Marshalltown, IA – Voter after voter that turned out to Senator Marco Rubio’s event at a local community center, many from the same church, said they were there to answer one question: “Which nominee will represent my faith?”
“I want to hear their beliefs, their faith in God, their Christianity and relationship with Christ,” Jodi Smith, 36, said as she waited with her husband and two young boys for Rubio’s event to begin.
Smith, who is also considering Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, wasn’t disappointed. Rubio, a Catholic who was raised Mormon for a stretch and also attends his wife’s Baptist Church, took a question from an audience member on how to “get us back to our Judeo-Christian roots” and dove into a rousing testimony to the importance of religion.
“When I’m done teaching you what my faith teaches, you’re going to hope that my faith influences me,” Rubio said, “because my faith teaches me that I have a moral obligation to care for the less fortunate.”
He recalled how Jesus instructed his followers to help the poor and sick. He said he prayed for Solomon’s wisdom as a leader. He talked about how prayer helped his family through the campaign, where he was often separated from his children, and how the prayers of his supporters touched his heart.
“The prayers of the righteous are incredibly powerful,” he said. “God listens to those petitions.”
The crowd watched rapt in silence – then rose to applaud and stayed there, standing and cheering for some time.
Rubio’s religious vocabulary is one of his many political assets. But the big news of the day on the faith front was the surprise news that Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. had endorsed Donald Trump, a thrice-married casino billionaire who was pro-choice until relatively recently and told an evangelical conference in Iowa last year he never asks God for forgiveness.
“I don’t make that connection,” Kerry Huck, a 58-year old computer programmer, told MSNBC when asked about Falwell’s endorsement.
Huck, who said he was “worried about the decay of common moral standards,” was considering a write-in ballot if Trump secured the nomination. He was one of several Iowans in the room who sounded unenthused or outright fearful of the frontrunner, who was scheduled to speak later that day at a rally in the same town.
“Trump, I don’t think has any Christianity,” Rubio volunteer Carlene Illum, 72, said as she handed out caucus information after the event.
Pat Fuchs, 64, said she picked up a ticket to see Trump as long as she was in town for Rubio, her preferred nominee, but was having trouble bringing herself to go, even just to gawk at the spectacle. “I don’t want to give him that support,” she said.
Yet somehow Trump is leading recent polls of famously Christian conservative Iowa Republicans. In addition to lapping Rubio, Trump is in a close fight for first against Senator Ted Cruz, the son of a preacher who has assiduously courted social conservatives and boasts endorsements from a number of top Iowa evangelical leaders.
Nationally, an NBC News|SurveyMonkey survey released Tuesday found Trump leading evangelical Republicans with 37 percent of the vote, easily besting 20 percent support for Cruz. Rubio was in fourth place at 11 percent, behind Ben Carson. In a separate poll by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday, 61% of GOP and GOP leaning voters who said it was important that their nominee share their religious beliefs also said Trump would make a good or great president. Not only that, Trump performed worse among voters who said religion was not important to their decision, with only 46% seeing him as a promising president.
Those statistics would likely come as no surprise to Deleana Roseland, a 50-year old Gilman resident who teaches conflict management and said she was considering Trump as well as Rubio. Her husband, a farmer, had already committed to caucus for the frontrunner despite normally sitting out elections.
Roseland said her most important issue was finding a “godly man to lead my country” and she had no illusions that Trump was especially pious. “The way he’s spoken about people does not reflect Christian respect,” she said. But she admitted she was intrigued that some Christians she admires, such as Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty,” had vouched for his character.
“I like what he stands for,” Roseland said. “I’m not sure he can implement it.”
After Rubio’s speech, Smith, the mother of two, spoke with Rubio and posed for a picture with her family. They were going to Trump’s event later that day as a civics lesson for the children, even though he was not high on her list. “I’m not confident he’d get us back to a foundation of leading through God,” she said.
While others in the room expressed fears that the party would tear itself in two if the wrong candidate won Monday’s caucus, Smith sounded comparatively serene.
“Ultimately God will place the person he wants there,” she said.