At Iowa Faith Summit, Foreign Policy Dominates

National security issues trump domestic ones for evangelical voters and White House hopefuls.

WAUKEE, IA - APRIL 25: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa. The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian organization, hosted 9 potential contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nominations at the event. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
April 26, 2015, 6:48 a.m.

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.”

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