Prayers resonate under the impressive dome of the Iowa Capitol, seat of the legislature of this “Midwest” state. This Monday, January 8, around forty people, including pastors and elected officials, gathered for a blessing marking the legislative start, invited by The Family Leader, a foundation headed by Bob Vander Plaats. This elegant sixty-year-old is one of the great evangelical figures of this white and rural state. These Iowa “caucuses”, “primaries” closely followed by Americans, gave, on January 15, the kick-off (and the tone) of the selection process of the presidential candidates of the two parties.
However, what Bob Vander Plaats thinks of Donald Trump is not very flattering. The billionaire “can win the nomination of the Republican Party, but not the general election,” asserts the leader forcefully, evoking the bad image in the opinion of the former tenant of the White House and his legal troubles. “Like me, many evangelicals are grateful to him for what he has done, but they want a leader for the future. » His statements illustrate the fissures that have appeared among evangelicals in recent years. Certainly, they remain mostly supportive of Trump – when the latter was elected in 2016, more than 81% of them voted for him and there are still 51% who think they will do it again in the next presidential election. Certainly, Donald Trump boasts the support of 300 “faith leaders”, when his rival in these primaries, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was only able to claim a hundred. But some evangelical voters today do not hide a certain spite towards the former President.
Abortion at the heart of the campaign
In a cafe in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, where he has just finished his Bible study circle near a large fireplace, Terry Amann shows a photo taken alongside Donald Trump. This hockey pastor belongs to the Faith Wins association, a group of Christian leaders who meet with candidates to question them about their programs and advise them. While he is pleased that Trump appointed three conservative judges to the Supreme Court when he was in power – which allowed the ban on abortion in certain states – he finds that the billionaire lacks firmness on the subject. “He disappointed many evangelicals and even though he was the most “pro-life” (against abortion) President I have known, he seems to be backpedaling,” he laments.
Many conservative Christians did not appreciate that Trump criticized his rival DeSantis (around thirty points behind him in the polls), who promotes the ban on abortion from six weeks of pregnancy. They also find the Republican leader a little vague when asked about the relevance of a national law to limit access to abortion throughout the country – one of the fights of the “pro-life” movement. Trump would remain cautious on this issue, for fear that too extreme a position could cost him the White House.
Another reason for suspicion, on the evangelical side: the position of the billionaire on the conflict between Israel and Hamas. When war broke out, Trump called the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, “very smart.” However, the State of Israel is fervently supported by evangelicals, for theological-political reasons. Two hours north of Des Moines, in the rural town of Mason City, Janet Coleman is one of those who has not lost faith in their champion. Like hundreds of people, this septuagenarian waited four hours in freezing cold to attend a Donald Trump meeting in a hangar. The criticisms against his favorite did not reach his ears. And anyway, she assures that she will not change her mind. “It’s not just abortion that matters,” she says. This President acted to protect the country from terrorism, defend religious freedom and the principles of the Bible. »
The emergence of a more measured candidate?
“Urban evangelicals, more educated, will vote in these primaries for Ron DeSantis, while those from working or rural backgrounds, less educated, will support Trump because they also identify with him on issues other than abortion,” predicted David Kochel, a Des Moines-based political consultant. Unless the cards are reshuffled if Trump does not find DeSantis facing him but the more measured Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and former ambassador to the UN, in favor of a national compromise on abortion, is rising in the polls.