CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA — “Billboard” Bob Klaus, a local advertising company owner wearing a red, signed Donald Trump baseball cap and Trump socks to match his star spangled leather jacket and American flag cross necklace, said he lives in a house divided.
Klaus, a self-described evangelical Christian who hosts Good Friday prayer breakfasts, said his wife was considering backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, but later leaned toward entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
As for him?
“It’s Trump,” said Klaus.
For Klaus, who echoed many other Iowa Republicans, the decision came down in part to Trump’s Supreme Court picks, which led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and his alignment with some Christian leaders. But Trump’s current legal problems — 91 criminal charges across four indictments including allegations involving paying hush money to an adult-film star and trying to overturn the 2020 election — along with his fight against what he calls the “deep state,” prompted Klaus to liken him to David in his fight against Goliath.
“That’s why we as Republicans have to come together and stand behind him,” said Klaus.
For years, White conservative evangelicals have played a crucial role in determining who wins the Republican caucuses that kick off the nominating process. And this year, they are showing strong support for Trump, according to interviews with Republican voters, strategists and Christian leaders across the state. The decision in some ways reflects a shift from the kind of late-breaking underdog candidates they have embraced in the past, who had deeper roots in Christian churches, and Trump’s enduring dominance across much of the GOP spectrum.
In several ways, Trump is an unlikely hero for those who identify as deeply religious Christians given his history of committing adultery, promoting falsehoods, and uttering vulgar comments and insults about women and people who cross him. But many have overlooked these indiscretions and questionable morals.
“The support has gone from begrudging to enthusiastic. Many evangelicals now see Trump as their champion and defender — perhaps even savior,” said Barry Hankins, a history professor at Baylor University who is an expert in evangelicalism. “Unwittingly, in my view, many evangelicals are welcoming authoritarianism and courting blasphemy.”
Evangelicals made up two-thirds of Republican caucus-goers in 2016, when Trump fell just short in Iowa to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who anchored his campaign in deep outreach to the evangelical community and claimed a plurality of support from born-again or evangelical Christians, according to network entrance polls. Cruz was another example of an insurgent campaign that surged late with the support of Christian conservatives, including some influential Iowa Christian leaders, coming after similar victories by Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008.
In those contests, however, evangelical voters were more evenly divided than they have appeared to be this year at times in the run-up to the caucuses. Cruz won 34 percent of their vote and Santorum captured 32 percent. Huckabee had a larger consolidation and won 46 percent of evangelical Christians.
But this time around, they have largely lined up behind the candidate in Trump who has long been the favorite here. And in large measure, the reasons they stand behind him are the reasons much of the rest of his base does, including Trump’s claims, without evidence, that he is the target of a politically-motivated attack through the justice system.
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that Trump’s description of the Justice Department and other government agencies as being weaponized against him resonates with evangelicals who feel as if the federal government “a lot of times, is not their friend.”
DeSantis has tried the blueprint of past three Iowa winners in open races — none of whom went on to win the nomination. He and his wife, Casey DeSantis, have crisscrossed the state visiting churches on Sundays. He embraced polarizing debates on social issues, passing a six-week abortion ban in Florida and curbing discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools. He won the coveted endorsement of Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader.
Trump’s pull is evident even in some of the efforts DeSantis’s evangelical allies are waging to boost him. Vander Plaats, who has been highly critical of Trump, wrote in an op-ed that “caucusing for Ron DeSantis is a good way to be a friend to Donald Trump.” In the piece, Vander Plaats argues that DeSantis is better-positioned to fight the “bureaucracy” and that “a DeSantis presidency ensures justice for Trump.”
A Des Moines Register survey in early December found 51 percent of evangelical caucus-goers were planning to support Trump — up from 44 percent in October. Another 26 percent said they would support DeSantis, while 12 percent backed former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. In that same survey, most respondents said that the Vander Plaats endorsement didn’t matter.
