PEMBROKE, N.H. — They bowed their heads in prayer.
“God, we know that you are calling us,” pastor Mark Warren said at the recent God, Country, and BBQ candidates’ forum “This is a pivotal time in this country, and Lord, you are calling the church to stand up, to be actively engaged, to know the issues.”
It was the end of a two-hour event, and at its peak some 500 people had filled the seats of Grace Capital Church, New Hampshire’s version of a megachurch. And as much as this gathering was a chance for religious voters to hear directly from Republican White House hopefuls, it was also a call to action, to fire up an oft-overlooked constituency in a pivotal early-voting state.
Evangelical Christians, who play an outsized role in the Republican Party nationally, are turning up their voices in New Hampshire — one of the least religious states in the country.
The party and some presidential candidates have started paying attention. The Republican National Committee, local pastors, and Christian groups are trying to mobilize religious conservatives, whose support could be especially important in a crowded field where every vote will count.
“People are feeling frustrated. They are feeling a little overlooked by the candidates,” said Sarah Koski, political director at Cornerstone, a conservative nonprofit organization that sponsored the candidate forum.
Typically, she and others say, New Hampshire voters of faith have not worked as a bloc that coalesces behind a single presidential candidate or cause. Faith-based advocacy groups in this state rarely, if ever, issue presidential scorecards, send activists to question candidates at town halls, or hold events, unlike groups pushing for lower taxes or environmental protection.
Jane Cormier, the president of New Hampshire Right to Life, said that when it comes to presidential politics, “we don’t get involved.” And this was Cornerstone’s first foray into presidential politics.
“We have sat back for a while. I think we probably sat back for too long,” Koski said.
Not this year.
Political novices are trying to become more engaged, attending forums, taking notes, and donating to socially conservative groups.
“I’m seeing lots of first-timers,” said Cormier. “Our organization, in the past year, has grown in membership. We are doing better in donations. We have tripled the number of people who will sit at a vigil or come out in a protest.”
The event at Grace Capital was the first time 64-year-old Vicki Therrien heard the presidential candidates live. It is her home church, a convenient and trusted space to hear what candidates had to say. And she was listening for how faith informs their life and leadership.
“If it’s important for me to live the Gospel and lead a spirit-filled life, I expect them to do it,” she said. “I read the word daily and follow the Holy Spirit.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Carly Fiorina; Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia; and Candy Carson, wife of Dr. Ben Carson, spoke at the Cornerstone event, where the speeches were heavy on scripture, faith, and the transformative power of prayer.
Graham’s military strategy for defeating the self-styled Islamic State, for example, he said, was part “kill and capture” and part “having people of faith reach out to people over there.”
The audience was among the 22 percent of New Hampshire Republican voters who described themselves as “born-again” or “evangelical Christians,” making the state one of the least religious in the country, according to a 2012 exit survey by Pew Research Center. A poll by Gallup a year later ranked New Hampshire as the country’s second least religious state, just behind Vermont.
Iowa, by contrast, ranked near the middle in the Gallup poll as the 21st most religious state, which helps explain why religious conservatives are a heavily courted demographic in the state whose caucuses kick off the presidential nominating process. Mississippi is the most religious state.
In New Hampshire, the closest social conservatives have come to having an impact on the primary was 1996, when commentator Pat Buchanan won by less than 1 percentage point, according to Andrew Smith of the University of New Hampshire. Smith added that Buchanan also won because he was considered a “protest vote” over then-US Senator Bob Dole.
“At this point, it’s really counterculture to be religious,” said Judy Quirk of Bedford, who had turned the Cornerstone event into a date night of sorts with her husband. “All of my friends’ kids who went to college are atheists.”
Still, overtly religious presidential contenders tend not to do well here. For example, former senator Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic from Pennsylvania who frequently invokes the Bible, earned about 9 percent of the vote during the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary.
“Elections are about math,” Drew McKissick, eastern director of faith engagement for the RNC, told the crowd at the Cornerstone event. “They are obviously about principle. They’re about engaging your base — but at the end of the day you have to have one more vote than everybody else if you want to win.”
Nationally, the numbers tell a story about declining participation from faith-based voters since 2004, he said. In terms of raw votes since then, he told the crowd, “we’re in the hole about 10 million people just like you, Bible-believing, evangelical Christians who go to church once a week.”
Bryan McCormack, Cornerstone’s executive director, said his group has been trying to pinpoint who those voters in New Hampshire are, to bring them back to the conservative fold and into a voting booth.
While he has only a “rough” estimate at this point, McCormick said, it’s still “a number that would change an election.”
He offered Grace Capital Church, which has three campuses that usually draw about 500 people to both Sunday services, as an example. “You’re talking a couple thousand people,” he said. “In a presidential primary with 16 candidates, that’s enough for a win.”