Some New Thoughts on Baptism

Pope Celebrates Baptism Of Children At The Sistine Chapel

The earliest known painting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given new clues to the sacrament of baptism. Six wall paintings on display at the Yale University Art Gallery once decorated the baptistery of the earliest known church, a house-church discovered in the ancient city of Dura-Europos in Syria. The paintings, which date to about 240 CE, include some of the earliest known depictions of Jesus, and they might also include the earliest known depiction of his mother.

One of the paintings shows a woman drawing water from a well. There is no inscription on the painting identifying her. According to the gallery’s description, the painting depicts a scene recorded in The Gospel of John in which Jesus converses with a woman from Samaria, but Michael Peppard, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University, argues that the woman at the well is not the Samaritan woman, but rather that of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Peppard argues that the wall painting depicts the Annunciation, the moment when the angel Gabriel announced that Mary would conceive and give birth to Jesus. If Peppard is correct, then the wall painting is the oldest reliably datable image of Mary.

In his 2016 book, The World’s Oldest Church, a rich reconstruction of the baptismal spirituality of one early Christian community, Peppard examines the iconography from the walls that adorned the earliest surviving Christian church from Dura-Europos in Syria located above the Euphrates River in what is now ISIS territory. Founded around 300 BCE, Dura-Europos was a cosmopolitan city at the crossroads of the Greek, Persian, and Roman worlds. Residents of the city spoke many languages, represented many ethnicities — including Greek, Roman, and Palmyrene — and practiced many religions. The city included the Christian house-church, a large and elaborate synagogue, and pagan temples to Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern gods. The church was originally the home of a wealthy third century Christian that had been converted into a “house church”: a building containing an assembly room and a baptistery.

The walls of the baptistery were adorned with biblically inspired artwork, including a depiction of a woman drawing water from a well. Traditionally, scholars have thought that the woman is meant to be the Samaritan woman who engages Jesus in conversation at a well in John 4:7-30.

But in his analysis of the artwork, Peppard, following and expanding on the work of theologian Dominic Serra, Associate Professor of Liturgy/Sacramental Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., whose recent research projects have been in the area of Christian Initiation and is currently writing a book on early Roman baptismal practice and theology. Peppard argues that scholars have misread the scene. He suggests that the woman is actually Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not only would this be the earliest, albeit somewhat blurry, portrait of the Virgin Mary, but Peppard argues, her presence at the scene changes our understanding of what is taking place at baptism. Peppard calls the art gallery’s interpretation “certainly plausible,” but he notes that the Samaritan woman is usually shown in conversation with Jesus, not alone as she is depicted in the wall painting.

Peppard cites a description of the Annunciation in a second-century biography of Mary’s early life in which Gabriel interrupts Mary as she is drawing water with a pitcher. He argues that Byzantine images of the scene closely resemble the image from Dura-Europos.

So what does any of this have to do with baptism? Just this. Peppard believes that Mary and the other biblical figures present at the baptistery evoke a kind of wedding scene. As a neophyte (a Christian initiate) would pass through the space, he or she would see the paintings and understand the baptismal ritual in marital terms. What this means is that baptism has not always been seen as the washing away of sins or of death and rebirth; for newly minted Christians at Dura-Europos, baptism was a kind of marriage to Jesus the Christ. This is not just a more upbeat take on the purpose of baptism; it also suggests a different kind of intimacy with Jesus. Peppard’s hypothesis certainly changes how we think about baptism. Lisa Brody, the gallery’s associate curator of ancient art, said that Peppard’s argument is solid. “I’m interested to hear what other scholars of early Christian iconography will say, but his argument is convincing,” she said. “It’s certainly plausible, and I don’t have any quarrel with it.”

Almost from the beginning of Christianity, baptism has been viewed as being “delivered” from sin or being “cleansed” from sin. So, why is Christian liturgy so obsessed with sin? What is the source of this idea that human life – including new-born human life – is in and of itself evil? I do not find this note in the gospels. So where did it originate?

My research has led me to the conclusion that the idea is nothing more than a hangover from the fourth century – to the time when the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds were formed. In the fourth century, we find in the early Church Fathers, such as Ambrose; Gregory the Great; and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, an obsession with evil. These “fathers” of the church, especially Augustine, treated the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were the literal words of God. In this regard, they were the original fundamentalists. The first chapter of Genesis describes a divine creation, in which all that God made was pronounced to be good. According to Genesis 1, human beings bore the image of God (Imago Dei). The second chapter of Genesis then describes how this perfect creation became broken and how the Imago Dei in us was destroyed. According to Genesis 2, it is through human disobedience that humankind became “fallen” creatures incapable of saving themselves. With that as an understanding of human life, Christians proceeded to tell the Christ story as God’s rescue operation, designed to save human life afflicted with something that was called “Original Sin,” seen as a universal, inescapable, and all-pervading aspect of all humanity. That is why our favorite titles for Jesus historically have been “savior,” “rescuer” and “redeemer.” Jesus saves us from our sins, rescues us from the fall, and redeems us by restoring our lost value.

