Sen. Ted Cruz is not shy about the role religion plays in his life and his campaign.
A Southern Baptist, Cruz, a leading Republican candidate for president, routinely expounds the virtues of his Christian background in sold-out rallies and stump speeches. Religious liberty — the concept that a person’s religious beliefs should be protected even in if it conflicts with the law — is a cornerstone of his campaign. His father, Rafael Cruz, is an ordained pastor who speaks to faith-based groups on his son’s behalf and delivers fiery warnings of the erosion of America’s moral values.
More so than nearly any other presidential candidate, Cruz has made religion a key part of his White House bid. The campaign employees three full-time people courting the support of faith leaders nationwide, and Cruz has met with “hundreds of pastors and attended faith events,” including two religious liberty events, each attended by more than 2,500 people, according to Rick Tyler, Cruz’s national spokesman.
“Ted Cruz’s faith is central to who he is and guides his daily life and decision making,” Tyler said in an email response to questions.
That focus on faith has so far served the candidate well. A Monmouth University Poll released Monday showed Cruz leading all GOP candidates with 24% among Iowa Republicans. The Iowa caucuses, which tend to draw staunchly religious voters, kick off the 2016 voting on Feb. 1.
Though touting the Bible’s role in his daily life plays well with many Republican primary voters, Cruz’s faith-based rhetoric could backfire if he were to gain his party’s nomination for president, said Mark Silk, a professor of religion and politics at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
“There’s a peril here,” he said. “A lot of Americans are turned off by an excessive involvement in religion.”
Still, Republican candidates have been using faith-based groups to win modern presidential elections since Ronald Reagan wooed evangelical voters away from Jimmy Carter in 1980, Silk said. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and son George W. Bush both used religious outreach to help secure victories to the White House, he said.
Cruz has taken up the mantle of soliciting faith-based groups and ratcheted up the rhetoric to new levels, according to Republican activists and political observers.
Dale Huls, a Houston-area Tea Party activist, has seen Cruz and his father speak publicly about a dozen times, stretching back to his 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate. Both father and son’s speeches were call-to-arms for Christians to regain their moral footing and return to a more active role in politics, Huls said. The speeches struck a chord with crowds, he said.
“Christians really need to start stepping up their game in the political sphere,” Huls said. “We believe our liberties are God-given, not government-given.”
Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas invited Cruz to speak to his congregation two years ago. The senator spoke on a Sunday morning from the church’s pulpit, delivering a speech on faith and the U.S. Constitution that “electrified” those gathered, he said.
“What Christians are looking for in a president is someone who is a strong leader and a committed Christian,” Jeffress said. “Many Evangelicals feel Sen. Cruz embodies both of those qualities.”
Cruz’s biggest financial backer — the Wilks family of Texas — is also deeply religious. Farris and Dan Wilks became billionaires during Texas’ fracking boom and have donated millions of dollars over the years to religious and conservative non-profit groups. Farris Wilks is also a pastor who leads the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day Church in Cisco, Texas, which preaches a mix of Christianity and Judaism, believes in a strict adherence to the Bible and considers homosexuality to be a serious crime.
Earlier this year, the Wilks brothers and their wives donated $15 million to a pro-Cruz super PAC – the single biggest donation so far from one family this campaign season.
“Our country was founded on the idea that our rights come from the Creator, not the government. I’m afraid we’re losing that,” Farris Wilks said in a statement to CNN shortly after the donation. He added: “That’s why we need Ted Cruz.”
Religion is playing a bigger role than ever in this year’s presidential campaigns and Cruz, from the day he announced his candidacy at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, is leading the pack, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is critical of candidates mixing politics and faith.
A tipping point, Lynn said, came at last month’s National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa, where Cruz said, “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be a commander-in-chief of this country.” Cruz was also introduced onstage by Pastor Kevin Swanson, who, earlier in the conference, quoted a passage of the Bible that he claimed justified the execution of homosexuals.
“This is over-the-top rhetoric, even for a conservative presidential candidate,” Lynn said. “There is a lot of religious fervor going on in [Cruz’s] campaign.”
Tyler, the Cruz spokesman, called Swanson’s comments “reprehensible” and said Cruz has spoken out repeatedly against anyone who calls for hatred or violence against homosexuals.
“Senator Cruz is passionate about religious liberties” Tyler said in an email. “Many respected organizations were sponsoring [the conference], but, given these offensive comments, it was a mistake for Senator Cruz to appear at the event.”
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