How Trump Captured Iowa’s Religious Right

How Trump Captured Iowa’s Religious Right

This past December, a part of the Iowa state capitol became a minor crime scene. For two weeks, the building had displayed seasonal dioramas, and one, alongside the Nativity scenes and menorahs, was especially eye-catching: a six-foot-tall robed figure with a ram’s head meant to be the pagan god Baphomet. It was sponsored by the local Satanic Temple and placed somewhat discreetly on the basement floor, in the armpit of a side stairwell. But it wasn’t long before a pressure campaign was mounted to remove it.

In Iowa, where conservatives have been consolidating their political power, Republican leaders seemed inclined to act as if the Baphomet display was not a big deal—a symbolic protest, at most, in a state that they run. Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, said, “In a free society, the best response to objectionable speech is more speech,” but that seemed only to fan the flames. Jon Dunwell, an Iowa legislator and evangelical pastor, had tweeted support for Reynolds’s position, then watched as his tweet accumulated five million views and thousands of denunciations. “So I feel like I am one of the most hated pastors in all of America right now,” Dunwell told me when we met, on December 14th, on the second floor of the capitol. “People would say to me, ‘Forget the Constitution, it’s a dead document. You’re a Christian first.’ ”

A few hours earlier, a thirty-five-year-old military veteran named Michael Cassidy, who was the runner-up in a congressional primary in Mississippi, in 2022, had driven to Des Moines, located the pagan display, and destroyed it. Then Cassidy turned himself in to the police. “There is a vein in my party of Christian nationalism,” Dunwell told me. That faction, he went on, was generally associated with the Trump movement and did not take the traditional approach toward politics—that Christian conservatives should try to elect people who would reflect their views and influence government. “It literally is their belief that Christianity should be the supreme religion of the United States, and everything should be judged in subjection to that.”

Dunwell, who was wearing clear-framed glasses and a blue bow tie, is a compact, caffeinated man in his fifties. In some sense, the evangelical right that he represented was having a banner year. In 2022, the Republican wave that failed to materialize in most places had arrived in force in Iowa, delivering a supermajority in the state Senate. Reynolds had promptly signed a “fetal heartbeat” bill, effectively limiting abortion to six weeks, and an expansive school-choice measure that had failed the year before. But, in the run-up to the caucuses, something had changed.

In November, Reynolds announced her endorsement of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, joining earlier commitments by the state Senate president and state House majority leader. Two weeks later, the evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, whose endorsement was so coveted that, for months, Politico had been breathlessly reporting about the “Vander Plaats primary,” declared that he was for DeSantis, too. In most cases, these Republicans tended to emphasize their personal disgust with Donald Trump. “I’ve never met a mom, or a dad, or a grandpa, or a grandma who wants their son or grandson to grow up to be like him,” Vander Plaats has said. Steve Deace, an Iowa talk-show host with a base among evangelicals, took aim at the treatment of Trump as a theological figure, tweeting, “We already have a Messiah to place our hope and faith in.”

But, when the authoritative Des Moines Register poll came out in mid-December, it showed that none of the endorsements had changed the dynamic: DeSantis was still at fifteen per cent, and Trump was far ahead, basically out of sight, at fifty per cent. It had been fourth-and-one; the conservative leaders had given their big anti-Trump push. They’d been, it seemed, stuffed.

In tweeting about the Baphomet statue, Dunwell, who was also supporting DeSantis, had cited Ephesians 6—“The Armor of God”—saying that hope was the breastplate of righteousness. “And Christians are running back and saying, ‘Don’t hand me that weak effeminate Christianity,’ ” Dunwell told me. “So I gotta pull a sword out now and have some sort of muscular Christianity?” He began speaking more quickly. “It grieves my soul,” he said. “These Christians—they call me a boomer. They say my generation of Christianity is the reason America is this way, not because we were ineffective in transforming lives but because we weren’t bold enough to grab the sinner by the neck and throw him down and enforce the laws of God. And that, to me, is scary. It’s a little bit—it can be Talibanistic.” Dunwell laughed grimly and added, “If I can use that word.”