The concept of “Original Sin” assumes that there was an original perfection from which we have fallen. It assumes a passive human helplessness from which divine rescue is essential. It assumes that salvation is achievable only through the invasion of our world by a theistic deity. This is the portrait of the God who decided to punish Jesus for our sins. It is this dated theology that permeates the Christian Church even today. This theology turns God into a monster who requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering. It turns Jesus into a victim and it turns human beings into guilt-filled creatures, groveling before God and begging for mercy! Besides all of these liabilities we also now know that this theology not only is repulsive, but also is simply wrong. Are people ever helped by being told how bad they are? I do not believe so.

So instead of seeing ourselves as fallen sinners who need to be saved, a place to begin is with baptism and to think of ourselves as incomplete human beings who need to be made whole. When we begin to think like this, then Jesus can become not the savior of the fallen or the rescuer of the lost, but the presence of the One who empowers us to become all that we can be. I admit that would be a dramatically new approach to Christianity, but it would be in line with all that we now know about our origins. It would also be in line with the Johannine Christ who came, he said, that we might have life “more abundantly.”

Peppard’s research and hypothesis suggests that baptism gives us a different kind of intimacy with Jesus rather than being a vehicle to wash away the stain of “Original Sin.” Baptism is the intimate entrance rite that places a person overtly and self-consciously into a community of people (the Church) who are committed to love that person, and in which that person’s life can be nurtured into a new fullness. In my own church, the Episcopal Church, the 1979 baptismal liturgy has clearly begun to move in that direction, but it is still bogged down in the “sin” definitions of yesterday. But there are hints of movement. For every newly-baptized person, we now pray: “Open his/her heart to your grace and truth. Fill him/her with your holy and life-giving spirit. Teach him/her to love others. Bring him/her to the fullness of your glory. Give him/her an enquiring and discerning heart, the courage to preserve and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” The Episcopal Church is beginning to move from “Original Sin” into “original blessing,” as well as abandoning what is called “Atonement Theology.” As far as I am concerned, such developments are clearly moving in the right direction.

A new understanding of baptism introduces us to a Christian life that frees us to live fully, empowers us to love wastefully, and gives us the courage to be all that we are meant to be, as John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark is inclined to say. Michael Peppard’s research of the paintings at Dura-Europos helps us do that. If this perspective ever becomes the Christian message, then the church may spring back into life, drawing a hurting world to itself. Then we can promise to give to each other what we pledge to give to all persons at their baptism – a full life, abundant love, and the joy of following the One who gives us the power to become all that we can be. Now, to my mind, those are things worthy of obsession.

Such ideas may seem confusing, even radical; after all, they go against two thousand years of church teaching and practice. Unlike the Eucharist, there is no biblical moment when Jesus tells his disciples why or how to baptize other people. With so many different ideas about how and why to baptize, chances are we have been doing baptisms at least partly wrong and with the wrong understanding. Perhaps it is time to look anew at baptism and utilize the insights gained from Michael Peppard’s findings.

mary baptistry2

This image of a woman drawing water from a well once decorated the baptistery of an early Christian house-church in Dura-Europos. It could be the earliest known image of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The image has been rendered in black and white on the right to better show the outline of the figure.








King’s Dominion?

seven mountains

The Seven Mountains of Dominionism

In my last post, I mentioned that some Republican candidates running for elected office have supported the theological idea of Dominionism, a belief that Christianity should exercise “dominion” over all of society, not just the traditional boundaries of religion. Those who embrace this concept include Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachman. In this post, I will look at Dominionism in more detail.

Historically, Dominionism began as an offshoot of Christian Reconstructionism, a sect founded in the 1960s by defender-of-slavery Rousas John Rushdoony, a Calvinist, a philosopher, a historian, a theologian and an inspirer of the modern Christian homeschool movement. Dominionism seeks to replace secular law with Biblical law, with the death penalty for LGBT persons, stoning of heretics and witches and the like. More moderate versions of Reconstructionism began to take hold in the New Christian Right, which began in the 1970s as an effort to re-engage evangelicals in politics and fight back against the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement. Dominionism was one such version.

