In early June, a group of Iowa pastors gathered at the First Church of the Open Bible to pray over a visitor. The man had just arrived in Des Moines, and he was going through a difficult time — financial strife, legal trouble, opposition from former friends. Pastor Josh Bingaman put his hand on the man’s shoulder and blessed him to submit to the hand of God, to seek wisdom and humility.

The man was former President Donald Trump. After the prayer, Trump thanked Pastor Bingaman for the blessing, then took his place at the front of the room while pastors grilled him on abortion policy and how “pro-Bible” a potential second Trump term would be.

Such closed-door visits — where evangelical leaders meet and pray with leading Republican presidential candidates — have been a fixture in Iowa politics for years. But a new group of pastors is quietly sizing up 2024 hopefuls and serving as self-proclaimed “vetters” for any candidate who wants to win Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Faith Wins, a nonprofit organization based in South Carolina, has assembled a group of five Iowa pastors who are already months into meeting with and vetting presidential candidates.

Since February, they’ve privately hosted most of the top Republican hopefuls: Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. Some of the pastors have met with other candidates on their own, including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and businessman Ryan Binkley. Many of those candidates — including DeSantis, Scott and Ramaswamy — have already met with the pastors several times.

“We have a right to know what governs them, if they’re going to govern us,” said Pastor Bill Tvedt of Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa. 

Since 1972, election schedules have placed Iowa as the first state in the country to vote in Republican primary contents, making it an early — and essential — battleground for candidates to win. Over the past 50 years, no one has ever finished worse than third in Iowa and gone on to win the GOP nomination. And in order to win Iowa, candidates must win the evangelical vote — in 2016, evangelicals made up 64% of Republican voters who showed up on caucus day.

Former President Donald Trump greets a group of pastors during a stop at the First Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa.
Former President Donald Trump, center, greets a group of pastors during a stop at the First Church of the Open Bible, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Which makes the role of evangelical pastors — who churchgoers often look to as moral guides — even more important. Several pastors involved with Faith Wins emphasized they will never tell their congregants who to vote for, but they reserve the right to say which candidates they believe will govern with a “biblical worldview” and which will not. 

They view Iowa’s position as first-in-the-nation as both an opportunity and a sacred obligation — one that Iowans are particularly suited for.

“Iowans are pretty responsible people, because they’re rural people,” Pastor Tvedt said. “All your cattle die if you don’t get up and feed them at 3 a.m. So they know what responsibility is.”

The founder of Faith Wins, Chad Connelly, is the former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party and the first-ever National Director of Faith Engagement for the Republican National Committee. The organization has assembled pastors in several other states beyond Iowa, including South Carolina, New Hampshire and Ohio. 

In closed-door meetings with candidates, Faith Wins pastors may ask any number of faith-related questions: What does your daily walk in the Lord look like? Do you read the Bible each morning? Who is your faith counselor? From there, they delve into domestic and foreign policy questions, often circling back to social issues like abortion or gay marriage.

The candidates are given the opportunity to ask questions, too.

Pastor Terry Amann, of Church of the Way in Des Moines, views the meetings as a “safe space” for candidates to learn how to talk to evangelicals. “In a lot of ways, (the private setting) helps them prepare,” Pastor Amann said. “When they stumble, it’s like, ‘you might want to go back and retool that.’”

The pastors also offer candidates a “24/7 personal ministry,” where the politicians may call pastors at any time and get advice or a prayer over the phone. If a candidate were to win the election, that relationship could continue into the White House, should the candidate desire, Pastor Amann said.

In addition to Amann and Tvedt, the pastors involved in Iowa are Bingaman (First Church of the Open Bible); Michael Demastus (Fort Des Moines Church of Christ) and Steve Rowland (Rising Sun Church of Christ).

Some meetings are small, with only the five core pastors in attendance, alongside the candidate and campaign staff. Other meetings are open to other invitees, like the June 1 meeting with Trump, where over 40 pastors and their wives attended. “The goal is to get candidates in front of the pastors,” Pastor Amann said. “Then (the pastors) go back to their church, get people involved, call upon biblical values.”

“I can go see a presidential candidate any day of the week,” Pastor Tvedt said. “And because I’m a preacher, and I’m aligned with Faith Wins, I can go have a personal audience with them. ... The rest of the world doesn’t get anything like that.”

Former Republican Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and her husband Marcus are blessed by Pastor Bill Tvedt and his wife Julie at Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
In this Jan, 1, 2012, file photo, former Republican Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and her husband Marcus are blessed by Pastor Bill Tvedt, right, and his wife Julie, left, during a campaign stop at Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa. | Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

Their efforts are not without backlash. In 2011, when Pastor Tvedt hosted presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann at his church, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint to the IRS, claiming Pastor Tvedt “inappropriately used his position as pastor” to “intervene in a political campaign.” Clergy have long faced criticism in Iowa for involvement in the political sphere, even among fellow pastors.

“My question to them is, ‘At Easter time, do you preach and teach about the fact that Jesus was executed by the Roman soldiers?’ That was the government,” Pastor Amann said. “It doesn’t say in the Constitution, ‘separation of church and state.’”

“There is no such thing as a political, nonspiritual issue,” Pastor Tvedt said. “Every issue is spiritual.”

Such a position was apparent on Sunday morning at Pastor Tvedt’s Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa. A day before, Republican candidates flooded the Iowa State Fair to raise money and win votes. Speaking to his congregation, Pastor Tvedt preached about tithing, reading from Malachi 3 and encouraging them to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” as a display of loyalty to God. 

It’s like politics, Pastor Tvedt said: “Like all the candidates, they want donors, not just people to vote,” he preached. “You put your money where your heart is.”

Pastor Tvedt worked on Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign and started preaching around the same time. He sees both as moral efforts, noting that there are 2,000 verses in the Bible that deal with governance.

But Faith Wins’ nonprofit status relies on the pastors not explicitly endorsing candidates, and both Pastor Tvedt and Pastor Amann are adamant they never tells their congregants how to vote.

“I’m not going to give them a fish — I’m going to give them a fishing pole,” Pastor Tvedt said.

Both pastors argue that this year’s crop of Republicans poses good options for those using the “biblical worldview” litmus test — “it’s just a great set of candidates to choose from,” Pastor Amann said. For them, that includes Trump, who faces mounting legal strife, including alleged sexual assault.

“I liked the way he governed because it did more for the Christian than probably any other president,” Pastor Tvedt said.

“We’re not electing a pastor,” Pastor Amann said. “We’re electing a political leader.”