We walked down a flight of stairs to look at what remained of the Baphomet statue. The base was intact, the ram’s head was sitting on top of it, and someone had attached a sticker to where the figure once stood, reading “Christ is Lord.” Cassidy, shortly after his arrest, had given an interview to a reporter for a conservative outlet called the Sentinel, in which he’d said, “Anti-Christian values have steadily been mainstreamed more and more in recent decades, and Christians have largely acted like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water.”

Looking down at what was left of the pagan display, inside a capitol that had recently enacted a near-absolute ban on abortion, Cassidy’s sentiment seemed obviously absurd: Christians were not being boiled in Iowa. The politicians they selected largely run the state. But, for Dunwell, the Baphomet episode seemed to confirm that the split within the Christian right went much deeper than just a personal preference for Trump or DeSantis, who, in fact, has since offered to contribute to Cassidy’s legal defense. Among the Christian conservatives who had embraced Trump, Dunwell said, there was “this religious bent that says, We’re so sick and tired of losing. We’re so sick and tired of that, that what we’re going to do is try to impose our will now. They’ve been imposing their will on us, now we’re gonna try to impose our will on them.”

Iowa’s Republican Presidential caucuses have recently been a stronghold for Christian conservatives. The state’s voters have favored men of faith. In 2008, the Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the caucuses, leaning on his support among religious activists and facing questions over past comments he’d made suggesting he meant to “take this nation back for Christ.” In 2012, the caucuses went for the former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a social-conservative hard-liner who promised to reinstate Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and again ban gay people from openly serving in the military. Even in 2016, Iowa caucus-goers were the rare conservative population to resist the Trump wave. They went for Ted Cruz, the more orthodox social conservative, who made a point of insisting that Trump “embodies New York values.”

It is different this time. Nationally, conservative Christian voters have become a bulwark of Trump’s support, so much so that, when the Deseret News surveyed Republican voters across the country, it found that sixty-four per cent of them thought Trump a “person of faith,” while just thirty-four per cent said the same about Mitt Romney, perhaps the country’s most famous member of the Mormon church. In Iowa, many of the same figures who had helped organize Christian conservatives behind Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz have backed DeSantis, only to see his candidacy falter. Like Dunwell, some of these established Christian conservative leaders could make it sound as if Iowa’s churches had been the site of a pro-Trump hostile takeover, with the rising Christian nationalists demanding a warlike approach to politics. Church leaders might still be looking for some personal piety, and an adherence to a strict anti-abortion position, but in the pews the sentiment seemed to be Trump, no matter what.

Trump’s campaign had made it pretty easy to test this hypothesis by publishing a list of more than two hundred “faith leaders” in Iowa who supported him. Shortly before Christmas, I crisscrossed the state, meeting with them and trying to get a sense of why the church vote fell in line behind Trump. These congregations were often small, rural, and isolated, in a way that evoked Paul Schrader’s 2017 movie, “First Reformed.” The political concerns of that movie are different—the protagonist, a pastor played by Ethan Hawke, is fixated on climate change—but the atmosphere is similar: a solitary religious leader in a small rural Protestant church monitoring the news and thumbing through a well-worn Bible, noticing all the overlaps of theological problems with political ones.

The pro-Trump pastors I met tended to undermine Dunwell’s theory, at least outwardly. Rather than having come to politics with a different, more bristling perspective, they seemed instead to have taken Trump’s ascent as a prompt to rethink some prior commitments. One pro-Trump pastor from northern Iowa agreed to meet on the conditions that I not name him, his church, or his town, and that he be able to record the conversation. When I arrived, I found him in a small office behind his sanctuary, wearing a headset with a microphone attached to it. He motioned for me to sit across from him, in a chair that had been positioned before a big mike on a stand—I assumed it was one that a choir would normally sing into.

He was a slight, gentle, bespectacled man, just a few years out of seminary and a little on the nerdy side. “Maybe this would sound strange to you, but I believe Trump has given us the gift of discernment,” the pastor said. “What I mean by that is he came in, he was asking questions and pushing back on so many things that never entered our mind. And it was like somebody just punched a hole in a brick wall. And we’re, like, there’s another side to this.” Trump, the pastor went on, “is very provocative and embellishes certain things. But, when you look at the core message, I think there’s a lot of truth to it, and it is that the people in charge aren’t to be trusted.”

