Support for Israel becomes top issue for Iowa evangelicals key to first GOP caucuses

Pro-Israel Christian voters and activists in Republican party pay increased attention to candidates’ remarks on ongoing Israel-Hamas war

Republican US presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel, August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Republican US presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel, August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

NEWTON, Iowa (AP) — Steve Rowland peered from beneath the brim of his baseball cap and admonished the roughly 500 people at Rising Sun Church of Christ in the Des Moines suburb of Altoona.

It had been three days since thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and butchered over 1,000 civilians. In the US state of Iowa, where evangelical Christians dominate the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses, Rowland and other pastors are delivering a message meant to resonate both biblically and politically.

“What we’re seeing in that region is pure evil,” Rowland said. “Israel has mobilized their army and they are intent on stamping out evil, and we should be behind them. That’s where we should be, and I want you to know that, as a pastor.”

Support for Israel has leapt to a top priority for evangelicals in the leadoff Republican presidential caucuses now less than three months away, according to interviews with more than a dozen Iowa conservative activists. While curbing abortion has for decades energized Christian conservatives like no other issue, the attack by Hamas and Israel’s response have put new pressure on Republican candidates to hew not just to traditional Republican support for Israel but to beliefs rooted in the Bible.

Some Christians support Israel due to Torah writings that Jews are God’s chosen people and that Israel is their rightful homeland. Some evangelicals believe Israel is key to an end-times prophecy that will bring about the return of the Christian messiah.

Since the October 7 massacre, Iowa’s evangelical pastors, faith leaders and rank-and-file caucus participants have been looking more closely at candidates’ statements, while ministers urge their congregations to keep those positions top-of-mind when weighing their options. Several GOP contenders have discussed the conflict in black-and-white terms and accused US President Joe Biden of not being tough enough on Hamas or Iran, which has long provided the Palestinian terror group with money and training.

Flowers stand on a coffin draped with the Israeli flag during the funeral of Dana Bachar and her son Carmel, victims of the October 7 Hamas massacre in Kibbutz Be’eri, at the cemetery in Kibbutz Gan Shlomo, near Rehovot, October 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

“We’ve got a true war between good and evil, and we have to have a leader that has the moral clarity to know the difference,” said Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, in an interview between Iowa stops this month.

Former president Donald Trump remains dominant in Iowa polls and gets by far the largest crowds at his campaign stops. He attracts many fervent Christian conservatives, some of whom have described him as divinely chosen even as critics note that he has been married three times and supported abortion rights in the past.

During one recent Trump event at a downtown Cedar Rapids hotel, a man in an audience of 2,000 shouted from the hotel ballroom floor, “God gave me to you!”

Several activists interviewed by The Associated Press were rankled by Trump’s criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas onslaught, and by his suggestion that Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terror group fighting with Israel on the country’s northern border, was “very smart.”

Others said they felt Trump deserved credit for his record while in the White House of completing conservative priorities on Israel, notably moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

It’s a similar dynamic to Trump’s handling of abortion. Trump has refused to endorse a national abortion ban, which has led to criticism from some state and national anti-abortion leaders. But others point to his record as president, notably his appointment of three US Supreme Court justices who were part of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which has enabled abortion bans in individual US states.

Former US president Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, October 16, 2023, in Clive, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

Daniel Hummel, author of “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations,” said that Republican support for Israel has become a proxy for other conservative priorities, particularly on immigration.

Trump and several other Republicans have alleged Hamas sympathizers could cross the southern US border, despite there being almost no known examples of unauthorized border crossers staging mass attacks. And Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — who are battling for second place in many national polls — have argued over who is tougher on refugee issues after the Hamas assault.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict has become part of the culture-war framework,” Hummel said. “That’s part of the Trump and post-Trump Republican Party, that terrorism and immigration are really deeply linked.”

Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks with reporters after signing papers to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot at the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire, October 13, 2023. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Some of Trump’s rivals have directly tied US relations with Israel to Christian tradition. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who has invested heavily in Iowa, often speaks of Israel’s importance by referencing the Bible.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” Scott told an audience during a campaign stop in Newton this month, quoting from the Book of Psalms. For Israel’s enemies, Scott said, “the wrath of God, let them feel it,” paraphrasing the New Testament’s Book of Romans.

DeSantis has aggressively tried to win the support of evangelical clergy. One Iowa pastor leaning toward supporting DeSantis, Joseph Brown, called Trump’s criticism of Netanyahu “a huge turnoff” and questioned his true beliefs on Israel.

“Even though Donald Trump has done amazing things when it comes to Israel, we need some assurances now,” said Brown, who leads Marion Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, Iowa. “I don’t think he understands the biblical foundation of why we stand with Israel.”

Republican US presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at Saint Anselm College, October 13, 2023, in Manchester, New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Several pastors also have criticized biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a political newcomer who has lined up with Trump’s foreign policy ideas and at times criticized US aid to Israel. Some evangelicals have long questioned whether they could vote for Ramaswamy, who is Hindu but often talks about his affinity for Judeo-Christian beliefs.

“I think he’s trying to figure out what conservatives want to hear,” said Brad Cranston, the former pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Burlington, Iowa. “And I think he thinks conservatives want a less interventionist foreign policy. But that does not work when it comes to Israel.”

Iowa’s evangelical voters are not monolithic. One point of debate is whether the US should accept refugees from Gaza, where many of its roughly 2 million residents have been displaced by Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas and face acute shortages of food and water.

Trump and DeSantis have argued the US should not take in any Gaza refugees, with DeSantis saying in one television interview that all people from Gaza were “antisemitic.”

Haley, meanwhile, said in a recent CNN interview that the US could determine which Palestinians “want to be free from this terrorist rule.”

Ann Trimble Ray, a conservative from Early, Iowa, said she sided with Haley and was leaning toward supporting her due to her experience and demeanor, but also for what she sees as compassion in her openness to some Palestinian refugees.

“There are victims on both sides now,” she said. “The terrorists who want to rid the world of Jews struck first and killed innocents, and now Israel is retaliating and there is innocent loss of life on both sides.”

Rowland, the pastor who admonished his congregation recently to support Israel, said that for many in his church, a key reason for supporting Israel was biblical prophecy about the return of the Messiah.

“At some point along their way, along their journey, they’ve heard the end of the world is going to happen,” he said. “There’s fear that comes into play for a lot of these people. And whatever it is you fear, you pay attention to.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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