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Radical for Jesus, dubious of Romney

Des Moines, Iowa

With Bible verses painted on the walls of his living room and with an unshakable belief that hell is for real, there's no question that Rob Seyler is a devout evangelical Christian.

He is also a renegade.

Tucked into his well-thumbed Bible, the spine held together with silver duct tape, is a picture of Marilyn Manson in full goth makeup. Seyler, a high school Bible teacher, says the metal singer's writings shed light into the secret world of suffering teens.

Musically, Seyler gravitates more to Johnny Cash, partly because of the musician's intense religiosity. But Seyler will be the first to tell you that Cash's memoir of life as a sinner, "Man in Black," is much better than Cash's Christian novel, "Man in White."

His renegade streak extends to Seyler's classroom at the Grandview Park Baptist School in gritty East Des Moines, where he has painted so many brightly colored quotes and pictures onto the walls that it looks like a pop artist's studio. There are Bible verses and a black and white silhouette of Johnny Cash and an image that Seyler says has "created a little bit of a ruckus."

It's a portrait of Barack Obama.

Students aren't the only ones who have questioned Seyler's depiction of a politician who supports abortion rights and gay marriage on the walls of a conservative Baptist school.

The senior pastor at Grandview Park Baptist Church -- which anchors Seyler's school and where Seyler and his family are members -- doesn't much care for it, either.

"When I first saw that on Rob's wall, I thought, 'What's the point?' " says the pastor, Robert Smith. "I don't know where Obama is as a Christian."

Seyler used to wonder about that, too. But after reading the president's speeches and writings about his faith, including his acceptance of Jesus, the teacher concluded that Obama was an eloquent spokesman for Christian salvation. So he painted the president onto the front wall of his classroom.

"I wanted to put the kibosh on negative comments about Obama," says Seyler, 38, sitting on a desk a few feet from the smiling, arms-folded Obama silhouette he painted in 2008. He also wanted to remind his students that submitting to government authority is a biblical mandate, whether that government is led by a Republican or a Democrat. Painted on Obama's chest are the words "Romans 13:1," a New Testament verse that commands Christians to obey government authorities.

To be sure, Seyler is no fan of Obama's policies. The father of six has been uncompromisingly anti-abortion since seeing videos of abortion procedures at the Christian high school he graduated from in Pennsylvania. And he believes gay marriage is an insult to a divinely ordained institution.

Yet Seyler, who has always supported Republicans for president, cringes at the thought of having to paint over Obama with a portrait of Mitt Romney. How could a teacher whose mission is instilling orthodox Christianity in the hearts and minds of impressionable teenagers justify a portrait of a Mormon at the front of his class?

As certain as he is that Obama is Christian, he's sure that Mormons are not.

"Not to shun Mormons, but they teach that Jesus was a man exactly like you or me and that men can become gods," says Seyler, whose completely shaved head and bushy rust-brown goatee give him the air of a biker dude.

It's those kind of teachings, he believes, that can land you in hell.

So even though nearly everyone in Seyler's close-knit extended family has fallen into line behind Republican nominee Romney -- "he's the lesser of two evils," his brother-in-law Chris explains over burgers out one night -- Seyler isn't sure he's going to cast a ballot for president this year.

He might stay home instead.

Plenty of congregants at Grandview Park Baptist Church face the same predicament: Is it better to vote for a Mormon or to not vote at all? "It's a conundrum," says Smith, the senior pastor, who is personally keen on Romney. "It's tough for a lot of people."

In a close election that hinges on turnout, as might happen this year, that fact could spell deep trouble for the Republican candidate, especially in a swing state like Iowa.

Voters like Seyler who can't countenance Romney's Mormonism represent "a small but potentially crucial set of evangelicals," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. "If we get to the point where every vote counts, then a 5 or 10 percent decline in evangelical turnout can make the difference."

So a key part of Romney's job over the coming weeks is convincing the Rob Seylers of the world that, yes, it's better to support a Mormon than to stay home on November 6.

But Seyler's not there. Not yet.

"We have traditionally been a Christian nation, and God has blessed us because of that," he says. "And now we're going to hand the reins over to a Mormon?"

Rob Seyler spends a lot of time talking about eternity.

His classroom is hung with plastic human skulls and skeletons (he took one down after feeling the place might be getting too morbid), and a wooden coffin stands in a rear corner. A student once hid inside it, emerging when class was well under way to scare his teacher and classmates half to death.

"Teenagers are convinced that they're immortal and invincible," Seyler says, explaining the ghoulish kitsch. "I want to remind them that life is short."

And that eternity is long.

Seyler illustrates just how long with a ball of blue yarn.

It's a sunny Sunday morning in early August, and he is standing in front of 20 kids in a different classroom, leading a Sunday school class for Grandview Park Baptist Church.

Seyler asks for volunteers, and a grove of eager hands shoots up. A boy with an Afro is soon following Seyler's instructions to pull one end of the yarn to a corner of the room. Seyler asks another kid to pull the yarn to the next corner, forming a giant L.

