DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Pastor Charles Hundley opened his worship service on a cold Sunday in northeast Des Moines with a prayer that made it clear one endorsement above all will matter in Iowa’s caucuses eight days away.
“We thank you for the upcoming election, Lord — or caucus, as we call it in Iowa,” said Hundley, speaking from the sanctuary of his evangelical Christian church in his slight Texas drawl as his parishioners bowed their heads.
“It doesn’t matter what our opinion is,” he went on. “It’s really what’s your opinion that matters. But you’ve given us the privilege of being able to exercise a beautiful gift. The gift of vote. We thank you for that.”
While Hundley stops short of suggesting to his parishioners which candidate divine guidance should lead them to support, he is among more than 300 pastors and other faith leaders who’ve been described as supporters by former President Donald Trump’s campaign. It’s a message that some members of Hundley’s First Church of God have taken to heart, saying their faith informs their intention to caucus for Trump.
The former president and his rivals for the Republican nomination in 2024 have for months been heavily courting social conservatives and white evangelical Christians, long seen as the most influential group in Iowa’s Republican caucuses.
Ron Betts, a 72-year-old Republican who said he plans to caucus for “Trump all the way,” said he felt the former president “exemplified what Jesus would do.”
Hundley said he doesn’t speak about politics from the pulpit or privately urge members of his congregation to support his favored candidate, but he encourages them to participate and use their faith to make their choices.
“I look at it from a Christian perspective,” he said. “I expect them to look at it from a Christian perspective. What does God say of us?”
Before weather forced a postponement, the First Church of God on Monday was supposed to host a Trump campaign event featuring Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s former press secretary, and her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former presidential candidate, as part of what’s billed as a Team Trump Iowa Faith Tour.
Trump, who has a commanding polling lead in Iowa, has been emphasizing his endorsements from faith leaders and success in seating three Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that protected abortion rights nationwide. The former president, however, has faced some pushback from conservatives for failing to endorse national abortion restrictions.
Trump frequently features a prayer at the start of his campaign events, something his rivals have also included at their stops. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has portrayed himself as more conservative than Trump, features religious rhetoric as he campaigns and has the backing of more than 100 faith leaders, including the influential Iowa evangelical figure Bob Vander Plaats.
Trump has long seemed like an unlikely fit for the conservative faithful who shape the first contest of the Republican primary. He entered politics as a brash, thrice-married former reality television star who spent decades as a New York City tabloid fixture, boasted of his sexual prowess and once supported abortion rights. His frequent lies and distortions in his campaigns and presidency focused on everything from his political rivals to the pandemic to the 2020 election results. And last year a jury found him liable for sexual abuse.
In his first race for the White House in 2016, his image seemed to dog him as he struggled in Iowa, losing the state to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But as the former president again seeks the White House, he is finding strong support among the faithful.
While about one-third of U.S. adults, 37%, have a favorable opinion of Trump, he’s seen more favorably among those who identify themselves as evangelicals or born-again Christians. About half of evangelicals in an AP-NORC poll conducted in October said they have a favorable view of Trump. That’s even higher among white born-again Christians, at 56%.
Trump has focused his third campaign around a message of retribution and harsh justice, a framework that doesn’t seem to be hurting him with evangelicals. Some members of Hundley’s church pointed to those themes as a reason Trump best aligns with their faith, suggesting his tough stance on the border and calls for harsher punishment for crimes reflect a sense of justice they see as rooted in Christianity.
The 72-year-old Betts likened Trump’s legal troubles — from the 91 criminal charges he currently faces to the effort in some states to keep him off the 2024 presidential ballot because of his push to overturn his 2020 election loss — to a crucifixion.
“I think they are doing the same thing they did to Jesus on the cross,” Betts said. “I can see a lot of correlation there.”
Cliff Carey, a 73-year-old member of Hundley’s congregation, said Trump supported things he supports as a Christian and pointed to his actions around abortion in particular, calling him “the greatest pro-life president we’ve ever seen.”
“I think he’s an imperfect individual just like the rest of us, but I think God used that man to govern in godly principles,” he said.
His sister-in-law, Cindy Carey, agreed.
“I wouldn’t vote for him as my pastor,” she said. “I want him to lead our nation back to that city on a hill, shining city on a hill.”
Carey feels Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is about returning the country to the Christian principles she believes it was founded on.
“I definitely take my belief and my understanding of the Bible into the voting booth with me.” she said. “I believe 100% that that’s my responsibility.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut in Des Moines and Linley Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.