The etymological and Scriptural roots of Dominionism are God’s command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” and in Isaiah 2:2, which reads: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.” Those “mountains” in Isaiah are interpreted figuratively, not literally (evangelicals, it seems, are actually only selectively literalistic) and refer to the “seven mountains” of society: (1) family, (2) religion, (3) arts and entertainment, (4) media, (5) government, (6) education, and (7) business.

And since an overwhelming majority of evangelicals – more than 75%, according to recent surveys – believe that we are living in the End Times (the last period before the Christ returns to Earth to judge us all). Thus, the time for Dominionism is now and accounts for the flood of Christian films such as The Passion of the Christ, and the Left Behind series, of Christian businesses such as Hobby Lobby, and of Christian politicians like Ted Cruz.

Rafael Cruz’s new book, A Time for Action: Empowering the Faithful to Reclaim America, makes this theology quite clear. In it, Cruz writes: “The Bible tells us that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world… Doesn’t that suggest that our influence should touch every area of society – our families, the media, sports, arts and entertainment, education, business, and government?” Even the cover of Rafael Cruz’s book makes this very clear, with its picture of a church looming over a much-smaller American flag. Notice that not only does Cruz state the dominionist view in general, but also he lists the specific “seven mountains” in which dominionists believe.

Rafael Cruz’s views of his son’s role in all of this are literally messianic. According to the elder Cruz, Ted Cruz has been anointed messiah and king to reign over all of the “mountains” of humanity. Rafael Cruz has been his son’s primary surrogate on the campaign trail, particularly with the evangelical voters who are now Ted Cruz’s main base of support. The two have frequently spoken together, prayed together, campaigned together. When Ted was four years old, Rafael says that he told him “You know, Ted, you have been gifted above any man that I know and God has destined you for greatness.” Imagine growing up with this man shaping your thoughts, telling you, as young Ted’s dad told him, “You are the One.”

Of course, most parents have high expectations for their children, though perhaps not that high. Rafael Cruz, however, has a very specific, messianic role in mind. Consider the following event that occurred on 26 August 2012, at the Dallas/Fort Worth New Beginnings megachurch of Christian Zionist, Larry Huch.

First, surrounded by Jewish symbols including a menorah, a Jewish star on the lectern, and a shofar in his hand, pastor Huch noted that 2012 would be the year of “divine government – that God will begin to rule and reign. Not Wall Street, not Washington, but God and God’s people will begin to rule and reign.”

Then he said, “I know that’s why God got Rafael’s son elected – Ted Cruz, the next senator. But here’s the exciting thing… in a few weeks begins that year 2012, and this will begin what we call the End Times transfer of wealth… When gentiles begin to receive this blessing, they will never go back financially through the valley again. They will grow and grow and grow… We will usher in the coming of the messiah.” (Gosh, I thought Jesus took care of that!)

Next, Rafael Cruz took the stage. He noted that in the Bible, “the king and the priest complemented each other.” He then complained (as he has many times) that most churches are focused only on the “priestly anointing” but that most should take on the role of kings going to battle: “The battlefield is the marketplace… go to the marketplace and take dominion… that dominion is not just in the church, it is over every area: society, education, government, economics.”

Citing Proverbs 13:22, Cruz peached that “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” He finished by saying, “And it is through the kings, anointed to take dominion, that that transfer of wealth is going to occur.”

And that, in a nutshell, is Dominionism at its core.

Dominionism can be both mundane and profound. On the mundane level, it is not so different from the prosperity gospel preached by the likes of Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Oral Roberts, Frederick K.C. Price, Benny Hinn, and to a lesser extent, Joel Osteen, a gospel that holds that (contrary to what Jesus had to say on the matter) God wants you to be rich. “God’s going to open up that multimillion contract,” Cruz preached at New Beginnings Church. “God’s going to open up that promotion at work.”

But on the more profound level, Ted Cruz’s role is to “take dominion” of the governmental “mountain,” thus effectuating a Bernie Sanders-like “wealth transfer,” except the transfer is not from the 1% to the 99%, but from the wicked to the righteous.

Not surprisingly, all this is a mission from God. Rafael Cruz’s worldview is deeply informed by (and sometimes copied word-for-word from) the pseudo-historian, often-discredited, David Barton, who now directs Ted Cruz’s Super PAC, which has raised over $30 million from just four extremely wealthy individuals, and who was previously the chair of the Republican Party of Texas.

