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!”

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