The pastor had supported Ted Cruz in 2016. He had an orthodox view of abortion. But he described the first year of Trump’s term as the inception of the “truther” movement, when certain conservatives, himself among them, followed Trump’s lead and began to try to figure things out for themselves. One important issue for the pastor was America’s wars. “We are sending our sons and fathers to fight and die for what?” the pastor said. “Somebody in a three-letter agency to take control of an oil field?”

He felt at least as strongly about the COVID vaccines. The pastor and his family had taken ivermectin, the antiparasitic drug that the media had denounced as a “horse dewormer.” It had been on the shelf for decades, he said, “but it’s not a moneymaker,” so the medical establishment had urged people to forgo it in favor of profitable vaccines. The pastor declined to say whether he thought that the 2020 election had been stolen, but in the debates over its legitimacy he saw a similar pattern: “Instead of wanting to be transparent about the voting process, it was almost, like, ‘How dare you question the way we did things?’ And you have to shut up and accept the way it was run.”

The young pastor told me that many of his parishioners “are older—seventies, eighties—and they just feel that everything that used to be normal to them was slipping between their fingers.” He loved these older parishioners (“I shepherd them; I’m going to minister to them and bury them”), and he understood their instinct to fight every culture-war battle to the last, but he didn’t share it. “There’s coming a day when the world’s coming together,” he said. “And at the very top is going to be a man called the Antichrist or the king of sin, and he will rule for approximately seven years. And at the end of that time the Bible tells us Jesus Christ is coming back, and he is going to destroy that man.”

The pastor said this very evenly, in the same tone that he would use a few minutes later to explain the heart condition of a parishioner in the hospital. “So that’s why I don’t care about whether we are winning or losing the cultural war,” he said. “The Bible says this is where it is going.” In the meantime, he had his process of discernment.

One Friday evening, I drove to a pub in the college town of Ames to meet Tim Lubinus, the executive director of the state’s Baptist convention and a key figure in the Christian conservative coalition. “Our line right now is: the polls are wrong,” Lubinus said, though he didn’t sound especially convinced. Another evangelical pastor had described Lubinus to me as “sort of a Boston kind of guy.” He is thin, with a well-trimmed beard, and has spent much of his career at churches in Seoul and Istanbul. His own personal opposition to Trump hinged on the “unprincipled chaos” in which the former President operates, “which makes us all kind of nervous if he were to win in a revenge sort of category.”

People in politics sometimes feel like they have come to elections prepared to play checkers only to discover the game is chess; Lubinus sounded like he’d brought his chess set to an election where everyone else was playing Ouija. “The vast majority of Southern Baptist leaders would love for it to be one of DeSantis, Haley, or Ramaswamy,” Lubinus said. But, he went on, “the thing that’s true is that there are a lot of people who, when they get a call from a pollster, say they’re for Trump.” Statistically, plenty of those Republican primary voters were bound to be Southern Baptists, members of the denomination that Lubinus represents. “I just don’t know who they are,” he said.

The differences between the more established strain of Christian conservatism and the pro-Trump one can be tricky to pin down, since their adherents tend to belong to the same denominations and largely prefer the same social policies. According to Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma who studies conservative Christianity, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which helped define the Christian right in the eighties, had promoted the notion that America was under attack by internal forces that sought to sever the country from Biblical principles. That same insistence that the forces of secularism were “evil, even demonic,” as Perry, who is an evangelical Christian himself, put it, also prevailed in the George W. Bush years, when the power of the religious right was arguably at its peak. “What has changed,” Perry went on, “is a very real sense of demographic and political threat.”

In 2006, twenty-three per cent of the U.S. population identified as white evangelical Christians; today the figure is fourteen per cent. “I can show you quote after quote where Trump is talking about how Christianity is under attack and where Christians are losing ground,” Perry said. The pressure on the system that Trump had noticed was the sense that the religious right was on the verge of being driven out. In Ames, I mentioned a version of this theory to Lubinus. “I think there’s something to that,” Lubinus said. “Both in the diagnosis, that people think it’s all a good-and-evil election, and in the solution, that we need a strongman—that it’s so serious we can’t play around anymore with a nice guy.”

