By Nathan Worcester
Before former President Donald Trump took the stage, a familiar face appeared before the crowd at the Sioux City Orpheum. It was Dr. Ben Carson.
The softspoken brain surgeon endorsed President Trump to cheers and applause.
“They’re trying to throw God out of our country,” said Dr. Carson, who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Trump administration.
Dr. Carson wasn’t the only speaker who invoked Biblical themes at the Oct. 29 “Commit to Caucus” event, the president’s latest event in the Hawkeye State as the Jan. 15 Iowa GOP caucus nears.
The focus on the universal values in Christianity was no great surprise. An email blast from the campaign after President Trump spoke touted new endorsements from Dr. Carson but also from “over 100 Iowa faith leaders”: pastors, ministry leaders, elders, and others throughout the key early state.
Faith could tip the scales here. In some recent Iowa GOP caucuses, candidates who cultivated a conservative, religious image—former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—have won. Of course, all of that was before the Trump presidency scrambled many of the formulas for American politics.
With his former vice president, Mike Pence, now an also-ran, President Trump no longer faces a competitor that some imagined would draw the votes of religious conservatives in the Hawkeye State. Yet, against the backdrop of a hot war in the Holy Land, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are both bidding for evangelical voters who support Israel more strongly than almost anyone. So despite strong polling ahead of the Iowa caucus, President Trump can’t afford to rest on his laurels.
Iowa State Sen. Lynn Evans, a Republican, began his remarks by quoting Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities.”
“The only way we do this is with God’s help and God’s blessing,” said Matt Whitaker, who was acting attorney general during the Trump administration.
And in the middle of his own speech, President Trump drew attention to the day of the week.
“We can go a little longer today ‘cause it’s a Sunday,” he said. “God said we can take some extra time, because it’s a Sunday.”
Courting the Evangelical
Indeed, the former commander-in-chief seemed particularly relaxed at the Orpheum, an ornate space first built for vaudeville performances.
On the fringes of the real American West, in an old Orpheum circuit theater, President Trump balanced talk of war, peace, and the eternal with earthy, irreverent humor—a feat few can manage under the easiest circumstances, and even fewer while successfully courting the evangelical bloc that can make or break Republican candidates.
He criticized President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, focusing on what he described as an “inept withdrawal” from Afghanistan.
President Trump also riffed on the Biden administration’s plans for electrifying the military fleet.
“You obliterate something, but you do it in an environmentally friendly way,” he said, drawing laughter. He went on to argue that electric vehicles increase the United States’s reliance on China and still don’t stay charged long enough to be practical in many settings.
“Under the Trump administration, I kept America safe, I kept Israel safe, and I kept the world safe,” President Trump said before being drowned out by applause and chants of “USA!”
Speaking in the Upper Midwest, traditionally less pro-war than some other parts of the country, he leaned on a record of avoiding wars as president.
He also praised the leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, for keeping illegal immigrants out at a time when the United States and many other European countries face a flood of migrants and asylum seekers, many arriving illegally.
“I will not give one penny to any school that has a vaccine mandate or a mask mandate,” President Trump vowed.
Yet for Mr. DeSantis’s backers, the former president’s record on vaccines, masks, and other facets of COVID-19 may still look like a vulnerability.
From the bowels of the Orpheum, an anonymous heckler posed a tough question for President Trump, who has maintained that the 2020 election was rigged against him. He asked how the president could stop cheating in the 2024 election in light of that past outcome.
The heckler was escorted to the door, and the show went on.