When Florida Senator Marco Rubio was asked to discuss God earlier this year during the first Republican presidential debate, his answer was quick and clever.
“I think God has … blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates,” he said. “The Democrats can’t even find one.”
The line stoked laughter among the conservative audience, and offered a smooth transition into an explanation of how he believes the government should do more for veterans — soldiers who fight for the country he says is blessed by God. Yet the wisecrack was noticeably different from the answers offered by several other candidates, most of whom used the question as an opportunity to expound upon their faith beliefs. Proud evangelical Protestants such as Ted Cruz and Scott Walker, for instance, dropped theological dog-whistles for religious voters who prefer spiritually fluent politicians.
Rubio’s response, however, isn’t evidence of a lack of religious belief. Rather, it’s part of faith outreach effort far more subtle than that of his competitors — but no less strategic.
Rubio is currently polling fourth nationally and fifth in Iowa. He also polls fifth among white evangelicals in a recent Washington Post poll, but is the number-one candidate among evangelical pastors. That’s not bad for a crowded Republican field, but it’s still double-digits behind frontrunner Donald Trump, whose bombastic style often drowns out Rubio’s more serious — and discernibly more compassionate — rhetoric.
But as the GOP primaries inch ever closer, the Florida senator is quietly making use of an asset often unacknowledged in debates: He has direct, personal affiliations with all three major pillars of the Religious Right — Catholicism, Mormonism, and evangelical Protestantism.
Rubio, who officially identifies as a Roman Catholic, hasn’t made a big deal out of his bevy of spiritual alliances, in part because religion is fast becoming a difficult subject to broach among Republican candidates. But his holy trinity of religious ties is unique among the GOP field, and potentially allows him to transcend ongoing faith debates in favor of spiritual unity at the ballot box.
So where do these connections to powerful religious voting blocs come from, and do they really give Rubio the ability to finally unite the Religious Right behind one candidate?
The answer, like Rubio’s faith, is a bit complicated.
Rubio is a lifelong Catholic, except when he was a Mormon…
According to Rubio’s 2012 book, An American Son: A Memoir, his spiritual journey is primarily defined by Catholicism, quipping, “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” He was, in fact, baptized in the Church shortly after being born, carried to the local parish by his parents — both Cuban immigrants.
But Rubio’s longtime affiliation with Catholicism includes an important asterisk: He, along with his mother and sister, was once a Mormon.
The Rubio family’s brief stint with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) began in the late 1970s, shortly after they moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where his father landed a job as a bartender. Once there, Rubio’s mother became enamored with the healthy lifestyle embodied by several of their Mormon neighbors, especially their emphasis on family.
“My mother desperately wanted to give her kids a wholesome environment,” he told Christianity Today in 2012. “We had extended family members who were and remain active members of the LDS church, which does provide a very wholesome environment.”
Before long, he, along with his mother and sister, were all baptized into the church, and Rubio joined the Cub Scout pack sponsored by the congregation. He even attended parades commemorating the Mormon exodus to Utah, “where children dressed as early church pioneers and reenacted their journey to the West.”
In his book, Rubio describes his mother’s interest in the LDS church as primarily driven by family concerns, noting, “I don’t believe [she] ever really understood Mormon theology.” Rubio, however, took the conversion far more seriously.
“I immersed myself in LDS theology, and understood it as well as an eight-year-old mind can,” he wrote. “Although my school grades were never impressive, I was a voracious reader, and I studied church literature and other sources of information to learn all I could about the church’s teachings.”
But Rubio’s father, who “wasn’t particularly religious,” remained distant from the church. He struggled with rules that prohibited tobacco, felt guilty tending bar, and — as a lover of Cuban coffee — outright rejected the church’s negativity towards caffeine. Over time, Rubio came to share his father’s skepticism, and the family eventually returned to Catholicism after three years.
“When we left the church a few years later, mostly at my instigation, we did so with gratitude for its considerable contribution to our happiness in those years,” he wrote.
Rubio may have officially abandoned the community that formed his time in Las Vegas, his Mormon connection is still shaping his life — albeit politically, not spiritually. According to Politico, Rubio is making deft use of his past affiliation in Nevada, an early primary state, where he is quietly soliciting the support of the region’s politically powerful LDS population. Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who is Mormon, chairs Rubio’s campaign in the Silver State, hosting fundraisers at his house where the candidate speaks while standing on a basketball court emblazoned with the Brigham Young University logo.
