Stirring her morning coffee, lifelong Republican Grace Droog voiced her doubts — and those of many evangelical voters — about what she isn’t hearing from John McCain in this year’s presidential election.
"I look for something about his faith," she said. "It’s very important, it’s what our nation was founded on."
Her pal Joan Rens nodded; she, too, wants McCain to talk about his religious beliefs. "I wish he would so we would know how he stands on his religious views and where his faith lies," she said.
In this part of the country — halfway between Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D., — separating religion from politics is folly. Religious conservatives here were energized by President Bush’s public declaration of faith and handed him a landslide in 2004. With growing sway in the state GOP, they recently captured a prominent party leadership post.
"When they get on fire, it’s Katie bar the door," said Rock Rapids businessman George Schneiderman, who worries that McCain isn’t generating that excitement.
"It’s just kind of a tepid response," he said. "McCain really hasn’t convinced them he has the same fervor about the appointment of judges, about the right to life."
In the ongoing AP-Yahoo News Poll, only 10 percent of white evangelical Christians say they are excited by this election, compared with 20 percent of Americans overall. A third of these evangelicals said they were interested in the election, but half said they were frustrated by it.
Nevertheless, they support McCain over Obama by 62 percent to 18 percent. Although the AP-Yahoo News Poll is of all adults, not the smaller, more energized group of likely voters, McCain’s figures lag behind Bush’s showing among white evangelical Christian voters in the 2004 election, when exit polls indicated 78 percent supported him.
In some parts of Iowa, overall turnout in 2004 was 20 percentage points higher than 2000, virtually all of it an energized Bush vote.
A prosperous hamlet of 6,300, Sioux Center is home to 17 churches, 13 of them with the word "Reformed" in their name, a sign of a strong evangelical presence. In 2004, 16,000 people in the county voted, 14,000 of them for Bush.
Carl Zylstra is president of Dordt College in Sioux Center, a small private school that bills itself as "what quality Christian higher education is all about." Also the host of a weekly radio talk show about politics and everything else on the minds of folks, Zylstra hears quiet doubts, far different from the passion Bush inspired.
"George Bush has a very compelling personal story, a very compelling religious experience and in their hearts they believed he was a man who loved the same Lord they did," said Zylstra. "They might not agree with all his policies, but they trusted him that when the chips were down, he would do the right thing. McCain is not a man who incites the same passion."
Dave Mulder, a retired teacher from Northwestern College in nearby Orange City, another private Christian college, also knows something about local politics and spent a stint in the state Legislature.
"I think people here genuinely believe that George Bush and his Christian faith was very sincere," said Mulder. "People have said that when they talked to him, he took time to let them know how much that Christian belief meant. For McCain, I just don’t think there’s that same enthusiasm."
McCain has work to do among religious conservatives, says Don Kass, a Republican activist in nearby Plymouth County.
"He needs to work quite a bit harder than he has to get those folks," said Kass. "And I say those folks because I’m one of them. He needs to give them something that motivates them to get to the polls."
Religious conservatives are an important constituency in this swing state that voted for Bush by 12,000 votes in 2004 and a growing force in state Republican politics. Republicans recently ousted Steve Roberts, a 20-year member of the Republican National Committee, and replaced him with Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance.
The other RNC seat went to Kim Lehman, head of the Iowa Right to Life Committee, and both campaigned on forcing the party to showcase its hard-line opposition to abortion and gay rights. Scheffler says he backs McCain but concedes there isn’t much enthusiasm among religious conservatives.
"It’s not where it should be, but there’s potential there," said Scheffler. "I’ve encouraged the McCain campaign, I’ve told them several times that I would be more than willing to put together a small group of people the campaign needs to have a dialogue with."
The balancing act McCain must walk nationally is firming up his conservative base while reaching out to independents. Scheffler warned the equation is different in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.
"To succeed in Iowa, it’s because you have a big turnout of self-identified evangelicals," said Scheffler. "I don’t see that scenario changing."
Randy Feenstra, another Plymouth County activist, doesn’t see these voters turning to Democrat Barack Obama, but he worries that they "just won’t vote."
Top Republicans acknowledge the problem and vow to ease concerns. On a recent visit to Iowa, Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan delivered a pep talk about McCain. "For a public figure, he’s a very private man," Duncan said, but he promised the campaign would offer a clearer view of McCain as a person "as we move through this fall."
Sharing regular morning coffee here with Droog and Rens, Jake Kieft, who backed Bush with enthusiasm, shrugged his shoulders over the campaign.
"I’m hanging on the fence, I really am," Kieft said.