As a long-time student of the intersection of religion and politics, I don’t often learn something that really surprises me, but reported at New York on an exception:
Barring a big surprise that defies all the polls, Ron DeSantis is going to fall far short of his original expectations in the Iowa Caucuses on January 15.
Where did DeSantis go wrong in Iowa? His strategy, to be clear, was to closely emulate that of the last three winners of contested GOP caucuses, Mike Huckabee (in 2008), Rick Santorum (in 2012), and Ted Cruz (in 2016), by building a formidable field organization and appealing to Iowa’s powerful conservative evangelical voting bloc via hard-core right-wing positions on cultural issues. He committed early on to appearances in all 99 counties in the state; turned most of his campaign over to veterans of Cruz’s 2016 effort; signed a “heartbeat” law banning abortions after six weeks that was virtually identical to the one signed by Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, an evangelical heroine; and succeeded in winning endorsements from both Reynolds and from evangelical kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats (who had supplied crucially timed endorsements to Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz). He also (at least initially) added the kind of money politicians like Huckabee and Santorum could never have raised.
None of it has worked beyond keeping the Florida governor in the game in Iowa even as he sank like a stone in the other early states, which he neglected. There have been three common explanations for DeSantis’s Iowa struggles: (1) organizational problems stemming from overdelegation of campaign chores to the Never Back Down super-PAC, leading to late-campaign chaos; (2) DeSantis’s meh personality, which only grew more evident thanks to his retail-heavy Iowa effort; and (3) DeSantis’s bid to out-Trump Trump, regularly running to his right, which was doomed to fail against the founder of the MAGA movement and the beloved daddy of its most right-wing elements.
There’s undoubtedly a significant element of truth to all these reasons DeSantis is falling short of high early expectations in Iowa. But there is another that helps explain why the Floridian’s intense cultivation of conservative evangelicals isn’t bearing the kind of fruit he surely anticipated: Evangelicals themselves are evolving in a way that strengthens their loyalty to Trump no matter what self-professed “kingmakers” want. The New York Times’ Ruth Graham and Charles Homans have reported on this phenomenon:
“Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance, a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion. Today, it is as often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority, traditional institutions are viewed skeptically and Mr. Trump looms large.
“’Politics has become the master identity,’ said Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor. ‘Everything else lines up behind partisanship.’”
More and more white evangelicals are engaging in a sort of roll-your-own form of religious practice, and this appears to be a particularly advanced development in Iowa, according to Graham and Homans. These believers are detached from collective worship services as much as from formal denominations and feed on social media “prophets” and others who share Trump’s treatment of conservative Christians as an aggrieved constituency group longing for the good old days and paranoid about persecution by Big Government and secular progressives. From their perspective, Trump’s heathenish personal behavior and theological illiteracy aren’t nearly so alienating as it is for churchgoing folk who acknowledge strict codes of conduct and doctrinal teachings. Indeed, in some respects they are more like Trump than some of his churchier political rivals, as Burge tells the Times writers:
“An increasing number of people in many of the most zealously Trump-supporting parts of Iowa fit a religious profile similar to the former president’s. “’Iowa is culturally conservative, non-practicing Christians at this point,’ Mr. Burge said. ‘That’s exactly Trump’s base.’”
This trend is doubly deadly for politicians like DeSantis. Un- or de-churched evangelicals are not going to take orders from Bob Vander Plaats or Kim Reynolds. And they are more focused on MAGA issues rather than on the “social issues” as traditionally defined by the old-school Christian right:
“The evolving evangelical identity is already scrambling how politicians appeal to these voters. Mr. Burge’s research has found that ‘cultural Christians’ care relatively little about bedrock religious-right causes like abortion and pornography.
“In interviews across Iowa, non-churchgoing Christians who supported Republican candidates, even those who said they believed in governing the country by Christian principles, cited immigration and the economy most often as their top issues in this year’s election.”
That’s not to say these people have lost the sense of certainty — and sometimes self-righteousness — often associated with conservative Christians, whether it’s “traditionalist” Catholics or The-Bible-Tells-Me-So Protestants, Graham and Homans observe:
“At Mr. Trump’s rally in Coralville, it was Joel Tenney, a 27-year-old local evangelist who does not lead a church, who delivered the opening prayer.
The crowd responded tepidly to his impassioned recitation of several Bible verses. But the rallygoers roared to life when he set aside the Scripture and told them what they had come to hear.
“’This election is part of a spiritual battle,’ Mr. Tenney said. ‘When Donald Trump becomes the 47th president of the United States, there will be retribution against all those who have promoted evil in this country.’”
Among these Iowans, Ron DeSantis, for all his contrived battles with Disney and Anthony Fauci and LGBTQ+ activists and the education establishment, can’t compete with Trump. Uninhibited by laws or the Constitution, and devoid of Christian charity, Trump will smite Satan and all his infernal minions on Day One.