For decades now, the key to securing the Republican nomination for president has been the Religious Right. Comprising a large portion of the GOP’s primary voters, candidates have had to increasingly pander to this socially conservative sect in order to get their shot on the big stage. While every candidate in the race has been engaging in such shameless demagoguery, candidates like Ted Cruz are outright banking on it.
Cruz has focused his campaign on religious conservatives from the start. On Tuesday [Aug. 25], he held a nationwide conference call with evangelical ministers, promising to begin the process to try to defund Planned Parenthood — an issue that conservatives in Congress have threatened to use to force a government shutdown, if necessary.
“As the son of a pastor, I know you bear a high and holy calling on your lives,” Cruz e-mailed to what his campaign says was 100,000 influential evangelical pastors. “I am urging you to confront this evil in our nation by praying and preaching with an unbridled passion until funding for Planned Parenthood ends, and this barbaric practice is purged from the land.”
Last Friday in Iowa, Cruz spoke with all the verve of an Evangelist at a tent revival meeting. He railed against looming threats to religious liberty, quoted Scripture, thundered against the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision, and brought onstage Richard and Betty Odgaard, an Iowa couple who refused to host a same-sex wedding at their public business, which they later shuttered after they were sued by the couple.
“You wonder why we have a federal government that comes after our free-speech rights, that comes after our religious liberty, that comes after life, that comes after marriage, that comes after our values?” Cruz told an audience of about 2,500 supporters in Des Moines. “It is because 54 million evangelical Christians stayed home [in the 2012 elections]. Well I’m here to tell you, we will stay home no longer.”
Cruz may be right. This could be a year of resurgence for religious conservatives. Unfortunately for Cruz, the polling indicates that the voters he’s praying will turn out at the polls have a different candidate in mind: Donald Trump. As Salon reports:
Last month a Washington Post poll had [Trump] at 20 percent support among evangelicals, followed by the far more doctrinaire Walker and Huckabee at 14 and 12 percent respectively. His poll ratings went up dramatically among Iowa evangelicals after his debate performance, and leaders such as Franklin Graham have publicly praised him on Facebook for “shaking up” the race.
One has to wonder at that polling, especially since Trump hasn’t exactly been a trumpeter of the Christian faith:
When Frank Luntz inquired in July whether Trump has ever asked God for forgiveness, the famously confident real estate mogul answered no, saying, “I don’t bring God into that picture” before offering a questionable explanation of Christian communion. He later explained to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that this is largely because he usually doesn’t believe he’s sinning in the first place.
“Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” Trump said, seemingly dismissing two millennia of Christian teaching on human sinfulness.
Trump was similarly flummoxed when he was asked last week to name his favorite Bible verse, a classic shibboleth among conservative candidates. Trump flubbed that test as well, telling Bloomberg, “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.”
So what gives? The truth is ugly: rampant xenophobia. While more progressive Christians have called for compassion in approaches to immigration reform, the ultra conservative base is responding favorably to Trump’s nauseating and ignorant bravado. As author Sarah Posner points out:
Trump is the first Republican presidential candidate in the post-Reagan era to pin his campaign on a macho, chest-beating, self-aggrandizing view of what America is without invoking either his own salvation testimony or a paean to America as a Christian nation. For Trump, America is Trumpnation, not a Christian nation. What’s appealing to Christian nation diehards is often not the notion of America as a pious nation, but rather the affirmation that America is strong, brave, or just generally the best. For Trump, America risks not being the best anymore not because of the decline of religion (typically the heart of Christian nation ideology), but because of the rise of immigration.
This is certainly not the Religious Right’s first brush with racism, and it probably won’t be its last. But it may signal a shift in voter issue prioritization… much to the chagrin of social conservatives like Cruz.