For most of his two decades as a preacher, Iowa pastor Mike Demastus eschewed partisanship, telling colleagues and congregants that "religion and politics don't mix."
But there he was last month in Ames, making his way across the festive grounds of the Republican presidential straw poll, mingling with political operatives and candidates as he spoke openly about his preference for Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
He wasn't alone. The straw poll drew a slew of previously apolitical Iowa pastors — a constituency increasingly heeding a call to speak out on politics.
"There is a concerted assault on everything that we consider sacred — and we pastors need to move to the forefront of the battle," said Demastus, wearing a T-shirt and shorts for the Saturday event.
Demastus is part of a growing movement of evangelical pastors who are jumping into the electoral fray as never before, preaching political engagement from the pulpit as they mobilize for the 2012 election.
This new activism has substantial muscle behind it: a cadre of experienced Christian organizers and some of the conservative movement's most generous donors, who are setting up technologically sophisticated operations to reach pastors and their congregations in battleground states.
The passion for politics stems from a collision of historic forces, including heightened local organizing around the issues of abortion and gay marriage and a view of the country's debt as a moral crisis that violates biblical instruction. Another major factor: Both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Bachmann, contenders for the GOP nomination, are openly appealing to evangelical Christian voters as they blast President Obama's leadership.
Both Republican and Democratic strategists say that pastors have already helped unleash an army of voters to shape the GOP primary contests in Iowa and South Carolina, two states with large numbers of conservative Christians. They are making plans to do the same in states that are even more important to next year's general election. Those include Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Virginia and Colorado, where evangelical voters make up about a quarter of the electorate and their participation could greatly aid Republicans.
"The Christian activist right is the largest, best-organized and, I believe, the most powerful force in American politics today," said Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist who recently provided briefings on the constituency to wealthy donors on the left. "No other political group comes even close."
Religious leaders have long been active in political causes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his Baptist pulpit to agitate for civil rights, and fiery televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell awakened the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s with calls to fight what they saw as America's moral decay.
But the current awakening is different. It springs from the grass roots — small and independent churches — and is fueled by emails and YouTube videos. And it is driven less by personality than by the biblical teaching to be the "salt" and "light" of society — in other words, to have a beneficial influence on the world.
"This is the congregational version of the 'tea party,'" says Richard Land, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Pastors who in the past would dodge my calls are calling me saying, 'How can we be involved?' "
The pastor movement is being guided and ministered to by a growing web of well-financed organizations that offer seminars, online tools and a battery of lawyers.
Tim Wildmon, who runs the American Family Assn., one of the most generous underwriters of Christian conservative activism, predicted that evangelicals in 2012 will match the fervency of the Ronald Reagan era — in large part because so many pastors are prodding their flocks to the polls.
"They're going to be telling their parishioners to get registered and to make sure to go vote," he said. "I think it's huge."
Boosting the movement are veteran figures such as Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition. His new organization, Faith & Freedom Coalition, is developing a list of Christian voters in key states, a tool it used to reach thousands of voters in Wisconsin's recent recall elections.
New players are even more ambitious. United in Purpose, financed by an anonymous group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, aims to register 5 million conservative Christians to vote. The organization boasts a sophisticated database that identifies millions of unregistered evangelical and born-again Christian voters around the country.
Bill Dallas, the group's chief executive, said pastors would be pivotal to its efforts. "They're the shepherds of the flock," he said. "It's a great mass media channel."
The power of pastors to transform their congregations into potential political blocs came into sharp focus in Texas in 2006, when Christian organizers David Lane and Wayne Hamilton invited ministers throughout the state to voter mobilization meetings, some of which Perry attended.
Two years later, Jim Garlow of Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., rallied fellow pastors to push for the passage of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
"This country is at a critical crossroads," said Garlow, who is now working with several national organizations to encourage their brand of biblically inspired political activism. "Pastors have to understand their unique role."
In 2010, pastors in Iowa helped lead a successful campaign to force out three state Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of gay marriage.
"When I heard about the decision, there was an anger — a feeling of righteous anger that swept over me," said Pastor Kerry Jech of New Hope Christian Church in Marshalltown. "I have no hatred toward people who engage in a homosexual lifestyle. All that I know is that marriage — biblically and morally — is between a man and a woman."
The Iowa judges campaign is viewed by conservative Christian leaders as a model for political engagement by pastors. Dubbed Project Jeremiah, the effort was spurred in part by Jeff Mullen, pastor of Point of Grace Church in Waukee, whose website IowaPastors.com encourages ministers to speak out on political matters.
The preachers were organized in large part by Lane and Hamilton — reunited from their days in Texas. The effort was backed by nearly $1 million that poured in from groups such as the American Family Assn. and the National Organization for Marriage. Today, Hamilton is the political director of Perry's presidential campaign and Lane is actively organizing gatherings of pastors in early primary states.
The political engagement of evangelical pastors signals a reawakening of the conservative Christian activism that atrophied in the last decade. This time, organizers say it could be even more powerful, a reflection of the sharp backlash against the current administration.
Dismay about Obama's stances on gay rights and abortion — as well as anxiety about the growing national debt — has overcome the ambivalence of many pastors about speaking out.
"Preachers are being emboldened because of the great need in the nation," said Pastor Richard Lee of First Redeemer Church outside of Atlanta.
The change is producing some conflict. Some of Demastus' longtime Democratic parishioners have left the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ because of his outspokenness. But he and others are pushing ahead in the view that pastors must lead in "the fight to restore Christian values."
"There is a fire in my bones to do this," Demastus said, citing the passion of a Revolutionary War pastor who dropped his ministerial robes before his congregation to reveal the uniform of the Continental Army.
The story of the Rev. Peter Muhlenberg telling his flock "there is a time to pray and a time to fight" was repeated across Iowa this summer, as pastors signed up worshipers to become "prayer warriors" and, they said, help take the country back to its Christian roots.
As pastors speak out on political matters, they've drawn admonitions from groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which warns that such activism could jeopardize their churches' nonprofit status. But the religious leaders are bolstered by well-funded Christian legal organizations supporting their cause.
The most prominent — the Alliance Defense Fund, a group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that spent $32 million in fiscal year 2010 — is challenging a 1954 tax code amendment that prohibits pastors, as leaders of tax-exempt organizations, from supporting or opposing candidates from the pulpit. The group sponsors Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in which it offers free legal representation to churches whose pastors preach about political candidates and are then audited by the Internal Revenue Service. (So far, no IRS investigations have been triggered.)
Last fall, 100 churches participated — up from 33 in 2008. This year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday, scheduled for Oct. 2, is expected to draw more than 500 churches.
"Unfortunately, there are groups out there who try to scare pastors into censoring themselves," said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, another legal defense group, who said he was increasingly fielding calls on the topic from preachers. "My encouragement is, 'Don't be intimidated from fulfilling what God is calling you to do.'"