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Evangelical pastors heed a political calling for 2012

Formerly apolitical preachers in states like Iowa, backed by astute organizers and big donors, are mobilizing congregations for the election.

September 10, 2011|By Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold, Washington Bureau
  • Mike Demastus used to avoid partisanship, but now he's part of a growing movement of evangelical pastors who are preaching political engagement.
Mike Demastus used to avoid partisanship, but now he's part of a growing… (Mary Chind, The Des Moines…)

Reporting from Ames, Iowa — For most of his two decades as a preacher, Iowa pastor Mike Demastus eschewed partisanship, telling colleagues and congregants that "religion and politics don't mix."

But there he was last month in Ames, making his way across the festive grounds of the Republican presidential straw poll, mingling with political operatives and candidates as he spoke openly about his preference for Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

He wasn't alone. The straw poll drew a slew of previously apolitical Iowa pastors — a constituency increasingly heeding a call to speak out on politics.

"There is a concerted assault on everything that we consider sacred — and we pastors need to move to the forefront of the battle," said Demastus, wearing a T-shirt and shorts for the Saturday event.

Demastus is part of a growing movement of evangelical pastors who are jumping into the electoral fray as never before, preaching political engagement from the pulpit as they mobilize for the 2012 election.

This new activism has substantial muscle behind it: a cadre of experienced Christian organizers and some of the conservative movement's most generous donors, who are setting up technologically sophisticated operations to reach pastors and their congregations in battleground states.

The passion for politics stems from a collision of historic forces, including heightened local organizing around the issues of abortion and gay marriage and a view of the country's debt as a moral crisis that violates biblical instruction. Another major factor: Both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Bachmann, contenders for the GOP nomination, are openly appealing to evangelical Christian voters as they blast President Obama's leadership.

Both Republican and Democratic strategists say that pastors have already helped unleash an army of voters to shape the GOP primary contests in Iowa and South Carolina, two states with large numbers of conservative Christians. They are making plans to do the same in states that are even more important to next year's general election. Those include Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Virginia and Colorado, where evangelical voters make up about a quarter of the electorate and their participation could greatly aid Republicans.

"The Christian activist right is the largest, best-organized and, I believe, the most powerful force in American politics today," said Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist who recently provided briefings on the constituency to wealthy donors on the left. "No other political group comes even close."

Religious leaders have long been active in political causes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his Baptist pulpit to agitate for civil rights, and fiery televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell awakened the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s with calls to fight what they saw as America's moral decay.

But the current awakening is different. It springs from the grass roots — small and independent churches — and is fueled by emails and YouTube videos. And it is driven less by personality than by the biblical teaching to be the "salt" and "light" of society — in other words, to have a beneficial influence on the world.

"This is the congregational version of the 'tea party,'" says Richard Land, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Pastors who in the past would dodge my calls are calling me saying, 'How can we be involved?' "

The pastor movement is being guided and ministered to by a growing web of well-financed organizations that offer seminars, online tools and a battery of lawyers.

Tim Wildmon, who runs the American Family Assn., one of the most generous underwriters of Christian conservative activism, predicted that evangelicals in 2012 will match the fervency of the Ronald Reagan era — in large part because so many pastors are prodding their flocks to the polls.

"They're going to be telling their parishioners to get registered and to make sure to go vote," he said. "I think it's huge."

Boosting the movement are veteran figures such as Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition. His new organization, Faith & Freedom Coalition, is developing a list of Christian voters in key states, a tool it used to reach thousands of voters in Wisconsin's recent recall elections.

New players are even more ambitious. United in Purpose, financed by an anonymous group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, aims to register 5 million conservative Christians to vote. The organization boasts a sophisticated database that identifies millions of unregistered evangelical and born-again Christian voters around the country.

Bill Dallas, the group's chief executive, said pastors would be pivotal to its efforts. "They're the shepherds of the flock," he said. "It's a great mass media channel."

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