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Social issues bring out the religious communities for 2012

Sunday services are more than a sermon from the pulpit in Iowa during election season — congregants may see a future President in the crowd.

2012 candidates have been mainstays in several Christian denominational churches throughout Iowa — and the nation — as campaigns heat up and candidates brace themselves for Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll. Though candidates, like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) or former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, do not deliver campaign messages, members in the religious Christian community are taking note of the political guests in their churches and parishes.

Typically, religious communities have stayed out of politics, with faith leaders keeping quiet on candidate endorsements, for fear of losing their tax-exempt status. However, as time passed, and social issues — same-sex marriage and abortion specifically — became hot topics on Capitol Hill, congregations have sounded off with increased frequency on issues they value and want their national leaders to take note.

Bob Vander Plaats

As well, third party organizations with a religious background, like Bob Vander Plaats‘s The Family Leader, have connected with Republican candidates over core values, and drawn candidates to events where religious and social conservatives are most vocal, and where the GOP candidates are likely to find voters who hold their values, as opposed to a county GOP event.

Rev. [Jerry] Falwell and others who came later made the point that what the politicians and liberal interest groups were doing affected things they cared about: family, community, etc., and encouraged [religious group] to get involved and to engage in the political fights over the things they found important,” Dr. Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor, said of Christian congregations. Falwell was the 1979 founder of the conservative Moral Majority, a group that lobbied for Evangelical Christian agendas.

And the religious community has wasted no time speaking up when it comes to 2012 — even at the behest of some White House contenders.

Recently, Bachmann’s campaign released a list of more than 100 Iowa pastors and religious leaders who are endorsing her for president. Bachmann, a self-identified Evangelical Lutheran, is staunchly anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, a large part of her appeal, according to two of the pastors who endorsed her.

“Michele has fearlessly taken a stand for life and traditional marriage, while championing fiscally conservative legislation,” Rev. Brad Cranston, a Baptist pastor from Burlington, said in a release from Bachmann’s campaign.

The list specifies the endorsements are personal, and do not speak for the congregation itself. Yet, Bachmann has not been shy about presenting herself as both a presidential candidate and person of faith to Iowa congregations during worship services.

Churches, including the non-denominational Christian Point of Grace Church in suburban Des Moines, have been sites of non-campaign events featuring GOP presidential hopefuls. Last winter, Point of Grace hosted the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring event, attended by candidates former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and prominent businessman Herman Cain.

Finally, last Thursday, Cain said he will encourage the religious community to engage more actively in the political process.

“If churches don’t mobilize and get involved in the political process, the moral crisis (in America) will deepen,” Cain, a Baptist minister, said during a Des Moines appearance, added “the religious community has to speak up, stand up.”

But whether it’s the actual religious community becoming more engaged, or candidates turning their focus toward voters who share the same view on social issues depends on who one asks.

As Hagle put it, “there’s a difference between showing up for worshiping at a church in a county and coming to some other event” like a GOP County Central Committee picnic.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/huckabee_125.jpgMike Huckabee

“This may be partly a matter of the media paying more attention to those [religious and social] groups this time around, but it’s also likely that the candidates are, too,” Hagle said. “I don’t know that Christian conservatives are necessarily participating more this campaign season… but don’t forget that [former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee took second at the 2007 Straw Poll and won the 2008 caucuses, and folks said it was largely due to the participation of social conservatives. The seeming difference this time is that folks are looking at the social conservative groups more closely due to the apparent success in mobilizing them last time.”

Dr. Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, disagreed. In commentary for insideriowa.com, where Schmidt is an associate editor, he noted the Bachmann endorsement list indicates “the religious community in Iowa is taking a more public and visible political position.”

A religious backing can propel at candidate at straw polls and caucuses. But, it’s a double-edged sword, he continued.

“That ‘faith-based’ political blessing will be important to the large plurality in the GOP who see religious values and

social conservative issues as very important,” Schmidt said. “On the other hand, too close a religious connection and neglecting the USA economy and jobs will seriously hurt any GOP candidate in states where the religious community and social-conservative issues are less important.”

Either way, Hagle didn’t speculate that a focus on social issues over fiscal agendas would be a driving force in dividing the party; that has been a point of contention between different political analysts, some of whom believe the tea party movement and religious conservative influence may divide the Republican Party at a time when unity to defeat President Barack Obama is crucial.

“I don’t know that it causes that much division or friction between party people and certain subgroups, mainly because there’s usually a lot of overlap between them anyway,” he said. ” That said, there probably are counties where because of the specific people involved you have frictions or rivalries that can be made worse if a candidate attends this event but not that one.”

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