Rubio reportedly never mentions his brief relationship to the church while on the stump, but Mormon supporters say he doesn’t have to.
“It would look like pandering,” Paul Anderson, an LDS state legislator in Nevada, told Politico. “But events like the one at Hutchison’s house, that has a whole lot more sway because it’s authentic, it has a personal touch, that’s how you win over [Mormon] voters.”
It’s also possible that Rubio’s connection to the church isn’t that distant. Rubio could technically still be Mormon, at least according to the church; The senator claims his family broke with the tradition before leaving Las Vegas, but ThinkProgress could not confirm whether they asked the LDS church to remove his “records” from their rolls, the final step required to fully abandon the Mormon faith. Neither Rubio’s campaign nor his senate office responded to requests asking for clarification about his LDS status.
…Or kind of Baptist…
His Mormon moment notwithstanding, Rubio has caught flak from right-wing Catholics who question his dedication to the Church of Rome. They point out that while he may have recanted LDS beliefs in sixth grade, he now regularly attends services at Christ Fellowship Church, an evangelical Protestant megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Rubio’s connection with the church, which claims around 6,000 worshippers on Sunday, started in 2000. His wife and sister began attending services regularly while he was pursuing his political career, prompting Rubio to embrace the congregation for reasons similar to those cited by his mother years before — namely, the church’s excellent children’s programming.
“I also wanted my family to be part of a wholesome, family-oriented church, and Christ Fellowship provided that,” he wrote in his book.
Rubio also fell in love with the preaching of the pastor, Rick Blackwood, who he called a “phenomenal teacher of the living Word” and whose sermon podcasts he still listens to today. As his appreciation grew, so did his family’s affiliation, until it became their church home “almost exclusively.”
He eventually circled back to Catholicism in 2004, but still occasionally attends services at both churches on Sunday. This kind of spiritual waywardness is not uncommon among American people of faith, over 40 percent of whom have changed their religious affiliation at least once in their lifetime, according to a 2009 Pew survey. Many Americans also dual-identify with more than one religious tradition, and some simply reject religious affiliation altogether.
But since Rubio never officially left Catholicism, his Protestant period has had political repercussions among his own supporters, some of whom equate his flirtation with evangelicalism to religious pandering. His spiritual authenticity was directly challenged by conservative writers at Renew America, for instance, one of whom — Eric Giunta — penned a blog post entitled “Is Marco Rubio talking out of both sides, the better to court both the Catholic and the evangelical votes?” New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppeneimer repeated the question in 2010, wondering aloud “Marco Rubio: Catholic or Protestant?” Storied Catholic journalist David Gibson also noted the curiousness of Rubio’s spiritual attachments, noting that other Catholic writers were openly frustrated by the senator’s evangelical accents.
Their concern was chiefly theological. Evangelical Protestantism embraces beliefs that directly contradict Catholic teachings on baptism, communion, and arguably salvation. Disagreements on these issues have sparked entire wars in the past, and it remains unclear what exactly Rubio learned from his time at Christ Fellowship.
Still, even if Rubio’s religious syncretism divides theologians, it unites two key conservative voting blocs — evangelical Protestantism and right-wing Catholicism. Rubio’s Protestant fluency also gives him clout with Hispanic evangelicals, a rapidly-growing group of voters that lean conservative on many social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Often touted as a swing vote, many political strategists say the demographic is primed to vote for Republican — assuming a Republican also engages issues of immigration and education.
His faithful bilingualism was on full display in early August, when he was one of only two GOP candidates interviewed at a major conference of evangelical pastors by Russell Moore, head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Like his Mormon outreach, Rubio never focused on his Protestant ties, but complimented Christian rock bands popular among evangelicals, such as Mercy Me.
“We are all still children of the same God,” Rubio said, speaking of how to respond to political foes. “We can’t lose our [political] focus … But in the big picture of eternity, it’s a sliver of time.”