Before spending billions to elect Ted Cruz to the Senate, Barton wrote a series of books on the founders of the United States, all roundly condemned by actual historians. For example, even though Jefferson was a noted deist who was suspected of atheism in his lifetime, Barton claims in his book on Thomas Jefferson – The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson – that Jefferson was in fact a pious, evangelical-style Christian. (I guess Barton never saw Jefferson’s Bible, constructed by Jefferson in the later years of his life by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. Jefferson’s condensed composition is especially notable for its exclusion of all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels that contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages indicating that Jesus was divine.) Barton’s book was voted “ the least credible history book in print” by the History News Network website, and was pulled by its otherwise respected publisher, Thomas Nelson. The book is now available from World Net Daily, a far-right conspiracy website. When challenged by historian Robert Alley, Barton admitted that there were no primary sources for eleven quotes he attributed to Madison, Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

Yet despite all of this, Barton’s view is now commonplace on the far right: the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation, by Christians, with Christian principles dictating public policy.

It is easy to see how Barton’s bogus, revisionist history connects with Rafael Cruz’s Dominionism. First, Barton is himself a dominionist. He said in 2011 that “If you can have those seven areas, you can shape and control whatever takes place in nations, continents and even the world.”

Second, Dominionism is not about creating a new republic, but about restoring the America that once was. As Rafael Cruz writes in A Time for Action, “…although many people think otherwise, the concept of separation of church and state is found nowhere in either the Declaration of Independence of the Constitution or the United States of America.” Dominion is thus restorationism.

Third, Cruz has often echoed Barton’s own ideas, including that our system of taxation is contrary to the Bible. This idea may help to explain why Ted Cruz believes we should rid ourselves of the IRS. Good luck with that one! Barton also believes that public education is a communist plot invented by John Dewey (who in reality was a fierce anti-communist, but facts have never stood in the way of David Barton).

Finally, as weird as dominionism may sound to non-Christians and even to main-line Christians, it is now well within the mainstream of the Christian Right. Prior to the Cruz family, (Rafael, Ted, and Heidi) its political standard-bearers were Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Sarah Palin.

Now, everything I have said so far has been mostly about Rafael Cruz, not Ted Cruz. Frankly, I do not really know how much of this Ted Cruz believes, but I do have my suspicions. It is interesting to note that even innocuous statements by Ted Cruz can be read in multiple ways. For example, Cruz wrote the epilogue to his father’s book in which he penned: “If our nation’s leaders are elected by unbelievers, is it any wonder that they do not reflect our values? … If the body of Christ arises, if Christians simply show up and vote biblical values, we can restore our nation.”

Read one way, this is just a Christian version of Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan. But read another way, “restoring our nation” has a very specific dominionist meaning if one believes that America was once a Christian quasi-theocracy. And not many candidates describe their campaign as trying to have the body of Christ arise.

Whatever Ted Cruz’s religious views, however, those of his father are relevant in their own right. He stumps for his son all the time, David Barton has his hands on some of the largest purse-strings in Republican politics, and many of Ted Cruz’s supporters are animated by a theological vision of America that will restore “kings” to power at the End of Days, of whom Cruz is apparently one that has been so anointed. One of those supporters is Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. Bickle believes acceptance of gay marriage is a sign of the End Times, has described Adolf Hitler as one who was sent by God to go after Jews who did not convert to Christianity, and has called Oprah Winfrey’s tolerance and popularity a precursor to the apocalypse.

The word “Dominionism” may not roll off the tongue of political pundits, but given its shocking ambitions, maybe that is part of the problem. Dominionism is truly scary stuff for all who value liberty and the separation of church and state, particularly when a person such as Ted Cruz wants to be President of the United States. I cannot believe that I am writing this, but I would vote for Donald Trump in a heartbeat if he and Ted Cruz were my only options. Of course, such a option is the same as giving a condemned man the choice  between being executed by hanging or by a firing squad.







Ted Cruz and His Evangelical Strategy

ted cruz prays with erick erickson

Right-wing pundit, Erick Erickson prays with Senator Ted Cruz

Earlier this year, televangelist and controversial leader of the Charismatic Movement, Kenneth Copeland declared that Ted Cruz has been anointed by God to be the next president. Yes, he actually said that. Copeland introduced Rafael Cruz, Ted Cruz’s father and primary presidential campaign surrogate, at his church by asserting: “I believe, with all my heart, that his son is called and anointed to be the next president of the United States.” But if Copeland and his ilk are to be believed, the so-called omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God routinely anoints losers. Sarah Palin has been anointed. She lost.  Mike Huckabee has been anointed. He lost. Rick Santorum, also has been anointed, and also has lost. One anointed one, Ben Carson, is fighting with another anointed one, Ted Cruz, right now. And, guess what? Carson is losing. Maybe these politicians should just quit thinking that they know the mind of God and be done with it. Of course, that is not going to happen.

