On the surface, it looks like Ted Cruz has cornered the market on endorsements by big name evangelical leaders, edging out Marco Rubio in getting the collective endorsement in early December at a secret meeting of fifty religious conservatives led by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Then after Christmas, about 300 evangelical leaders met at a Texas ranch owned by Farris Wilks, a billionaire who has made his money in fracking, and is supporting Cruz with a Super PAC.
Evangelicals form a significant and vocal bloc within the Republican party and tend to play an outsize role in the Iowa caucuses, the first real test of strength in the Republican primary race on February 1. But Sarah Posner says that this idea of evangelicals coalescing early and quickly behind Cruz may be an illusion and that the evangelical leaders who are the people that the media sees as spokespersons and constantly seek out and quote may not truly represent rank-and-file evangelicals.
Although the Texas meeting was off the record, the big names who were revealed are of the type that have strong name recognition among non-evangelicals, which leads to magnifying their significance.
Other attendees of the off-the-record Texas confab included, according to the Post, James Dobson, the retired founder of Focus on the Family and Richard Land, the former disgraced head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Dobson and Land are the quintessence of what one might call a “media evangelical,” someone reporters call on to gauge the pulse of a subculture. Brian Kaylor, a historian of evangelical political engagement, has said that “Land is much more influential among journalists as a ‘evangelical leader’ than he is with the average Southern Baptist in the pews. He has more say in newsrooms than sanctuaries.”
In 2008 and 2012, there were several Republican candidates who fit the conservative Christian mold, and who competed for the evangelical vote. None emerged as the eventual nominee, although both eventual nominees played lip service to evangelical concerns. This cycle, as I wrote on several occasions last year, Donald Trump has scrambled the formula for winning over evangelical voters. Rather than pandering to evangelical voters with talk of “biblical values,” opposition to abortion, or promises to fight for “religious liberty,” Trump has played his own game. While evangelical “leaders” demand dedication to “Christian values” and fealty to the “Christian nation,” Trump has made only vague and episodic references to the Bible and his own religious faith, and has elevated the idea of a “winner” nation over that of a theocratic one.
A Trump victory would shatter the Cruz illusion that high-level endorsements matter, and that all evangelicals are looking for a “one of us” candidate. On the other hand, if Cruz ends up being the nominee, watch for this: his victory serving, for some, as a vindication of his heavy-handed evangelical outreach.
Meanwhile Franklin Graham, son and heir to the Billy Graham empire and another media-designated evangelical leader, has gone in a different direction and says that he is quitting the Republican party altogether because the massive spending bill passed by Congress in December did not include cuts to Planned Parenthood, saying, “I have no hope in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, or Tea Party to do what is best for America. Unless more godly men and women get in this process and change this wicked system, our country is in for trouble.” He is now touring the country urging people to vote according to biblical principles though it is not clear if he is promoting any single candidate.
Whether Cruz truly has the total support of evangelicals or not, the perception is that he is the one that evangelicals are behind and he seems to be banking on it. His stump speeches in Iowa sound more like those delivered at revival meetings than at campaign rallies.
Meanwhile the other Republican candidates are taking aim at his evangelical credentials. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Santorum have raised questions about whether or not Cruz is a true evangelical. Trump even raised the birther issue against him, that he may not be a ‘natural born American’ and thus not qualified to be president since he was born in Canada to a non-American father and an American mother and did not renounce his Canadian citizenship until 2014. Most experts feel that this challenge will not go anywhere legally but the real point of such attacks is to damage Cruz politically with low-information voters who have been whipped into a patriotic frenzy and will settle for nothing less than an undoubtedly and unqueationably real Merkin.
I would enjoy this infighting within the Republican party a lot more if there was a chance that it would result in a half-way decent candidate emerging. But the downfall of one dangerous candidate merely results in the rise of another dangerous one.