As Iowa caucus nears, candidates ramp up God-talk

(RNS) — Democratic presidential hopefuls ramped up the God-talk while criss-crossing Iowa over the weekend, invoking the Bible and meeting with religious leaders while their Republican opponent President Trump worked to bolster support among evangelical Christians.

The faith-fueled weekend kicked off with remarks from Trump in a Florida church on Friday evening, where he launched a new "Evangelicals for Trump" campaign initiative to assist his re-election bid. Speaking to a group of evangelicals, the president took a shot at his Democratic opponents, accusing them of being anti-religious.

“As we speak, every Democrat candidate is trying to punish religious believers, and silence our churches and our pastors,” Trump said. “Our opponents want to shut out God from the public square so they can impose their extreme anti-religious and socialist agenda on America.”

Trump singled out South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, mocking the Democrat's faith.

“All of a sudden he has become extremely religious,” Trump told the crowd, referring to Buttigieg. “This happened about two weeks ago.”

But Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who has spoken of his faith often during his campaign, fired back — first on Friday evening by tweeting “God does not belong to a political party” and then by directly addressing the president’s remarks on Saturday.

“I’m not sure why the president’s taken an interest in my faith journey, but I certainly would be happy to discuss it with him — I just don’t know where that’s coming from,” Buttigieg told reporters. “Certainly, it has been a complex journey for me, as it is for a lot of people, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been a believer longer than he’s been a Republican.”

It turned out to be the beginning of a spiritually infused few days for a slate of presidential candidates who have shown an unusual affinity for religious rhetoric, with some even tying their faith to their policy proposals.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren got biblical while discussing economics and usury laws, arguing that banks in the 1980s chipped away at ancient economic systems designed to protect average people from exploitation.

“Bankruptcy is provided (for) in the Bible: Every seven years debts are forgiven — and the notion of a ‘jubilee,’” she said, noting usury laws are also in the Quran.

Warren referenced faith again a short time later during an exchange with a voter at a campaign town hall event in Dubuque, Iowa. A man who identified as an evangelical Christian asked why he should “give up” his religious opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion to support someone like Warren, arguing that Democratic candidates don’t respect his views.

Warren responded by noting that she was raised Methodist and once taught Sunday school and insisted that every person should be treated with respect, be they “black or white, straight or gay or trans … old or young.”

The senator then singled out the man’s reference to abortion.

“A woman who’s in the position of trying to decide what she’s going to do about a pregnancy — that she may not have planned for, may not have hoped for, may have been forced upon her — is a woman who should be able to call on anyone for help,” Warren said. “She should be able to call on her partner. She should be able to call on her mom. She should be able to call on her priest or rabbi, or her pastor. But the one entity that should not be in the center of that very hard decision is the federal government.”

After the crowd responded with a standing ovation, Warren added: “I’ll be respectful of you, and I believe you when you say you’re respectful of me. We may have a difference about the view about the federal government on this issue, but boy I sure would like to think about the parts we come together on — on the importance of investing in every single baby in this country."

Not to be outdone, former Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, visited Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines on Sunday. Parishioners at the historically African American church prayed over him.

“(I pray) in the name of Jesus … every day that (Biden) gets up, oh Lord, that you direct his path, that you direct his steps,” a woman said, while others laid hands on Biden. “There are so many things coming against him. You said the blood of Jesus will protect him as he goes throughout this United States in the name of Jesus. Oh father God, put a hedge of protection around him, let no harm or danger come near him or his family.”

Signs suggest the God-talk is unlikely to let up as candidates enter the final stretch before the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3. At least five presidential hopefuls — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former congressman John Delaney, spiritual author Marianne Williamson, independent Candidate Mark Charles and Republican candidate Bill Weld — are slated to speak at the Vote Common Good forum hosted in Des Moines Jan. 9-11, which is facilitated by a group of religious progressives.

Organizers said Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have yet to respond.

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