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Iowa caucuses: Southern Baptists ‘highly involved’

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP) — Iowa pastor Todd Stiles had a specific prayer for caucus season: “Lord, come quickly, and till then, help me stand strongly.”

Southern Baptists across the Hawkeye State apparently agreed with the sentiment because many, including pastors, stood for biblical principles during caucus season, campaigning for the presidential candidates they believed would best represent their values.

Iowa pastors and state convention staff members spoke for candidates at their respective caucus sites — in keeping with a unique feature of Iowa’s caucus process. Some agreed to serve as delegates to Republican county conventions — another unique feature of Iowa’s process. And at least two Southern Baptist churches allowed their buildings to be used as caucus sites — one Democratic and one Republican.

“Iowa Southern Baptists are engaged and involved,” said Stiles, pastor of First Family Church in Ankeny, Iowa. “They’re part of that evangelical vote that affects the caucuses so much, and I’m glad about that. I’m glad we are plugged in, connected, vocal and at the same time kind and compassionate.”

National commentators said evangelical support, which included that of Southern Baptists, was a key factor in propelling Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to victory in the Feb. 1 Republican caucuses. In the Democratic Party, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently edged Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a race where each garnered roughly 50 percent of the available “delegate equivalents” — Iowa Democrats’ method of counting support for each candidate.

‘Impact our culture for righteousness’

Stiles, a Republican, went to his local caucus “hoping” to support former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee because he believed Huckabee had a viable strategy for overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision. But upon sensing Huckabee’s lack of momentum at the caucus site, Stiles caucused for Cruz, deciding a vote for the Texas senator was a more practical way to defend unborn life this election cycle.

Huckabee announced via Twitter he was suspending his campaign after receiving less than 2 percent support in the caucuses.

Stiles didn’t tell members of First Family which candidates he was considering because he feared people with different political preferences could feel inhibited from coming to him with spiritual needs.

“One of the balancing aspects of pastoring in Iowa during caucus time is helping the flock stay focused on our truest longing — God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven — while still calling them to ‘let their light shine before men’ and impact our culture for righteousness,” Stiles said.

Tim Lubinus, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa, agreed that sharing the Gospel and meeting spiritual needs is believers’ top priority. Still, he has been open since October about his support for Cruz, believing silence “is a more awkward response” than stating his preference among Iowa’s politically vocal population.

Lubinus was a “caucus captain” who spoke for Cruz at his precinct in Ames, Iowa, and later volunteered as a Cruz delegate for the county GOP convention. Leading up to caucus night, he made phone calls for Cruz and campaigned with yard signs and social media posts.

Last fall, Lubinus helped schedule Cruz’s father, evangelist Rafael Cruz, to speak on Christian civic involvement for 10 minutes at the state convention’s annual meeting.

“Several pastors” volunteered on the campaigns of specific candidates, Lubinus told Baptist Press, and Iowa Southern Baptists engaged in “friendly discussion” of the caucuses despite their varied candidate preferences. “All acknowledge there are several candidates to choose from and no candidate is perfect.”

Churches as caucus sites

Northbrook Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, hosted a Democratic caucus, though pastor John Janke told BP, “We wouldn’t identify ourselves as Republican or Democrat. Our affiliation is to a different Kingdom when it’s all said and done.”

An officer with the Linn County Democratic Central Committee contacted the church and asked if it would be willing to host a caucus, Janke said. Northbrook agreed on the condition that Planned Parenthood and other organizations “promoting things that would be against our values” not be allowed to post signs in the building or make speeches advocating their causes.

The Democratic Party officer agreed and said he was “ecstatic” at Northbrook’s willingness to help, Janke said.

Churches typically don’t volunteer as caucus sites, Lubinus explained, but are approached by party officials if their facilities appear to be logical places for community gatherings.

Tim Trudeau, pastor of Grace Community Church in Boone, Iowa, said “Christians turned out in droves” at caucuses in his area.

“There were 1,500 people at my [Republican] caucus site,” Trudeau told BP. “And as I looked around…, you could see Christians all over the crowd.” He noted a “heavy gravitation toward the Republican Party” among Iowa evangelicals.

Trudeau disclosed the candidate he supported only to a small circle of friends — a feat possible for Iowa Republicans because they vote by secret ballot in contrast to Democrats, who vote by physically standing with fellow supporters of their candidates. Trudeau volunteered to serve as a delegate for his candidate at the county GOP convention and would like to serve as a delegate for district and state Republican conventions as well.

A fellow member of Grace spoke for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at his caucus site, Trudeau said.

Dave Miller, pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa, also supported Rubio. He went to his caucus site prepared to speak for Rubio but wasn’t allowed to do so when speeches were limited to official representatives of the candidates due to large turnout.

“We began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer by a good Southern Baptist brother (from our sister church),” Miller wrote on his live blog of the caucus. “There are hundreds of people here who were not here last time and many who were registering — previous independent voters who have decided to join the party for the caucus.”

‘One vote at a time’

Southern Baptists and other evangelicals influence the caucuses because of their commitment more than their raw numbers, Lubinus said, adding Iowa is “a state with a lot more of the mainline denominations than evangelical denominations.”

Because attending a caucus takes at least an hour, “only the highly committed participate,” Lubinus said. “Well, one of the groups that’s highly committed and involved in the process is evangelicals. So our participation in the caucus isn’t a function of our numbers. It’s a function of our commitment to the process.”

In a Feb. 1 op-ed for Fox News, Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd urged evangelicals across the country to exert similar influence on the political process.

“The Christian worldview gives us a valuable perspective on important questions related to helping the poor, maximizing individual freedoms, dignifying life, strengthening families, protecting the unborn, and guarding religious freedom,” wrote Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas. “Without our votes, that voice is absent.”

He concluded, “Make no mistake, evangelicals have the ability to determine the course of America’s future, one vote at a time.”