Before long, all the children are up from their seats and stationed around the edges of the room, each doing his or her part to form a rectangle of blue string about 100 feet long.

When the yarn is completely unspooled, Seyler holds up his end, wrapped in an inch of white athletic tape.

He explains to a room of first- through fifth-graders that this short length of taped string represents a human lifespan on Earth, while the rest represents the time we spend in eternity, after death.

"When we die, we go to heaven or hell," Seyler tells them. "We have a lot more to live after we die, but lots of people just focus on this little piece."

The only way to get to heaven, he continues, is to accept Jesus as savior, to recognize that he took on our sins and died for them: "I love Jesus more than my own life; that's how tight we are."

"I love Jesus more than my own kids," he says a moment later, catching the eye of his 9-year-old, Jack, who is seated in the front row.

None of Seyler's teachings about eternity or hell comes even close to resembling a political statement. Yet they go a long way in explaining how a born-again Christian could have such deep reservations about a Mormon candidate.

In Seyler's view, getting it right when it comes to God and Jesus is a high-stakes business, the difference between spending eternity in heaven vs. hell. So why would he trust the country with someone whose beliefs are shaped not just by the Bible but also by another text, the Book of Mormon?

Never mind that Mormons consider themselves Christians and focus intensely on Jesus, starting with the official name of their church: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For Seyler, that just makes a Romney presidency even more dangerous.

"People will say he seems like such an upstanding guy; how could he be wrong" about religion, Seyler says, sitting at Fazoli's, an Italian fast-food chain, with his family after church. His blond-haired 4-year-old, William, is pulling a rip cord that sends his new Buzz Lightyear toy skating across the table.

"If he becomes president, how much of a soapbox for his religion will he have?"

Questions about Romney's devout Mormon faith have dogged his campaign from day one. In this year's Republican primaries, the GOP's evangelical base broke against Romney, fueling former Sen. Rick Santorum's insurgent campaign.

Recent polling shows that most evangelicals now back Romney, regardless of whether they're comfortable with his faith. A September Pew survey found that more than three-quarters of registered white evangelicals support Romney.

But a July survey from Pew found that about a quarter of white evangelicals are uncomfortable with Romney's religion -- and that only one in five in that group is strongly pro-Romney.

That could mean fewer born-again activists making phone calls and knocking on doors for Romney -- and thus fewer chances of getting someone like Seyler to turn out.

Seyler has plenty of hang-ups about Romney beyond religion. The candidate's support for abortion rights as governor of Massachusetts -- a position he reversed while in office -- makes him suspect on Seyler's No. 1 political issue.

And Seyler, who wears jeans to church and spends weekends burning old furniture in his backyard fire pit, doesn't care for Romney's uppity, buffed-to-a-high-sheen manner.

"I want to see someone who's real," he says, cutting a slice of chicken parm with a plastic knife. "Romney's squeaky clean."

Plus, as an evangelical free-thinker, Seyler is a little tired of blindly pulling the Republican lever in the voting booth. He doesn't want to necessarily accept whomever the Republican Party is handing down.

"You're not supposed to talk about it, but there's this strong undercurrent that every Christian votes Republican, and if not, you're a traitor," he says. "But how do you do that with a candidate that's not at all Christian, who's anti-Christian?"

He recounts how his temper flared during the Iowa presidential caucuses in January when he drove by some sign-wielding Newt Gingrich supporters. How could a Christian support a politician who'd been married three times, he thought.

Seyler's wife had to stop him from rolling down his window and taunting them with faux declarations of support for Obama. Another renegade impulse.

Seyler goes so far as to admit that he has a real soft spot for Obama, though he couldn't see voting for him without the president personally explaining to him how, as a Christian, he could support abortion rights and gay marriage.

And yet because he's a believer, Seyler says, he can appreciate better than secular voters how Romney's religion would shape presidential decisions.

"If it came down to policies, I'd probably go with Romney," he says. "But politics isn't as big to me as beliefs. Beliefs are who someone really is."

Seyler didn't come by his piety easily.

In high school, he grew so disenchanted with what he saw as the shallow, sterile faith of some teachers at his Christian high school that he thought about killing them. He and a friend -- a pastor's son -- even mapped out an attack in study hall one day, listing the guns and ammo they'd need.

They abandoned the plan once the bell rang. But Seyler came much closer to killing himself. He was feeling insecure and unfulfilled, hung up on his introversion and his acne and crooked teeth, and he wasn't sure anyone really loved him.

"I had my finger on the trigger, and I clipped off the safety," he recalls, sitting atop a student desk in his high school classroom. "I got some towels and spread them onto the carpet so my mom wouldn't have to scrub the blood."

He was 15 or 16, alone at home in his room. "I had the gun in my mouth."

Then his father knocked on the door.

That interruption and a string of other developments that Seyler would later interpret as divine interventions restored his Christian faith. But only after a long season of searching that included exploring other religions, including Islam.

