WAUKEE, Iowa—As a slate of Republican presidential contenders took their turns on the stump here Saturday, threats from abroad—rather than moral issues at home—were at the forefront for many of the evangelical voters who flocked to Point of Grace Church.
There was plenty of talk about same-sex marriage, abortion, and religious liberty among White House hopefuls and attendees alike at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual spring forum. But for the crowd of roughly 1,000 socially conservative voters, the lines that drew some of the loudest applause, foot-stomping, and whistling of the night were about foreign policy.
Between concern over the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East and staunch disapproval of the Obama administration’s handling of relations with Israel and Iran, Iowa evangelical leaders and activists say that national security has become a top—if not the top—issue heading into the 2016 caucuses.
“I think that is clear at the top because the bottom line is if you don’t have security, and you have ISIS on our shore, it’s all over,” Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition president Steve Scheffler said in an interview. “No issue—whether it’s the life issue or the marriage issue, or taxes or spending or overregulation—it’s all moot if our culture is destroyed.”
Social conservatives are no strangers to foreign affairs, and have always been supportive of Israel in particular. But Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, another influential conservative Iowa-based organization, said foreign policy is “without question” of more importance to evangelical voters this election cycle because of the issues that have emerged abroad.
“Foreign policy is going to be a big issue for conservatives today. And the reason is because of what they see Obama doing with our relationship with Israel.” Vander Plaats said during an interview at his Urbandale office late last week. “I think there’s no doubt it’s a higher level of importance this go around.”
That was reflected in the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s event Saturday. Of the nine GOP White House hopefuls who spoke at the forum, all but Ted Cruz—who focused almost exclusively on religious freedom—touched on national security, even if it wasn’t the main thrust of their speech.
Marco Rubio only spent a few minutes talking about foreign policy during his first major Iowa speech as an official presidential candidate. But the Florida senator received some of his biggest applause of the night when he derided the framework for a nuclear deal the Obama administration reached with Iranian leaders earlier this year.
“How can it be that our president shows more respect for the Ayatollah in Iran than our allies in Israel?” Rubio said.
Rick Santorum, who assured the audience that he has been “very focused” on Iran, also criticized the tentative nuclear agreement. The 2012 Iowa caucus winner didn’t address social issues once during his 21-minute speech, but did take the time to highlight the foreign policy credentials he gained during his stint in the Senate.
“Iran is not a country you can negotiate with. They have never kept a treaty,” Santorum said. “I don’t care how good this treaty is—it’s horrible right now. But even if it was good, here’s my promise to the Iranian government: on the first day of a Santorum presidency, that agreement is in the trash can.”
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who is expected to officially announce whether she will run for president May 4, also went out of her way to tout her resume on national security issues. She noted that she has served as the head of the advisory board for the CIA and has advised secretaries of State, Defense, and Homeland Security. She also claimed that she has met with more world leaders than any other presidential prospect—with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, she conceded.
Fiorina’s best-received moment came when she said, in reference to the nuclear agreement, “We should stop talking to Iran now.”
“The world is a dangerous place when the America does not stand with our allies and does not stand strong against our adversaries,” Fiorina said.
Scott Walker became the most animated during his speech when discussing foreign policy, an area that has been seen as a possible weak spot for the Wisconsin governor. Pointing to recent terrorist attacks in foreign countries and the beheadings of Coptic Christians in Egypt, Walker warned that “it’s not a matter of if an attempt is made on American soil again, it is when.”
“I believe that Americans want a commander-in-chief who will stand up and tell it like it is, who will tell the American people that the biggest threat we face in the world today is radical Islamic terrorism and will do something about it,” Walker said, earning enthusiastic applause even in the fifth and final hour of the event.
Jamie Johnson, a Story City pastor who serves as the senior director for Rick Perry’s PAC, argued that foreign policy hasn’t been this prevalent for evangelical voters since the 1980 election.
“Up until this year, evangelicals have been primarily concerned with the right to life, traditional marriage, and education,” Johnson said. “This is the first presidential cycle in 35 years where evangelicals are very concerned about foreign policy, national security and having a strong national defense.”
Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Perry all slammed the administration’s foreign policy as well, much to the delight of the summit attendees.
“I don’t think this administration has a clue, or [Obama] does have a clue but he doesn’t want to deal with it,” said Cliff Haugland, a 65-year-old evangelical from Cedar Rapids who said national security was his foremost concern heading into the next election.
Many Christian conservatives share Haugland’s concern. And like Haugland, most have not yet decided which candidate is the best one to address it. Scheffler estimated that no more than 10 percent of those in attendance Saturday have decided who they will support in 2016.
Some members of the crowd said they generally prefer governors because of the unique executive skills they can offer, while others like the profiles of senators with more direct foreign policy experience. But with a field of Republicans this large, voters are finding it even more difficult than usual to make up their mind.
“I’m here to pick the best dog in the litter,” said Andy Christenson, a Republican activist from Johnston. “And right now, they’re all good, but I don’t know which one can hunt.”