At the Copeland event, Rafael Cruz spoke for an hour, more or less, delivering his standard presentation, urging Christians to vote in order to beat back secularism and to take control of this nation! (Cruz is a Dominionist, so what do you expect?) After his sermon, Copeland asked the elder Cruz to recount how the Holy Spirit had descended upon a Cruz family prayer session and convinced Ted to seek the presidency, which Rafael Cruz took as a sign that “God has raised him up for such a time as this.” As the elder Cruz explained, Ted and his family “spent six months in prayer” trying to decide if he should seek the presidency, which culminated in a two-hour prayer session at his church where his family and top advisers “spent two hours on our knees seeking God’s will about this decision.” During that prayer session, Cruz’s wife received “inspiration from God” and told Ted to “seek God’s face, not God’s hand” and, at that very moment, the Holy Spirit descended upon everyone in the room and convinced Ted to run. “It was as if there was a presence of the Holy Spirit in the room and we all were at awe,” the elder Cruz stated, “and Ted, all that came out of his mouth was, ‘Here am I Lord, use me. Here am I Lord, I surrender to whatever your will for my life is.’ And it was at that time that he felt a peace about running for President of the United States.”

Now, if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that is for sale. No one could possibly believe this. Those who have followed the Cruz story know that the moment Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz was elected to the Senate, he was planning his presidential campaign. Every move he has made for the last five years has been for that sole purpose. Only the hopelessly naive could possibly believe otherwise. Nor should anyone want to believe it. People who seek power in the name of God tend to do horrible things with that power. If history teaches us nothing else, it surely teaches that.

When the elder Cruz finished his story, several church elders gathered around him in order to lay hands upon him and pray while Eagle Mountain International Church senior pastor George Pearsons proclaimed that “we are in the midst right now of the new birth of this nation. There’s a new birth, right now, for America,” Pearsons declared, “and it’s taking place right before our eyes. And we will not set apart our responsibility and our duty to do what God has called us to do; we say, ‘Yes, Lord, Yes, we will do exactly what you have called us to do’ and we receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the outpouring of the Spirit over Washington, D.C. We see Congress praying, we see them seeking God, we see prayer coming back into our schools, we see the Bible coming back into our schools, we see abortion being turned around, we see this nation being completely restored, completely delivered, for it is a time the new birth of our nation and we’re seeing it right before our eyes, now, in Jesus’ name.”

All of this is happening, mind you, in the United States during a presidential campaign in 2016. It is very disquieting. What has happened to us?

The elder Cruz has gone even further in suggesting that his son is quite literally God’s emissary sent to turn America into a Christian nation (which tends to be defined as a nation that keeps heavy tabs on what you are doing with your genitals, instead of one that makes sure that there are enough loaves and fishes for everyone). In an interview on Glenn Beck’s show, the senior Cruz and Beck both pushed this notion that Cruz is a prophetic figure come to save us all. (I must ask here, saved from what to what?) “Everybody was born for a reason,” Beck told Rafael Cruz, while sitting in – I could not make this up – a replica of the Oval Office built for his show! “As I learned your story and saw the fruit of that story, now in your son, I am more and more convinced in the hand of divine providence.” (Beck, of course, also believed that Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign was the result of “divine providence” as well, and we all know how that turned out) “Oh, absolutely,” Cruz replied. “Who doesn’t want to be the father of the messiah? The last one was literally God himself, after all.” (Excuse me, while I gag on that one!)

We saw the idea of being called by God to be president in action when Senator Ted Cruz took the stage to declare victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses. He opened his triumphant speech with these words: “God bless the great state of Iowa. But let me first of all say: to God be the glory.” For the religious right, especially the most skin-crawlingly creepy folks in the religious right, Cruz’s edging Donald Trump out at the polls represented a huge victory because his victory meant that while their influence might seem to be on the decline, they proved, once again, that they are still a powerful force on the right. Unfortunately, the Republican Party will still have to pay tribute to the nasty crews that use Jesus as a cover to push their lifelong obsession with controlling other people’s sex lives, especially if those people are female or gay.

