Politics & Policy

Life, Liberty, and Love of the Constitution: What Mattered to Iowa’s Evangelicals

Cruz at a campaign stop in Hubbard, Iowa, January 30, 2016. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty)

According to the pre-vote conventional wisdom, the Iowa caucus was the moment when conservative Evangelicals were going to reveal themselves as the unprincipled bigots the secular media believe them to be. After all, they were going to vote for Donald Trump, their new champion, and reject pro-life stalwarts Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson. In the words of prominent ex-Evangelical Rachel Held Evans, “Racism and xenophobia remain powerful forces in our country, as does celebrity worship, and white Christians aren’t as immune from these influences as they like to think.”

In the Evans version of history, the true historical roots of Christian conservatism lie not in opposition to abortion and the degeneracy of the sexual revolution but rather in opposition to racial integration. In other words, in their deepest hearts, race trumps religion. Christian conservatism isn’t about the Bible, about faith. Nor does it spring from deep conviction about the Constitution, as expressed by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” No, for Evans and other critics, Evangelical conservatism is about “persistent fear of the perceived ‘other.’”

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Contempt for Evangelicals runs deep in the elite Left, and perceived Evangelical support for Trump positively delighted the likes of the New York Times’s Frank Bruni, who wrote last year: “The holy rollers are smiling upon the high roller. And they’re proving, yet again, how selective and incoherent the religiosity of many in the party’s God squad is.”

That’s the old conventional wisdom, based on the polls that failed to predict last night’s outcome. Here’s the new conventional wisdom, based on actual results: Evangelicals turned out in unprecedented numbers not to coronate Trump but to stop him. They voted their principles, and those principles just happen to demonstrate their profound respect for life, liberty, and constitutional conservatism.

#share#The numbers are telling. During a night that shattered Republican turnout records, 64 percent of GOP caucus-goers were “born-again Christians.” Not only did Ted Cruz win their vote by a twelve-point margin over Trump, but fully 78 percent of Evangelical voters supported candidates other than Trump. Cruz and Rubio collectively took home a commanding 55 percent Evangelical majority. In other words, Evangelicals beat Donald Trump, while also helping give new political life to Rubio.

RELATED: Trump Finished Second but Is Hardly Finished

When you look deeper, however, the moral dimensions of the vote come into stark relief. For example, 42 percent of caucus-goers indicated that the “most important candidate quality” was whether the candidate “shares my values.” Cruz, Rubio, and Carson combined for 59 percent of their vote. Trump received only 5 percent. In other words, those Evangelicals who supported Trump weren’t doing so because they admired his values but because they were cared about specific issues such as the economy or immigration.

#related#To be clear, I’m not labeling the 22 percent of Evangelicals who did vote for Trump as racist or somehow hypocritical. The notion that working-class Americans who face long-term economic uncertainty and wage stagnation — and bear the brunt of the economic burden from the influx of low-skill immigrants — are concerned about immigration only because they are racist and xenophobic is itself an example of the elite’s unthinking and bigoted classism. Indeed, looking for racism in an electorate that just gave 60 percent of its vote to black and Latino candidates is a pitiful and revealing exercise. There’s only one party fielding all-white presidential candidates, and it’s not the GOP.

The race is far from over, and it moves next to a state where Evangelicals have a fraction of the influence they have in Iowa. From there, it goes to a GOP South that has strong Evangelical and populist roots. Trump is still a contender — perhaps the leading contender. But were it not for last night, the talk today would be of Trump’s inevitable, triumphant march through the primaries. The conservative movement should give thanks for its most-maligned constituency. Iowa’s Evangelicals put their principles first.

David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.


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