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As they woo Iowa's religious voters, 2020 Democrats talk faith

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In a hot, crowded rustic venue that typically hosts wedding receptions, about 300 people fanned themselves with paper plates attached to tongue depressors as they waited to hear South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speak on a sweltering Saturday evening in Shenandoah, Iowa.

"Suffer the children unto me" quoted Buttigieg, referencing scripture as he talked about his position on immigration. "If The Word that says you will know me by my works also says we ought to heal the sick, you don't have to be on board with cutting health care funding to vulnerable Americans," he added.

Buttigieg, an outspoken Episcopalian, often references his faith when explaining what informs some of his political beliefs. And in Iowa, a state where 77% of people practice some form of Christianity according to Pew, there's a desire among religious Democrats to hear candidates speak about their faith and how it informs their values. 

"Let's remind everybody that God doesn't belong to a political party," Buttigieg told the crowd in Shenandoah. The line received a loud round of applause as he added that he wants to represent people "of any religion and no religion" equally. 

For some caucus goers, Buttigieg's message struck a chord.

"I think that people that are religious it's very important to them and they want to know that the candidate that they're selecting may share some of their values," said Jan Norris of Red Oak. "I resent the fact that the Republicans try to own Christianity because they're not acting like Jesus at all."

"I like that he talks about faith because as a Catholic I think there's this image that you have to be a Republican or all Catholics are Republican," said Jake Johnson, a student at Central College.

"I've just seen too many people under a sort of spell that says if you're motivated by faith that means you're conservative," Buttigieg told reporters in Iowa earlier this month. "Electing a president who has been characterized by every personal trait that scripture councils against, I think it has a lot of people of faith wondering whether there isn't a different home that they can find politically."

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also invokes scripture on the stump. He often closes his appearances with a quote from Genesis 37:19. "Behold, here cometh the dreamer," Booker said during an event in Sioux City in April. He challenged the crowd to "avoid the quicksand of division" and take "the high road of faith and love and decency and grace."

Booker has said he starts his days with prayer and told the crowd he prayed that morning that God "allows me the privilege of leading this nation." He later went on to say, "I would rather hang out with a nice atheist than a mean Christian any day of the week."

"My foundation in my life is my faith," Booker said during a live podcast taping in Iowa in June, although he added that he sometimes feels a little bit uncomfortable speaking about the topic. "I'm one of these people that says before you tell me about your religion, first show me how you treat other people."

Buttigieg and Booker are not alone in acknowledging their faith on the campaign trail. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a Sunday School teacher and still sometimes references Biblical passages. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney are known to be devout Catholics. Marianne Williamson has made spirituality a core theme of her presidential campaign.

State Auditor Rob Sand, who speaks very openly about his faith, says some religious Iowa Democrats have felt left behind and want to hear more politicians talk about it. He said people "get emotional" when he talks about his faith because it has felt "one dimensional" for so many years.

"I feel like I was hungry to hear it my whole life. I wanted to hear from people about what their faith meant to them," Sand said. "For all the people out there that have been wanting to hear it all of their adult life, they're going to be grateful."

Sand was the only Democrat to flip a statewide seat in Iowa in 2018, winning in a year where Republicans retained control of the governor's office. Sand said that being willing to speak about his faith played a role in his victory.  

"There are people that I'm able to reach by talking about my faith in a way that I wouldn't be able to reach them just by talking about issues," Sand said. "Occasionally someone will say, 'look, we should just leave all that stuff out altogether.' The problem with that is it means that Democrats are disempowered from talking about something that means a great deal to a lot of people."

Sophie Mathonnet-VanderWell, a mainline Protestant pastor in the rural community of Pella, says Democrats in her church would welcome a candidate who speaks more openly about faith. 

"My sense is that the Democratic Party has not always been incredibly open to faith kinds of things, and has somewhat sidelined people of faith generally," said Mathonnet-VanderWell, who is a registered Democrat. "We need to think about or talk about the issues we care about and talk about them in terms of faith." 

Speaking about your faith comes with some risks, Sand says, because "there are people who get turned off by it." He says it's about striking a balance between being true to yourself and acknowledging there are some differences with people listening to your message.

"I try to acknowledge that people of any faith or no faith at all are welcome to live here and to lead here," Sand said. "It's not about needing to have people who are of the Christian faith in positions of elected office. It's about me, personally, not being willing to sit out a conversation."

Matt Russell, the executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, a bipartisan group that advocates for faith-based solutions to climate change, says there has been a "positive response" to Democratic candidates who are talking about values "in relationship to faith." But Russell warns that it can backfire if it comes across as inauthentic.

"It can't be a gotcha campaign strategy," Russell says. "If a candidate starts speaking in ways...that makes it sound like they're really profoundly a person of faith and then they don't really have a narrative of that, or a history of that, Iowans are going to see right through it. So you can't fake it."

Sand says he believes there is probably a net benefit for candidates who speak about their faith in Iowa. He said Iowans have a "quieter faith" than people in other parts of the country but thinks there's an opening for Democrats to talk about religion. 

"I think there is a bigger opportunity right now than maybe I have ever seen in my life for people who happen to be Democrats to talk about their faith and have it resonate," Sand said. "I think there are I think there are a lot of Christians out there who have been steady Republicans who see the actions there now, and who know that they don't fit in their faith. And at the same time, they also don't know if they are welcome in the other big party."

Linda Bernard from Jefferson, South Dakota said after an event in Sioux City last week that she worries about Democrats going too far left and forgetting about religious voters. She fears it means Democrats could lose in November 2020. 

"There's a very large religious middle in this country," Bernard said. "We need to address what they're talking about and get off the fringes."

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