A great deal of attention has been paid to Donald Trump’s oversized ego, but Ted Cruz’s may be even worse. While Trump likes to portray himself as a “winner,” Cruz clawed his way to victory in Iowa by implying – well, more than implying – that he is a religious messiah, a prophet who is the next best thing to the second coming of Jesus. As Jack Paar used to say: “I kid you not.” In an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody prior to the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz said that conservative voters should back him over Donald Trump because “for seven years, we’ve had a president in the White House who has had a messiah complex.” Cruz went on to say: “I fear for America. If we keep on this path, there comes a point of no return and my prayer is that this awakening continues, that the body of Christ will rise up to pull us back from the abyss.”

In his Iowa victory speech, Cruz went on to make several more biblical references, working a litany of scripture passages and appeals to “Judeo-Christian values” into a thirty minute speech that often sounded suspiciously like a sermon. He then concluded by citing Psalm 30:5, stirring the crowd into a frenzy by reminding them that “joy cometh in the morning.” “I tell you tonight, Iowa has made clear to America and the world: morning is coming,” he said. (I would say morning is coming all right, but if Ted Cruz is elected president, it will be spelled “mourning.”)

Cruz’s engagement with Christianity on the campaign trail is nothing new, as he has made no secret of his evangelical strategy. He launched his run for president at Liberty University, an evangelical school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell,  courted the endorsement of leading theological conservatives in Iowa, and organized a passionate network of conservative Christian volunteers to help him get out the vote on caucus day.

And in Iowa, at least, it worked. Evangelicals flooded caucus sites across the state, ultimately making up sixty-four percent of Republican caucus-goers. And despite ample hand-wringing from political analysts over Donald Trump’s support among portions of the evangelical flock, the biggest slice of churchgoers sided with Cruz: he won the lion’s share of “born again” Christians with Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio coming in second and third respectively.

Cruz’s success was clearly rooted in his laser-focused dedication to so-called “values voters” – conservative Christians who historically support candidates that share their faith and take right-wing positions on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion (i.e., opposing both).

It would be easy to dismiss all this as an unsurprising result, especially given that Iowa Republicans have a long history of backing Christian conservatives such as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. But a Pew survey hints that Cruz’s God-talk, common especially among GOP candidates, is actually unusually effective this year: a full fifty-three percent of Republicans say that there is “too little” discussion of religion and prayer from political leaders this campaign season. The number is even larger among white evangelical Protestants – Cruz’s core constituency – sixty-eight percent of whom wish candidates would talk more about their faith.

This growing hunger for religious rhetoric also helps explain the unexpected surge of support for Marco Rubio, who only recently shifted to a faith-focused campaign. As I wrote in my last post, in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Rubio released a religion-specific ad trumpeting his Christian credentials, tweaked his stump speech to include more reflections on his faith.

“My faith will not just influence the way I’ll govern as president, it will influence the way I live my life,” Cruz said during a presidential debate, pivoting to religion while responding to an unrelated question about Governor Chris Christie and echoing Senator Marco Rubio almost verbatim:. “Because in the end, my goal is not simply to live on this earth for eighty years, but to live an eternity with my creator.” Of course, Cruz is not the only politician who has said stuff like this. Consider these gems from our forty-third president, George W. Bush: “I believe God wants me to be president,” a Bush statement that came during a meeting with the Reverend Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 1999; or how about this one: [I was] “chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment,” a Bush quotation reported by Michael Duffy in Time magazine immediately after 9/11, or finally: “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job,” a Bush remark to a group of Amish people he met with privately on 9 July 2004, and later published by the Lancaster New Era, 16 July 2004.

Still, while prayerful pandering helped both Cruz and Rubio in Iowa, it is not yet clear if the strategy worked out for either of them during the recent New Hampshire primary. Donald Trump won by a sizable lead in New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country, second only to Vermont. Yet Cruz reportedly doubled-down on his religious rhetoric while campaigning in the Granite State, where evangelical voters make up a significantly smaller fraction of the GOP electorate.

Cruz’s rabid embrace of a single constituency may prove to be his undoing if other candidates such as Rubio and Trump manage to cobble together a broader coalition of support. Historically, the GOP electorate also has a habit of gravitating to more moderate candidates as the primary season wanes on, and Cruz has not proven that he is capable of courting many voters outside the evangelical faithful. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue with the prevailing logic of Cruz’s finely tuned, data-focused evangelical strategy. And if Rubio’s own shift to the spiritual is any indication, this election season might be about to get a great deal more religious. If I thought it would work, I would invoke divine intervention and plead: “Good Lord, deliver us!”


marco rubio

Florida Senator Marco Rubio reads a passage from the Bible while fielding questions at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa

At a campaign stop in Iowa, Justin Scott confronted Senator Marco Rubio over whether he is running for Commander-in-Chief or “pastor in chief.” Scott, by the way, is an atheist.Scott asked Rubio how he plans to be a president for atheists too, bringing up a recent video ad in which Rubio talks entirely about his faith. Scott said atheists want candidates who will “uphold their rights as Americans and not pander to a certain religious group.”

