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Faith, Values Come to the Fore in Iowa as Holidays Near

By Erin McPike - December 19, 2011

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She added, “I also remember here in Iowa, when it was this time of year, we’d have Christmas trees in our school classrooms. We’d sing Christmas carols in our school; we’d have Christmas programs; we’d play out the Nativity scene. What was wrong with that?” she asked. “We were exercising our First Amendment right. Now we’re told it’s unconstitutional. What?”

Rather than ask about the payroll tax cut or what can be done to lower the nation’s unemployment rate, voters here have been focused on whether children should be allowed to celebrate Christmas in public settings.

Romney took such a question at a town-hall forum in Sioux City on Friday morning.

“I know there are some people who would like to make this nation a secular nation, that want to take God out of everything that exists in our country,” Romney said. He pointed out that those on the other side of the argument note that the Constitution calls for the separation of church and state, but that that’s a difficult point to press considering the Declaration of Independence denotes the unalienable rights endowed by “our Creator.”

Romney went further, elaborating on the issue: “I believe that we should be able to have a religious ornamentation and celebration in the public square, and whether that’s a manger, or a menorah or representatives of other faiths. It is important for us as a society to recognize that we look to God for many of our blessings.” He added that he wasn’t calling for prayer in schools every day, but that he believes it’s appropriate to have prayer at school celebrations like graduations and football games.

The voter who asked the question was pleased with that response.

But Romney certainly didn’t go as far as Rick Perry has. One week before Perry announced his candidacy last summer, he co-hosted a “day of prayer” in Houston and was criticized heavily in some quarters for the overt display of religion.

Perry’s TV ads here have focused on his background and social beliefs, and an Internet ad his campaign is running online notes that “Rick Perry isn’t ashamed to talk about his faith.” Some in the blogosphere interpreted that as a dig at Romney, who hasn’t discussed his Mormon faith very much, other than to say he’s proud of it and that it has provided him constancy in life.

The Texas governor attended two church services in northern Iowa on Sunday morning and addressed the congregation at the First Wesleyan Church here. He described how after leaving the Air Force -- which, he said, was not his calling -- he turned to God as a 27-year-old after clashing with his father over how to run the family farm.

Then he told the congregation that he had just one message to offer: “We get often told, particularly people of faith, that you leave your faith at the door or on the steps of the public arena. Don’t bring your faith into school; don’t bring your faith into the council meeting; don’t bring your faith into the capitol.”

But drawing on several Bible scriptures, he countered, “You are biblically charged to take your values into the public arena.” Citing the prophet Isaiah, he said, “Men and women of faith is who we want to lead our cities, our states, our nation.”

He left the rapt congregation with a final thought: “Somebody’s values are going to decide the issues of the day. Whatever they may be, whatever policies are being discussed in city council meetings or on the school board or at the state capitol or in our nation’s capital, somebody’s values are going to be installed, if you will. And the question is going to be: Whose values? Is it going to be those of us of faith? Or is it going to be somebody else’s values?”

Bachmann and Perry have been in a mad dash across Iowa, trying to cull religious support, as has Rick Santorum, who has held the most events in the state. The former Pennsylvania senator spent much of the weekend in northwest Iowa, where there’s a known density of social and religious conservatives. Earlier this year, Santorum gave a speech blasting the separation of church and state. 

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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