It seemed to me that the anti-Trump Christian right was in something of a trap. Lubinus, for instance, plainly didn’t care for Trump. But he also shared the general pro-Trump view that secular America—under the enabling eye of the Biden Administration—was intent on ostracizing conservative Christians. “The trend is going the wrong direction, from ‘I have the freedom to do whatever I want to’ to ‘You have to embrace, accept, promote,’ ” Lubinus told me. “It feels like a lot of losses and wrong directions. Things are getting out of control.”

No topic came up as frequently in these conversations as the post-Dobbs pro-choice turn. It defines social-conservative politics as clearly as it does liberal ones. Everyone seemed to have taken particular note of the vote in Ohio, where a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to guarantee a right to abortion won in November by thirteen points. One senior Republican official in Iowa told me, “If we had a similar referendum here, I think there’d be a similar outcome.” Dunwell told me that the Party’s polling had shown that, although most positions adopted by Republicans in the legislature enjoyed big majorities of public opinion, “the one we’ve got to be careful on is life.”

Social conservatives are in a tricky position in a democracy, in that what they want most is probably quite unpopular. Dobbs casts a long shadow. The first Trump campaign was animated by the feeling of loss. This one may unfold in an atmosphere of fear.

That is one thing the DeSantis campaign got wrong, beneath all the mundane errors. (DeSantis’s has been “the worst-run campaign I’ve ever seen,” one former Iowa state Republican legislator told me.) The conceit of that campaign was that social conservatives were in a position of power, that Trump was unnecessary, that what was needed was a leader to simply impose their will in the way DeSantis had in Florida. The trouble was that, though social conservatives at one time might have felt like they had a natural majority, they don’t anymore. “I remember 2004, and that was, like, ‘We own this,’ ” Lubinus said. “It was, like, ‘We took it all.’ And it doesn’t feel like that at all.”

Trump himself has long talked about “witch hunts” and “evil people” out to get him—his words, for all their imprecision, often carry a theological charge. Just as often at his campaign stops, such sentiments come during the opening prayer. At an October rally in Waterloo, Pastor Joshua Graber, of the Cornerstone Baptist Church, in Vinton, had said, “We ask that those who stand against him would be put to silence. That those horrendous actions against him and his family would be exposed and struck down. When we leave this place, give us the courage to say no to evil. . . . Give us the courage to stand with President Trump in the caucuses and in the election to come.”

This call for Trump’s opponents to be “put to silence” had been widely criticized by liberals online (“Another Bizarre Opening ‘Prayer’ at IA Trump Rally,” one headline ran), but Graber himself had left little trace online—a few videos on a Facebook page, showing prayer groups in a tiny church. “It’s just a little storefront,” Graber had texted me, once I’d tracked him down.

When I arrived, he was sitting alone in the small lobby, looking nervous enough that I had the impression of someone sent to the principal’s office—a heavyset man, forty-one years old, wearing khaki pants and shiny black shoes. He described himself as conservative but only intermittently politically engaged—he wasn’t exactly sure how the Trump campaign had even got his name—and he turned out to be a little embarrassed about what he’d said onstage in Waterloo. “Looking back, that was probably a little inflammatory,” Graber said. He laughed uncertainly. “Probably could have been worded a little differently.”

Still, he did identify with Trump the defendant, perhaps even more than Trump the politician. “I suppose, in a way, ‘persecuted’ is the right word,” Graber said. Trump, he went on, “was being charged with a lot of things in court that I thought were politically motivated. And as a father I look at, you know, what would my children think of powerful people attacking their dad, or their husband, in the case of a spouse?” The federal government, Graber went on, had “almost unlimited sources of lawyers” who could “drag this on as long as they wanted to.”

Listening to Graber, I could hear how naturally Trump’s conception of politics as a fight between good and evil resonated with the evangelical perspective—even more so now, in the time of his legal trials, than during his first Presidential campaign. I pressed Graber on the word “evil,” which he’d used at Waterloo. Did a legal process, adjudicated by evidentiary rules and judge and jury, really qualify as a theological category? For the first time in our conversation, Graber grew relaxed, as if he could finally see the difference between us. He said, “I guess I do believe in good and evil.”