Rubio said that Scott has a perfect right to “believe in nothing at all,” explaining, “No one’s gonna force you to believe in God, but no one’s gonna force me to stop talking about God.” Rubio then talked about his personal faith and his belief in life after death before telling Scott that he “should hope my faith influences you.”

The video ad referred to above is entitled “Marco Rubio on His Christian Faith” and here is what Rubio says in the ad: “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time, to accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ. The struggle on a daily basis as a Christian is to remind ourselves of this. The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan, to those who much has been given much is expected and we will be asked to account for that. Were your treasures stored up on earth or in Heaven and to me I try to allow that to influence me in everything that I do.”

I would just like to remind Senator Rubio that he is running for the Office of President of the United States and not for the Chaplain of the Senate. This ad should actually frighten even the most devout Christian, because it says that Rubio will be a President and Commander-in-Chief who will use the Word of God (the Bible) instead of the Constitution to govern, and that his goal is, in fact, to be with God “for all time.”

One of the most annoying things about religious folks is that they just cannot keep their “good news” to themselves. Senator Marco Rubio is one of them and his latest campaign ad in Iowa is all about how much he loves Jesus. For Rubio, in the United States having faith in Jesus is all that matters when it comes to governing. That, I submit, is deranged thinking of the first magnitude.

The so-called “faith-derangement syndrome” afflicts the undeniably young and intelligent, and most notably among the Republican contenders for the White House, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. I will deal with Ted Cruz in a future post, so for now, let me concentrate on Marco Rubio. After all, he is a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president.

Marco Rubio is a lifelong Roman Catholic, except when he was a Mormon, or when he is a kind of Baptist, or when the pope says something he does not like. Rubio once converted to Mormonism in the 1970s, but currently identifies himself with both the Roman Catholic Church and the extremist, pro-creationism, anti-gay, pro-exorcist Christ Fellowship, a Christian megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention located in Miami, Florida. He apparently attends services at Christ Fellowship quite frequently.

In the Rubio ad, as a pianist taps out a sleep-inducing bland tune that would befit an ad for a funeral parlor, Rubio, seated against a dark backdrop, explains the delicate balance he strives to achieve in melding his faith and career as a lawmaker, as well as offering detailed, faith-inspired plans for governing the United States in a time of international turmoil and domestic discontent.

No, wait! Rubio leaves out the plans for international turmoil abroad and domestic discontent at home. He uses his campaign ad to talk only about his religion. I may be naïve but I have labored under the assumption that campaign ads were supposed to at least have something to do with politics?

Anyway, I want to dissect Rubio’s message line by line. He opens with a statement that is presumptive, irrelevant to the office he seeks, theologically contentious, and tritely superfluous. He says: “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time, to accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ.”

Our goal? Assuming Rubio is not using the “royal we” reserved for monarchs and other heads of state, he is, by speaking for the rest of us, insulting the non-Christian, agnostic, and atheistic constituency in his electorate. Whether the senator believes in such nonsensicalities is really none of my business. It is, however, the business of the United States Constitution. Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” There is no need for him to drone on about his faith to the electorate. One does not have to be a person of faith – any faith – to be President of the United States. Period.

And what about the “free gift” of salvation? (Which gifts, Senator, does one have to pay for?) Admittedly, however, for those inclined to waste time scouring ancient texts for salvation truths, there is an issue to be explored here. The Mormon faith Rubio once dabbled in does mandate salvation by Jesus. And in Roman Catholicism, you have to help Jesus boost you heavenward by slavishly obeying the Lord’s commands. Protestants generally abide by the sola fide principle, which proclaims that God-dispensed faith alone, not works, will guarantee entrance into heaven. Rubio, in attending the Roman Catholic Church plus the evangelical Christ Fellowship, has attempted to cover both bases. However – and more to the point – why should “salvation” even be a matter for discussion on the campaign trail?

Rubio then says in his ad: “The struggle, on a daily basis as a Christian is to remind ourselves of this.

Here he doubles down on his presumption, stressing, for those who missed it, the sectarian nature of his declaration. He is, after all, appealing for support to Christians alone – not Jews, not Muslims, not Buddhists, not Hindus. The Founding Fathers, to thwart sectarian influence in governance, wrote the aforementioned Article VI. Sectarian pandering should play no role in running for public office. I suspect that Senator Rubio never received that memo.

