takes three things to win. The first is money and the second is money and the third is money.”

The straw poll is actually a fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party. In theory, each voter pays $35 for an admission ticket prior to voting. But in practice, many of the candidates snap up large blocks of tickets and give them away to those who promise votes. Campaign staff members pass out free T-shirts, cold drinks, barbecue sandwiches, and ice cream to anyone willing to cast a vote.

Prior to the Iowa event, a columnist for the Des Moines Register asked, “Are the Iowa caucuses becoming a pay-to-play proposition? Are we just a bunch of money-grubbing hacks forcing presidential candidates to pay tribute?”

More specifically, some candidates could afford to spend more than others. The night before the voting, Rep. Duncan Hunter told us, “The other guys have spent a lot of money here. But if someone votes for me tomorrow, they paid for their own ticket.”

Gov. Mike Huckabee raised the same issue in his speech the next morning, saying, “I’m not the best-funded candidate in America. I can’t buy you—I don’t have the money. I can’t even rent you. We are not going to elect a president based on the raising of money but based on the raising of hopes and ideas that can make us a better and freer nation.”

Meanwhile, the freer-spending candidates would prefer to keep such questions in the background. Alex Burgos, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, sat in on the interview with Christine Trahms, punching at his BlackBerry while reciting a long list of statistics about the Romney campaign’s Iowa efforts: the number of trips, civic events, and town hall meetings that were scheduled along the 4,500-mile circuit of Iowa counties.

But when I interrupted to ask how much money the campaign was spending in Iowa, Burgos quickly answered, “No, I don’t have that information.”

Patrick Anderson, having worked for three of the lesser-funded candidates, summed it up by saying, “In many ways, it’s still the Sam’s Club vs. the Country Club Republicans.”

Campaigning on campus

Scott Kroger and his twin brother, John, were originally recruited by Joe Earle for the 2004 Bush campaign, when they organized an informal group of Young Republicans on the campus of Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Ankeny. Now they have a similar role as volunteers for Gov. Mike Huckabee.

“American Christians have a real responsibility,” said Scott. “We are told to ‘honor the king,’ but we have the opportunity to choose the king we honor.”

John recalled their start in political organizing: “We got about a third of the student body out to a Bush rally. Because we did so well at getting a lot of students to the Bush campaign, the Grassley campaign started to call me to mobilize the Faith students.”

Their informal campus organizing led to a few comical moments. John remembered putting a large campaign sign in front of the men’s dorms. “But by 7:00 p.m. it had disappeared, and we got a call telling us the sign was in the maintenance building,” said John. “The only reason they took it down was to prevent anyone who was cynical from criticizing the college for being a one-candidate organization. Still, the school is okay on grassroots efforts.”

Scott added, “And the faculty encourages the students to be politically involved without telling them which candidate to support.”

Despite the fact that both men are finishing seminary classes and attend Community Baptist Church in Ankeny, neither is overly optimistic about the mix of religion and politics. “I don’t think we should push for a Christian nation,” suggests Scott, with John quickly adding, “Too many sinful people for that to happen.”

Scott concludes by saying, “I would hope that a voter’s Christian beliefs would lead them to a conservative political position.”

Finding ideal candidates

“None of these candidates are the Second Coming,” offered Patrick Anderson. “They all have character flaws and weaknesses in their positions. We have a responsibility to make wise choices.” Anderson suggests that a sense of discernment and balance is necessary in a campaign where no candidate is perfect or ideal.

While standing halfway between two campaign tents, I talked to another voter who noted that several candidates were Baptists sharing similar social values. But while eating Hunter ice cream and drinking from a Huckabee water bottle, the voter also asked if any candidate completely represented the voter’s views.

“Do we really want to vote for a guy who plays bass guitar in a rock band?” he asked, as Gov. Mike Huckabee thumped the theme to “Roll Over Beethoven” in the background. Then I looked over his shoulder toward the Elvis Presley impersonator on the Duncan Hunter stage (“Friends, Ahm Elvis reborn, thank you very much”) and began to see the voter’s dilemma.

Throughout the day, other workers offered private concerns about candidates with wine and cheese fund-raisers, candidates who spent good hard-earned money on air-conditioned circus tents, and candidates articulating their third (different) position regarding abortion-on-demand.

It is here that Anderson’s solution begins to make sense. In a political arena where “none of these candidates are the Second Coming,” many Regular Baptists in Iowa are taking seriously their “responsibility to make wise choices.”

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