In a strange twist, this rejection of religious tribalism — as well as enduring attacks on his own faith — may explain Rubio’s eyebrow-raising dismissal of those who criticize the religious beliefs of President Barack Obama. Whereas other GOP candidates such as frontrunner Donald Trump continue to cast doubt on the president’s Christianity, Rubio is having none of it.
“I really don’t endorse criticisms of the President’s faith. I don’t think they are fair, to be honest,” he told Christianity Today. “One key thing about Christianity is that it requires voluntary acceptance of faith. If someone says he is a Christian, it is a sign of Christianity in and of itself. Christianity calls us to our salvation, and it also calls parents to contribute to their children’s salvation. It calls us to be a light in the world. It doesn’t call us to go around pointing other people out, saying so and so is deficient in their faith. It does call us to hold each other accountable. It’s really asking us to look at ourselves, and that’s really the only responsibility of Christianity.”
…Or when when the pope says something he doesn’t like.
Despite the controversy over his church choices, Rubio has worked to strengthen ties with Catholicism in recent years, insisting in his book that he read the “entire catechism of the Catholic Church” between 2004 and 2005 to help him re-embrace the tradition. He also claims he now attends mass regularly, saying, “a deep, almost mysterious, emotional attachment pulled me back to my church.”
But as a politician, Rubio maintained his Catholic bona fides not through church attendance, but by standing firm on two classic conservative issues: abortion and same-sex marriage. Rubio declared in May that the legalization of marriage equality would lead to accusations that the Catholic catechism constitutes “hate speech” because it opposes homosexual relationships, and that there is “a real and present danger” to Christianity writ large. He has since accepted that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide is “the law,” but still cites his Catholic faith — along with claims to “science” — as the inspiration behind his opposition to abortion, even in instances of rape and incest.
“I’m happy that my faith influences my political position [on abortion], because my faith teaches me to care for the needy, my faith teaches me to respect and love even my enemies, my faith teaches me to forgive those who slight me,” Rubio said during a CNN interview in August. “So people should hope that my faith influences my political position…And in this case yes, I’m proud to say my faith influences me.”
Rubio made similarly bold claims about his faith in 2012, when he told Politico’s Mike Allen, “I am a Roman Catholic and support 100 percent the teaching authority of the church.”
In hedging closer to his Catholic roots, however, Rubio inadvertently set himself up for criticism from another class of Catholic faithful: Catholics who skew progressive on many issues, including the pope himself.
When the wildly popular Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation in 2013 on progressive economics and unveiled a papal encyclical in 2015 calling for action on climate change, Rubio — like other Republican Catholics — found himself in a theological quandary. Unable to completely reject the moral authority of the Church he worked so hard to reclaim, he attempted to sidestep the debate, claiming the pope could speak authoritatively on some issues, but not others.
“On moral issues, he speaks with incredible authority,” Rubio said on Fox News. “He’s done so consistently on the value of life, on the sanctity of life, on the importance of marriage and on the family. [But] On economic issues, the pope is a person.”
“We have the same goal — providing more prosperity and upward mobility, I just honestly believe free enterprise is a better way of doing it,” he added.
The pope, of course, sees both economics and climate change as moral issues, and said as much in his papal documents. But Rubio’s faith — public or private — has long been something he builds on his own, irrespective of concerns voiced by religious authorities. In fact, Rubio’s theology is arguably a bit liberal in this way, championing the spiritual rights of the individual over and against calls for obedience from faith leaders.
Just don’t expect his religious open-mindedness to manifest as support for progressive policies.
Though the pope may frustrate Republican politicians, Rubio’s candidacy likely won’t be defined by a debate with any single religious figure. He has already proven adept at dodging spiritual criticism while maintaining the support of faith voters. After all, if there is anything Rubio knows well, it’s how to speak to multiple religious groups at once — be they Mormons, evangelical Protestants, or even subdivisions of his own Catholic tradition.
Time will tell whether his faithful syncretism will be enough to unite the conservative masses, or if his hodgepodge faith is only building a political house on shifting sands.
This article is part of our ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates. You can find our first entry, which chronicles Gov. Scott Walker’s questionable claims to evangelicalism, here. Our second entry, which details the faith of Donald Trump, is here. And our third article explaining the complex faith of Dr. Ben Carson is here.