At around the same time, his father sent him to join a missionary team in Peru. There, in the jungle, he discovered a raw, real faith that he hadn't seen back home. "The joy in Christ that I saw in the Peruvians, even though they had nothing -- that's what hooked me on a life in ministry," he says.

Now, though not technically a minister, Seyler spends his days pastoring to kids from his perch in the classroom. And after class, he's constantly talking to students and former students by text and Facebook, fielding questions about school, dating, existential angst -- you name it.

Seyler says that intense outreach is propelled by his own teenage struggles and by his commitment to living the kind of faith he saw in Peru and felt missing in the Christian high school of his youth. He keeps a second Marilyn Manson picture in his Bible -- one showing the singer as a sweet young boy -- to remind him "not to refuse people who are crying out for help."

At an adult Bible study that meets Sunday mornings before services, Seyler answers a prayer request from a middle-aged couple whose son recently attempted suicide at his military base in Texas. He had been in touch with Seyler, his old Bible teacher, just a couple weeks earlier.

"Thank you, God, for the opportunity to come boldly and thankfully to your throne," Seyler says aloud to a roomful of bowed heads. "I pray for Chad. I know you live inside of him. Help him to embrace truth and to reject the lies that he's believing."

Afterward, in the hallway, Seyler explains that he'd advised Chad to take baby steps in his faith, to find a church and some likeminded believers. "This kid has been partying, clubbing a lot," he says. "People have been a bad influence on someone who wants to be a man of God."

To Seyler, Chad's problem is living too much in the world when he should be handing his life over to God.

It's an old-school message that you might not expect to go over well with teens and 20-somethings. But Seyler's emotional availability has made him a local celebrity.

He's at school a couple weeks before the kids return, painting hallways for extra income, when three teenage girls peel off from volleyball practice in the gym to chat up their favorite teacher.

"He's like a friend," one says. "You can go to him with your problems, and he doesn't judge you."

But being what Seyler calls a "radical" and a "follower of Jesus" also comes with plenty of costs -- like supporting six kids on a parochial schoolteacher's salary.

His wife, Kim, may have a Keurig single-cup coffeemaker in her kitchen, but she found it used on Facebook and insists on reusing the grounds in the K-cups before tossing them. She picks up babysitting and housecleaning gigs to supplement their income. Eating out means fast-food joints like Fazoli's or Tasty Tacos, a Des Moines chain.

Seyler's job provides health insurance for his family and free grade-school tuition for his kids, but big purchases still cause anxiety.

"It's an adventurous way to live," he says. "Paycheck to paycheck."

And yet the big-ticket items always seem to materialize. When the family outgrew its Ford Aerostar a few years back, a church member gave Seyler his barely driven Audi for free.

Someone left a new $950 Goalsetter basketball hoop and pole in boxes in Seyler's garage while the family was away on vacation.

And for a number of years around Christmas, someone has left an envelope with Seyler's name on it in the school office -- with $2,000 inside.

Seyler sees the gifts as proof that God is working in his family's life. He knows they also speak to how tight-knit the community is at Grandview Park Baptist.

Kim grew up in that church and graduated from its school in 1991. The Seylers see church members and Grandview Park students and Kim's former classmates everywhere. One night at Fazoli's, Kim catches up with old friends from high school, and Rob asks a pair of students if they're ready for another school year to begin.

His extended family is close-knit, too. On a recent Saturday, 27 relatives turned up for a party at the Seylers' rural split-level home to celebrate the family's six summer birthdays. The next day, 20 of those family members convene for dinner at Culver's, a Midwestern chain specializing in burgers and frozen custard. Before the food arrives and before the dinner prayer, the conversation turns to the presidential race.

None of the adults seated around four pushed-together tables rooted for Romney in the Republican primaries. "I was for Pawlenty, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain and then Rick Santorum," says Seyler's sister-in-law, Becky Stoll, as a few of her relatives nod in agreement.

But Stoll's antipathy for Obama over the president's health care act, his support for gay marriage and a laundry list of other offenses makes Romney relatively easy to bear.

"I think part of the reason the economy is so bad is because the Lord is not blessing us anymore because we've killed so many unborn babies" under Obama, Stoll says.

"I don't like the fact that Romney's a Mormon," she adds, "but I don't think Obama is a Christian, so that takes that part out of the equation."

Seyler's father-in-law, Archie, volunteers that he heard Obama might be Muslim. It's a misconception that 17% of the population shares, according to Pew, despite Obama's repeated assertion that he is Christian.

Seyler, whose 2-year-old son, Ezra, is asleep on his shoulder, isn't in the mood to pick a fight with his in-laws over Obama's faith -- or Romney's. It's late, the food hasn't arrived, and Seyler's outnumbered, the only one in the group who isn't pledging support for the Republican nominee.

Victory in this state, and in the nation's other battlegrounds, may well ride on who -- if anyone -- wins over such evangelical renegades.