Some evangelical voters in Iowa are now saying support for Israel has become their top priority for the Republican presidential caucus, now less than three months away, according to a report.
For decades, Christian conservatives have supported candidates who protect the lives of unborn children and curb abortion, but Hamas attacking Israel has changed the 2024 landscape. Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza has put new pressure on Republican candidates to directly address the conflict and emphasize traditional Republican support for Israel, according to The Associated Press, which interviewed more than a dozen Iowa conservative activists.
Since the Oct. 7 attack, 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 leading Republican candidates, including former President Trump, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Tim Scott, have told Iowans where they stand on the conflict and shared how they would respond if they were in the White House.
In Iowa, just three days after Hamas attacked Israel and killed more than 1,400 people — which were mostly civilians — several Christian pastors delivered a message meant to resonate both biblically and politically.
“What we’re seeing in that region is pure evil,” said Steve Rowland, a senior minister at the Rising Sun Church of Christ in the Des Moines suburb of Altoona. “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.”
Some Christians support Israel due to Old Testament 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.
Evangelical Christians dominate the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses, and several GOP contenders have begun to discuss the conflict in black-and-white terms, even accusing President Biden of not being tough enough on Hamas or Iran, a financial supporter of the terrorist group.
Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, described the ongoing war to The Associated Press as “between good and evil.”
“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,” Haley said in Iowa.
Former President Trump remains popular in Iowa, including among fervent Christian conservatives, where he leads in Iowa polls and gets the largest crowds at his campaign events. He continues to highlight his record while in the White House of supporting Israel, notably moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
Several activists interviewed by The Associated Press, however, were annoyed by Trump’s criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the Hamas attack. Trump also said Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terror group that is fighting with Israel on the country’s northern border, was “very smart.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who has invested heavily in Iowa, often speaks of Israel’s importance by referencing the Bible, which highlights Israel as God’s chosen people.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” Scott told an audience in Newton this month, quoting from the Book of Psalms. Scott, paraphrasing the Book of Romans, said of Israel’s enemies: “the wrath of God, let them feel it.”
DeSantis has also tried to win the support of evangelical clergy in Iowa, especially those who called Trump’s criticism of Netanyahu “a huge turnoff,” like Iowa pastor Joseph Brown.
“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.”
The Israeli-Hamas war has also caused concern for the civilian casualties, including whether the U.S. should accept refugees from Gaza, where many of its roughly 2 million residents have been displaced by Israeli airstrikes and face acute shortages of food and water.
Haley has expressed concern for the humanitarian crisis and said in a recent televised interview that the U.S. could appropriately determine which Palestinians “want to be free from this terrorist rule.”
Following Haley’s interview, the pro-DeSantis PAC Never Back Down argued Haley was “in support of bringing Gaza refugees to America” — a statement PolitiFact later rated “false.”
Haley did not call for bringing refugees from Gaza to the United States but instead called on regional countries to support the crisis.
“We should care about the Palestinian citizens, especially the innocent ones, because they didn’t ask for this,” Haley said during the interview, when asked if the U.S. should accept Gazans. “But where are the Arab countries? Where are they? Where is Qatar? Where is Lebanon? Where is Jordan? Where is Egypt? Do you know we give Egypt over a billion dollars a year? Why aren’t they opening the gates? Why aren’t they taking the Palestinians?”
She added, “You know why? Because they know they can’t vet them, and they don’t want Hamas in their neighborhood. So, why would Israel want them in their neighborhood? So, let’s be honest with what’s going on. The Arab countries aren’t doing anything to help the Palestinians because they don’t trust who is right, who is good, who is evil, and they don’t want it in their country.”
Ann Trimble Ray, a conservative from Early, Iowa, told The Associated Press she is supporting Haley over her sympathetic stance.
“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.”
Trump has alleged Hamas sympathizers could be among the Palestinians seeking to leave Gaza, potentially including those who could cross the southern U.S. border.
DeSantis has also argued the U.S. should not take in any Gaza refugees.
Several Iowan pastors have criticized biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a political newcomer who has an 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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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