Standing outside a commit-to-caucus rally in Clinton, Iowa, recently, Paul Figie, a pastor and a Trump caucus captain, said Trump is “ordained by God.” He pointed to how he has seen Trump as being mistreated by the justice system and Democrats, equating the former president to a martyr. He dismissed the viability of other candidates, saying he was convinced that a higher power would put Trump back in office.
“Trump is the guy to be in there, and amen,” he said.
Trump has accused the Biden administration of discriminating against people of faith, suggesting at a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, that “Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted and government has been weaponized against religion like never before.” Fact-checkers, however, have debunked that claim. Experts on religious liberty, such as John Inazu from Washington University in St. Louis, cite multiple major religion-related Supreme Court cases and say religious freedom is perhaps more protected than ever.
Trump has leaned into biblical comparisons. He recently shared on Truth Social a nearly three-minute-long video depicting him as a messiah — and played it at a rally. A narrator intones that “on June 14, 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker,’ so God gave us Trump” as a baby picture of Trump fills the screen.
Some evangelicals in Iowa found the video distasteful and criticized the former president for promoting it.
“That upset a lot of people, including myself, because Trump isn’t our messiah, and he’s not heir apparent,” said Michael Demastus, a pastor of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, who has not revealed who he is supporting, but said it would not be Trump.
Iowa Senate President Amy Sinclair, who has endorsed DeSantis, was also critical of the video.
“If you have to make yourself into a Christian by making a video then you’re probably trying too hard,” she said. “Maybe you should just act like one instead.”
Both Demastus and Sinclair also argued that Trump alienated evangelicals in Iowa when he called the state’s six-week abortion ban “terrible.”
“That’s just a slap in the face to the people of the state of Iowa who frankly launched him in 2016,” Sinclair said.
Many of Trump’s critics here believe DeSantis will do well with devout evangelicals, but that more casual worshipers who identify as evangelical will gravitate to Trump. Strategists with the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, which has effectively been running DeSantis’s field operation in Iowa, have tracked voters’ faith habits in great detail and have long argued Iowa is favorable territory for DeSantis in part because of high levels of “Bible reading.”
Meanwhile Haley, who is competing with DeSantis to be the main Trump alternative, is less of a natural fit for conservative evangelical voters in Iowa, especially because she’s seen as being wishy-washy over her support for a national abortion ban. (Haley has said she would sign a federal abortion ban if one was passed by Congress, but she reiterated that the odds of that happening are slim given a lack of consensus.) But she has won some support of notable evangelical leaders in the state, including Marlys Popma, a former president of Iowa Right to Life who said in a new ad that Haley will “keep the radical left from ruining our culture” and “won’t let boys play girls’ sports.”
“Nikki is a sister in Christ,” Popma says in the spot running in Iowa.
At the New Hope Assembly of God, a Des Moines suburb church that attracts thousands of attendees weekly, Pastor James Weaver said he will caucus for Haley. Weaver, who founded the church over 30 years ago, said he’s drawn to Haley because of her foreign policy experience and her potential electability in a general election.
Chip Saltsman, a GOP consultant who ran Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, said evangelical voters often are depicted as only caring about issues of faith, but said that like other voters, they also care about the economy and world events.
“I think some campaigns make the mistake of putting the evangelical voters in this box that only care about pro-life issues or the Supreme Court. There’s a lot more to that group of voter than just that,” he said. “Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s motivated them. It’s important to them. It’s a moral issue. It’s a political, all that is true, but there’s more to them than that.”
On a recent Sunday outside Walnut Creek Church in downtown Des Moines, Mark McColley, 71, explained why he is backing Trump, citing his experience.
“I am very disappointed that this country has been so brutal on Donald Trump,” he said. “It’s really brutalized him for the last six to eight years. And I don’t think that that’s warranted. I think he cares about this country. And I think that’s an important thing that we need to have.”
Itkowitz reported from Washington. Knowles reported from Iowa. LeVine reported from Des Moines. Scott Clement and Michelle Boorstein in Washington contributed to this report.