The agenda this week at Cornerstone World Outreach church in Sioux City, Iowa, looked something like this: On Sunday, congregants worshipped together in a morning service. On Wednesday evening, they studied the Bible. And on Thursday night, they learned how to vote.
“Our faith is not just this compartment that stays for Sundays and Wednesday nights,” Pastor Mike Demastus told the congregation during Thursday’s meeting. “Our faith is for every area and arena of our life, and so it goes with us into the voting booth.”
The Iowa caucuses on Monday officially kick off the 2024 Republican presidential primary, and a group of pastors is working to ensure that evangelicals turn out.
This week, they’re hosting meetings across the state to teach congregations the intricacies of the caucus system — what to expect, how to register, where to go — while simultaneously encouraging them to vote “Biblical values.”
Freezing temperatures and a once-in-a-decade blizzard moved the Thursday meeting, along with one on Saturday, to Zoom; on Sunday, they plan to host two in-person meetings at churches in central Iowa.
The group Faith Wins is a nonprofit organization geared toward increasing political engagement among evangelicals. The group’s founder, Chad Connelly, is a former chair of the South Carolina GOP and the Republican National Committee’s first-ever director of faith engagement. In 2016, he helped Donald Trump secure record support from evangelicals nationally. He’s hoping to help evangelical voters have that same influence in every election.
Connelly is training a cohort of pastors across the nation to lead out. Some 16,000 pastors in all 50 states have participated in Faith Wins events, and in Iowa this week, many of them are leading voter trainings. On Thursday, it was Pastor Demastus of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, alongside Pastor Cary Gordon, of Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City.
“America is is on a knife blade right now,” Pastor Demastus said Thursday. “Our presence, now more than ever, is called upon. We need to show up.”
Such caucus trainings are not unusual. The Iowa caucus system itself is a rarity, so campaigns and political parties often host their own educational meetings to help voters know what to expect.
Instead of traditional rallies, Trump has focused his efforts in Iowa this cycle on holding “commit to caucus” events, where certain attendees are dubbed “caucus captains.” Ron DeSantis, too, is selecting “precinct captains” at his events. The pastors aren’t interested in training caucus leaders, though; they want to teach the regular voter how to participate.
But there’s another notable difference. The trainings are led by pastors, not political staffers, so everything has a religious undertone.
The Sioux City training opened with prayer, offered by Pastor Gordon, in which he asked for help in coming days “to remain civil, but also to stand up for truth.” Pastor Demastus quoted both the Bible and Ronald Reagan, encouraging listeners to view voting as both a civic and religious imperative.
“Our faith is for every area and arena of our life,” Pastor Demastus said. “And so it goes into the voting booth. It goes to your cubicle at work. It goes to every facet of your life.”
In some ways, the pastors view their work as a numbers game. About a quarter of U.S. adults identify as evangelical Christians. In 2020, Pastor Demastus said, about 30 million of them voted in the presidential election. “That means 40 million didn’t even show up,” he continued. “Can you imagine what would happen if 70 million evangelical voters in the United States showed up at a presidential election? Overnight, we could turn the country around, literally.”
It’s not just participation that the pastors want, though. They want their congregants to vote “Biblical values” — to prioritize those issues that they view as integral to their faith. These include a candidate’s view on abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty.
But during the Faith Wins trainings, the pastors don’t tell the voters who to vote for. As a nonprofit, the organization has to remain neutral. Pastor Demastus hasn’t endorsed a candidate; his wife, however, is backing DeSantis. Pastor Gordon says he’s considering DeSantis or Ryan Binkley.
The only candidate that was mentioned during Thursday’s training was Trump, when Pastor Gordon mentioned that “the former president of the United States” claimed that “the caucus is rigged” a few days earlier. “I want to assure everybody: The caucus is not rigged,” Pastor Gordon said.
On Monday, a majority of Iowa caucusgoers are expected to be evangelicals. In 2016, the last time there was a competitive Republican primary, evangelicals made up over 60% of GOP caucus participants in Iowa. While Trump maintains significant leads in polls, he has lost support from some evangelicals for his changing abortion stance and for promoting content some see as blasphemous.
Even as weather forecasts predict the coldest Iowa caucus night on record, the pastors are pushing their congregants to get out and vote.
“It’s so critical that we are engaged in this process, to bring Christ to the globe, to bring him everywhere that we are,” Pastor Demastus said. “And most importantly, to bring Christ to our caucus sites.”