I often heard, from both pro- and anti-Trump pastors in Iowa, a similar theological over-excitement, a conviction that good and evil were at work in even the most basic political events. The story of the Biden years, to them, seemed to be of a steady encroachment of progressive social values into their institutions and spheres. Monte Knudsen, a DeSantis-supporting pastor of a big evangelical church in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, complained to me at length about the arbitrariness of the COVID guidelines that had compelled his church to suspend services (for just four weeks, as it turned out) and noted that many pastors saw the Trump trials “as satanic.”

The anti-Trump pastors might have struck me as more cultured, more politically experienced, and more sympathetic, but I couldn’t really distinguish their world view from that of the Trump faction. Both seemed defined by the same certainty that the country had reached a sort of cultural precipice. The argument for DeSantis was reduced to the belief that he would fight more reliably and consistently for the social-conservative cause. But the pro-Trump pastors had simply followed that logic another step. For them, the attraction was the promise of power: the richest billionaire, the brightest display of force.

Some people I spoke with thought that the past fall’s anti-Trump push by the legacy religious right and the local Republican establishment might have antagonized as many people as it persuaded. I met Jeff Shipley, a libertarian-leaning Republican state representative, at a coffee shop in the hippie town of Fairfield, Iowa, home to the Maharishi School and the transcendentalist movement. “When Trump first called DeSantis ‘Ron DeSanctimonious,’ I didn’t understand it at all,” Shipley said. “But I think it applies more to the Vander Plaatses and particularly Steve Deace.” Shipley didn’t mean to characterize those figures as holier-than-thou, but the moniker “DeSanctimonious” had captured part of why he was “personally turned off by some of the DeSantis supporters.” He also thought DeSantis’s campaign had overemphasized the Florida governor’s electability, insisting to voters that, if it came to a general election, Trump would lose suburban women, and therefore the election. Shipley said, “You think the farmers out here give a fuck about suburban women?”

One evening, I drove from Des Moines to Council Bluffs, on Iowa’s far-western edge and just a few miles from Omaha, to meet Joseph Hall, another pastor who had delivered the opening prayer at a recent Trump rally. Hall is forty-six years old, a military veteran who grew up in South Carolina and still has a strong Southern accent. His church looked like it was prospering. It got several hundred parishioners on Sundays, he said, and many of his sermons were online. When I asked Hall to recommend one that captured his point of view, he suggested the one he’d given in 2021, on “boldness.”

The next day, Mike Huckabee was scheduled to appear at the church. The following Tuesday, it would be Ben Carson. I had assumed that their host would be, like them, a long-standing member of the religious right, but when I met Hall he told me that he had never been very politically involved before Trump’s loss in 2020. But he was certain that Joe Biden had stolen that election, and for him that conviction tended to color everything: “If an election can be stolen, so can anything—our rights, our freedoms, our property, guns, anything.”

Hall spoke slowly and genially (at the end of our conversation, he asked me to take a selfie with him), and I realized that he was exactly who Dunwell had meant in referring to a “rising strain of Christian nationalism.” The nation, Hall explained, “was founded by men of the cloth.” He said, “The whole point of separation of church and state was never to remove the church from government; the whole purpose was to keep the government out of the church.” The DeSantis campaign was arguing to religious voters in Iowa that Trump’s opposition to fetal-heartbeat bills showed that he wasn’t really on their side. Hall told me that abortion wasn’t everything to him. “There is a bigger picture,” he said. You could tell what a threat Trump was to the secularists because of how desperate they were to beat him. “The enemy only attacks those who have potential.”

For some of Trump’s opponents—Liz Cheney, for instance—January 6th was so transformative that they obliterated previous political affiliations. Trump was at war with democracy; where did you stand? But, for some of his supporters, like Hall, those events had a similar effect in the opposite direction: January 6th had stopped political time, so everything that mattered came in its wake, and was defined by persecution. “I believe with all my heart that through the stolen election there’s been devastation, destruction—there’s been nothing good the last four years,” he said. “Everything seems to be deliberate destruction. Why open the borders? Why close the pipelines? It’s ultimately to destroy our nation and our way of life.”

It was Christmastime. There were wreaths up in Hall’s sanctuary, the caucuses just a few weeks away. Hall’s candidate, and Hall’s perspective, were on the verge of a resounding victory. “This is more than a fight between left and right, Democrats and Republicans,” Hall said. “This is good and evil. Biblically.” ♦

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