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Faith in Politics: Iowans agree religion used for political gain

Faith plays an important role in politics across the nation, but maybe more so in Iowa. A recent poll from NBC News/Marist shows 91 percent of potential Republican caucusgoers in the state identify as either protestant or Catholic. Of those, 40 percent consider themselves fundamentalist or evangelical Christians.

Bob_vander_plaats_125_2156.jpg
Bob_vander_plaats_125_2156.jpg

Bob Vander Plaats

That same poll also shows potential Republican caucusgoers place more importance on whether a candidate shares their values than their stances on issues, experience or electability. Thirty-one percent identified shared values as the most important quality of a presidential candidate, compared to 29 percent for stances on issues, 19 percent for governing experience and 18 percent for ability to defeat President Obama in 2012.

Bob Vander Plaats, a three-time Republican gubernatorial candidate and head of the social conservative advocacy group The Family Leader, said he doesn’t want to name names but there are those that exploit faith.

That’s not the case at The Family Leader, Vander Plaats said. He noted the group has another ministry called Marriage Matters, which works with churches and couples “to strengthen marriage.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/matt_mccoy_125.jpgMatt McCoy

“Everybody knows our stance on marriage and we believe that’s when you walk away from God’s design that will be a negative impact on our culture,” Vander Plaats said. “We don’t just say that in the public realm.”

State Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) also thinks religion is exploited for political gain, and he thinks more of that could be soon seen in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

“It’s no coincidence that politicians use religious figures and visits to religious figures at key times in their election when they know they need to move their base,” said McCoy, who’s openly gay. “I would expect Mitt Romney to have a lot of religious visits and conversations with Christian leaders to try to appear more mainstream in that Christian community. I think he’ll go out and seek appearances at some of the mainstream Evangelical churches.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/kim_pearson_125.jpgKim Pearson

Another state legislator, Rep. Kim Pearson (R-Pleasant Hill), said politicians “absolutely” exploit religion. But she noted that’s not the only thing that politicians exploit.

“I think there’s politicians that exploit unions, to be honest, [and] union members,” Pearson said. “I believe that there are people that will say and do anything to get elected and use their base to get into office. I think they’re going to have a rude awakening pretty soon and people are starting understand the two-party system is corrupt and people aren’t going to stand for it any longer.”

Pearson broke party ranks several times last year as a freshman legislator. She pushed for more restrictions on abortions; worked for a public referendum on same-sex marriage; and wanted to oust Iowa Supreme Court justices that ruled in favor of the practice.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/connie_ryan_terrell_125.jpgConnie Ryan Terrell

She’s promised to recruit more conservative Republicans to challenge moderate GOP incumbents in the Iowa House, and said constituents are starting to more closely watch what politicians do, not just what they say.

“I think that’s probably why there will be primary challenges to some of the House Republicans,” Pearson said.

Connie Ryan Terrell, who heads the Iowa Interfaith Alliance, said there’s no question some politicians exploit religious traditions and the people that believe in those faiths. Politicians “take advantage of that rather than speaking to the electorate as a whole,” she said.

“Whether it’s a presidential candidate or a legislative candidate, they would be representing all of that constituency,” Terrell said. “And to speak only to a select group of people based on faith is dangerous and quite frankly wrong.”

(Editor’s note: This is the second part in a “Faith in Politics” series. The first part examined how Iowans view the role of faith in politics.)

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