Undecided Iowa Evangelicals Pray For an Answer
DES MOINES, Iowa-Just a few weeks ago, Kerry Jech, the pastor of New Hope Christian Church in Marshalltown, about an hour Northeast of here, was praying that he and other evangelicals like him would coalesce around one GOP presidential candidate. Now, he doesn't see that happening, but he's still looking towards God for an answer.
"I'm just really confused, I just don't know at this point who is the best one to support and I'm not sure what's going to push us one direction or the other," Jech said, with just over two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Faced with such a difficult decision, Jech said he's turning to the "Holy Spirit" for guidance.
Jech spoke to ABC News after the premiere of an anti-abortion film co-produced by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee last week. Four of the GOP candidates: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich spoke and pitched themselves to the crowd before the anti-abortion rights film.
The evangelical community here is a large and influential voting bloc. In 2008, 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelicals, according to ABC News pollster Gary Langer. That group, which includes politically active home school families, coalesced around former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, helping him beat Mitt Romney here despite the ten million dollars he poured into the state.
This time there is no Huckabee to coalesce around, the electorate is splintered, and although most would like to ensure Romney's defeat on Jan. 3 there is no one candidate the group is rallying around.
Huckabee told ABC News before the film premiere that he won't endorse before the caucuses and may not until after the primary fight ends, saying he "doesn't have that settled in my own heart yet." He's not concerned that evangelical voters are split on who to support, adding if Romney is the nominee he will be "out there campaigning for him vigorously and unflinchingly."
"I'm not worried that among the Republican candidates that any of them are going to betray the core issues that matter to conservatives," Huckabee said. "When people start fighting amongst themselves as candidates who's the most conservative, I'm thinking all of them are conservative. Look at that field up there compared to Obama, they are very conservative."
Huckabee added that he doesn't think evangelical voters' confusion means they are dissatisfied and instead it means the GOP candidates have all "brought qualities to the race."
"I tend to look at it that all of them have something to offer and that voters are having a hard time choosing because they are all good candidates and I've said this many times and I'll say it again, whoever is the nominee from the field of candidates that we have, I believe it will be a much better choice than Barack Obama will be and Republicans will unite around that candidate," Huckabee said.
Jech, the pastor from Marshalltown, said he's choosing between the four candidates that addressed the forum: Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry, but both he and his wife Jane, who's running for state senate, may not have a decision before they walk in to caucus on Jan. 3.
He said a splintered evangelical electorate that brings Romney a win or helps him do well here "continues to be a concern" of his and just late last month he met with other conservative evangelical leaders about trying to unite behind one of the candidates so that does not happen. However, now he's just looking to God to help make his own decision.
"I'm just going to rely upon the Lord to do that, to work that out. Put it in his hands and say, 'You know what? Somebody is going to have to drop out and throw their support to another individual or you're going to have to raise up an individual,' I don't know that I personally am going to try and actively do that." Jech said. "If the caucus were held tonight, man, it would be tough for me to go in there and say, "Who am I going for?" Who am I going to support?"
Julie Crawford is a pastor at The Base, a church in Des Moines, under the umbrella of Jubilee International Ministries. In an interview after a prayer group last week in the state capitol, she told ABC News that she and her husband are also torn over whom to caucus for.
"We are all praying, trying to hear from the throne room what God would have us to do," Crawford said. "We know the nation is watching and we don't take it flippantly and it's too important who leads our nation."
Crawford supported Huckabee in the last cycle and says this time "there is no perfect candidate."
"Everyone is struggling," Crawford said, referring to evangelical voters. "All of them have key issues that we don't agree with, but they also have issues that we do agree with, things that just resonate with our hearts that we can say yes that's the person for me. But there's no one person that has everything so we really need to hear from the Lord and choose wisely because our nation is not in a good place right now."
Crawford said she is deciding between two or three of the candidates. She was reluctant to say who she was deciding between, but said she was not considering Romney or Rick Perry.
"I have Christian friends in Texas, that's who they are going to vote for. They are adamant about it. They are Texans, that doesn't mean I wouldn't consider him 8 years from now. I'm not sure I'm ready to vote for him," Crawford said. "I'm not comfortable yet anyway but I'll keep watching him."
She said she's "not thrilled" with Gingrich's past which includes three wives and admissions of infidelity, but said she believes he has repented to God.
"If you can't be faithful to your spouse what other things would you be willing to compromise on?" Crawford asked. "And that's important, but…if somebody repents, that's between him and God and I'm going to trust that that is a true repentance and move on from that. We don't keep throwing that it in their face. We've all made mistakes and we would like to know we are forgiven. God say he does."
Her most important issues are abortion, same sex marriage, and illegal immigration.
She sees Bachmann as being the "most articulate" on abortion and same sex marriage calling her stances "unwavering." Despite Gingrich being on her list she does have a problem with his immigration stance.
For Crawford, she doesn't "trust" Romney and is "not comfortable" with him, adding that she doesn't think he's conservative enough for her.
Like Jech, she said if all evangelicals coalesced around one of the candidates it would be "ideal," but she also doesn't see it happening.
"It may come down to two (candidates), but there probably is three if you ask most groups," Crawford said.
Many evangelicals in the state will look to leaders in the faith and who they choose to back. Both Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann have earned the support of some high profile evangelical leaders, but one person still on the sidelines is Bob Vander Plaats. He heads The Family Leader, a well-known social conservative group in the state. The group is still discussing who they will lend their support to, but the decision is expected to come early next week. Vander Plaats is one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the state and The Family Leader's endorsement is highly coveted by the GOP candidates campaigning here. Chuck Hurley, who heads the Iowa Family Policy Center, part of The Family Leader, attended the meetings with Kerry Jech when they tried to select a candidate to coalesce around. Hurley also sponsors the prayer group that Crawford was attending at the capitol.
Although The Family Leader has yet to endorse, last week in an interview with ABC News Vander Plaats spoke positively about Gingrich, despite his past, saying, "Is Newt flawed? You bet he's flawed…But, Bob Vander Plaats is flawed as well."
"The heart of our Christian faith, which doesn't get talked enough about is forgiveness," Vander Plaats said. "When there's life change, the scripture says the heavens rejoice. Well, if scripture says that, then we probably should rejoice as well."
Vander Plaats may be considering Gingrich, but other Christian groups in the state are urging him to back someone else. An anonymous shadow group called Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government are behind fliers and a web video criticizing Gingrich. They recently posted a Christmas-themed video urging Vander Plaats not to endorse Gingrich calling him "the family leaver." A pastor that has backed Santorum put out a web video calling Gingrich the "Kim Kardashian of the GOP," while a pastor that supports Bachmann called the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives "a fine empty suit with a broken zipper."
And other evangelical leaders have criticized Gingrich for not signing The Family Leader's marriage vow. Gingrich wrote a written response pledging to be faithful to his wife, Callista, but he did not sign the pledge.
He may still have an advantage in winning the high profile backing: the former House speaker helped raise $200,000 to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges in 2010 for their support of same-sex marriage.