Next he says: “The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan.”

What is the objective evidence for such a comprehensive assertion – for both the existence of a supernatural being named God, and for that being’s guidelines pertaining to us? Straightaway, I believe that we should discount the Bible – an assortment of texts authored during ancient times by unknown humans who knew nothing of biology, of physics (Newtonian or quantum), of the empirical method, of either a priori or a posteriori knowledge, or even of why we should wash our hands after using the bathroom. I believe that we should immediately reject “personal revelation” as unverifiable and subject to falsification. So, too, we should exclude out of hand, tradition and circumstantial justifications (you were born in a predominantly Christian country, therefore you are Christian). Finally, we should refuse to fall for philosophical ruses that categorize truth as either “scientific” (subject to verification) or “religious” (supernatural or metaphysical). It boils down to this: We should demand evidence – hard evidence – of both of the deity and his plan. I personally do not see any evidence of a plan. Ask six million Jews – God’s chosen people – what God’s plan was for them during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany!

Continuing, Rubio declares: “To those who much has been given, much is expected and we will be asked to account for that, were your treasures stored up on earth or in Heaven.”

Apart from the strange syntax here, hidden in Rubio’s use of the passive voice is a classic begging the question, that is to say, taking as a premise that which you are asserting as a conclusion. In other words, by assuming a divine “giver” and by that assumption, ignoring the labors of his parents to provide him with a decent upbringing, and also his own efforts to succeed, as well as a complex network of contingent circumstances over which he had no control (place and date of birth, for example), Rubio disregards the real story of his life. It is a good story and it exemplifies the American Dream. Rubio’s progress from a son of Cuban parents who departed their island under the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in 1956 (and who did not flee the Fidel Castro regime, as Rubio once so-self-servingly led voters to think) to a presidential hopeful, is a story that is worth examining, but not one about which one heads to a church pew in order to consult the Lord. I know that Rubio wants to “give God the glory,” but how about giving his parents credit as well as his own persistence to achieve his lofty goals?

As for treasures, Senator Rubio, please elaborate what you mean, specifically regarding those treasures that you have stashed in heaven. In other words, “up there” where heaven supposedly is – in the minus 270.15 degree Celsius or minus 459.67 degree Fahrenheit hard vacuum known as outer space – the IRS, along with the rest of us, are most curious to know how you transferred those treasures out there, how you have accessed them, and what the rate of return is. If you cite the Lord as your broker and account manager, is he complying with new FATCA regulations (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) applying to banks abroad? If so, please have him provide documentation, and append it to your tax returns, which we presume you will make public at some point. Now that might be real proof of God’s existence!

Rubio closes with: “I try to allow that to influence me in everything that I do.” This statement is just more begging the question and enough has been noted above about that.

The crushing banality, the devastating dullness, and the overwhelming unoriginality of everything Rubio says in his ad evokes in me something akin to astonishment. Absolutely any convinced Christian could have uttered the exact same words, which are nothing more than what is heard from Christian pulpits across this nation on any Sunday morning. That Rubio chose to speak thusly before the camera shows just how abysmally low the expectations of the faith-addled really are: offer them mind-deadening boredoms and sit back and wait for the hosannas, the hallelujahs, and the praise the Lords that are sure to issue from that segment of the public that will not think for itself, but has to be told fairy tales to feel comfortable about voting for a candidate.

So let me be shamelessly presumptuous here and point out a few things to the junior senator from Florida.

To wit: Senator Rubio, rationalists, like myself, find ourselves compelled to draw disturbing conclusions from your ad. You choose to address a similarly deluded portion of your electorate as yourself, ignoring reasonable, rational people and discounting their sensibilities. You present your faith as supporting your qualification for the highest office in the land at a turbulent time in history when the United States needs a serious, clear-minded commander-in-chief. This ad says a great deal about your judgment. To handle the crises we face, and those to come, we will need most of all, a mature leader with keen, reality-based judgment.

Senator Rubio, you seem to be more concerned about the afterlife than about your current life, as evidenced by the opening words in your ad: “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time.” Is that statement supposed to make you qualified to lead this country? Is that statement the driving force for every single thing you do as you claim in this ad?

If so, such thinking is why other countries make fun of us: such pandering drivel passes for political debate in this country. In a not-so-religious nation as ours, such declarations would be a sure sign of how little substance a candidate brings to the table. Since Rubio cannot garner votes based on his merits, his record, or his expertise, he is campaigning on the hope that believing in this faith story will propel him to the top.

After watching the Iowa caucuses this week, what is so depressing – what is so disturbing to me – is that it probably will help him.